In the wake of the collapse of the factory building in Savar, Bangladesh, that has now claimed more than 800 lives, a delegation of officials will visit Washington next week for two days to lobby the U.S. government to maintain preferential trade status for the Asian country’s textiles and apparel.

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“It is crucial for us to use any chance of communication before the Generalized System of Preferences review, which is expected by the end of the month,” a Bangladesh government official said.

At the same time, a United Nations independent expert group Wednesday urged international apparel brands not to pull out of the country but to work together with the government, international organizations and civil society to address working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment sector.

The U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights stressed that such a commitment is crucial to prevent another disaster like the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24. Rana Plaza contained five clothing factories that employed more than 3,000 people.

“The international brands sourcing from Bangladesh have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence to identify and address their own impacts on human rights,” said Pavel Sulyandziga, who currently heads the five-strong expert group. “If they are linked with negative impacts on human rights through their suppliers, they have the responsibility to exercise their leverage as buyers to try to effect change.”

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The dates for the GSP hearings in Congress have not been set and could be in early June. But apparel factory owners, government officials and workers in Dhaka are anxious to maintain the trade benefits under the program. Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of garments in the world after China. The industry has grown fast and is now worth about $20 billion, with more than 3.8 million employees in the sector.

As the U.S. hearing approaches, the Bangladesh government has begun to address working conditions in the sector. Action is being taken as promptly as possible, an official said, and factories nationwide are being checked for safety issues. So far 18 noncompliant factories have been shut down in the past week, he said.

Two weeks after the collapse of the building in Savar, the army continues to recover bodies from the debris. The death toll on Wednesday evening had risen to 805, a police official said, adding that the death count included a dozen injured who had succumbed to their injuries and two rescue workers who lost their lives.

Addressing the press in Dhaka on Wednesday, William Hanna, the European Union’s head of delegation to Bangladesh, brought out the need for more safety measures.

“As the European Union is Bangladesh’s largest trade partner, its representatives are concerned about the labor conditions, including health and safety provisions, which are established for workers in factories across the country,” he said.

Hanna said the EU “was willing and stand ready to assist Bangladesh in any way it can to meet the required international standards and welcomed the recent high-level mission of the ILO [International Labour Organization].”
A key area of concern is that political parties engage in constructive discussion to counter the mounting political violence in recent months, he said.

“We would urge major parties to engage in constructive discussions, at the earliest opportunity, so that the countrymen can find a way forward towards free, fair and credible elections,” Hanna said. “The mounting political violence in recent months, including attacks on minorities and their homes and places of worship, is of particular concern.”

On Sunday, police officials said that more than 35 people were killed after a rally was held in Dhaka laying siege to the city and inspiring the looting of shops and burning of vehicles. In response, the opposition has declared more days of “hartal,” or shutdown of the city.

Hanna’s comments on the building collapse followed an April 30 statement by Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht, who said that the EU was considering appropriate action, including through the Generalized System of Preferences, in order to incentivize responsible management of supply chains involving developing countries. The statement called upon Bangladesh authorities to act immediately to ensure that factories across the country comply with international labor standards, including ILO conventions.

Tackling these issues for appropriate response has led to a flurry of activity in Dhaka, with innumerable meetings between garment related groups and press conferences. This week commitments for payments of salaries for April have taken center stage.

Confusion over the disbursement of salaries to the survivors continued most of Tuesday, starting with the location — with an initial plan to have the money paid in Dhaka, and later an agreement to do so at Savar. It soon became obvious that the payment of the money was not easy, with Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association officials suspecting that the crowds coming in to claim money were not necessarily workers from the building.

The demands for four months’ salary by the garment workers caused more confusion, as BGMEA officials said they were only prepared to pay for the month of April. Payments only started being made late Tuesday night, after the workers had waited for hours, and it was not clear how many were paid. One official told WWD that only about 400 workers were given money, with the rest to be “compensated shortly.” Areas of discrepancy included identification but also temporary workers, some of whom had worked there less than six months.

Yet many observers feel that the issue of compensation needs to be handled differently.

Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, observed, “There is much to be desired with regard to compensation, which is pitiably symbolic, especially when one considers loss of lives of individuals on whom most often families of five to six persons were dependent. The same is true for those who have been wounded and possibly rendered disabled for life. More importantly, very few would believe that such compensation will take place easily free of bureaucratic and other hurdles and harassment. This has never happened smoothly and completely in the past.”

He added that “the question will also remain about the credibility of government efforts to identify the dead, missing and wounded. Our government suffer from a denial syndrome and a tendency to underemphasize loss and damage in any disaster as well as instances of violation of human rights.”

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