WASHINGTON — Kaplona Akter isn’t about to forget the plight of the Bangladesh worker.
Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, this week is wrapping up nearly a month-long trip to the U.S. and Canada, where she has been advocating on behalf of garment workers in Bangladesh in the wake of two factory tragedies that killed more than 1,240 workers in separate incidents this April and in November 2012.
A former garment worker who helped launch the worker solidarity center, Akter plans to press U.S. lawmakers to pass legislation that would require all military licensed and branded apparel sold at military base stores to comply with a binding, enforceable safety accord in Bangladesh’s garment industry, and also give them a progress report on ongoing efforts to improve worker’s rights, a stipulation the Bangladeshi government must meet to have its U.S. trade benefits restored.
The international labor community and retailers and brands mobilized and launched a series of initiatives to improve safety standards and working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry in the wake of the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory fire last year in which 112 workers perished and the Rana Plaza building collapse that claimed 1,132 lives in April.
Akter, who has been a tireless advocate for workers in Bangladesh, said in an interview Monday that she plans to meet with a group of U.S. lawmakers who have been vocal about the need for labor law reforms in Bangladesh and are interested in a progress report. The lawmakers she plans to meet include Reps. George Miller (D., Calif.), Sander Levin (D., Mich.), Joseph Crowley (D., N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.), and Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.).
“I’m planning to talk to them about putting pressure on companies for compensation [for Rana Plaza and Tazreen victims], signing the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh, [Generalized System of Preferences] issues, the labor law amendment [by the Bangladeshi government] and the legislation,” said Akter. “It’s so important because the accord is the best tool we have now to end the death trap factories and the death toll we faced in the past year.”
Since the Tazreen fire, Bangladesh has faced a global outcry about the rising deaths in its garment industry, which led to the formation of two rival fire and building safety initiatives with retailers and brands, the suspension of U.S. trade benefits under the GSP program that took effect in September and the creation last month of the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement between the U.S. and Bangladesh — designed as a formal forum to address measures that Bangladesh must take to have its duty-free benefits under GSP restored, among other trade issues.
Akter said she plans to tell lawmakers participating in the “Bangladeshi Working Group on GSP” that little progress has been made on the part of the Bangladeshi government to uphold worker’s rights to bargain collectively and unionize, a key criteria the U.S. has set for restoration of GSP benefits.
“After the GSP suspension, the [Bangladeshi] government opened a little window for workers to submit union applications and there have been about 107 applications,” Akter said. “Of that, about 66 unions have registered, but only a few factories have started collective bargaining agreements. So there is still a long way to go. In response to Rana and Tazreen, there is nothing significant our government has done.”
Akter said she will also discuss a pending bill that Miller introduced and that the House passed in June as part of a defense spending measure that would require military exchanges that sell their own branded and licensed garments made in Bangladesh to join or “abide by” the conditions of a legally binding safety accord, led by the IndustriALL Global Union and signed by more than 115 companies. Lawmakers and labor activists have said a number of garments and documents bearing Marines insignias were found in the rubble of Tazreen.
Miller’s bill was a provision in a Defense Department authorization bill that passed the House in June, but stalled in the Senate this summer. Miller is lobbying to have it included in a new, bipartisan authorization bill Congress is trying to complete before it adjourns this week, but its fate is still uncertain.
Compensation for the Tazreen and Rana Plaza tragedies is also a top priority for Akter, who said she will press U.S. lawmakers to pressure more brands and retailers to contribute to a compensation fund for the victims and their families. Akter said she also spent the first part of her trip meeting with Canadian companies, labor and consumer groups and government officials, calling on them to press more Canadian companies to pay into a compensation fund and to implement more conditions in the trade benefits Canada gives to Bangladesh’s exports.
A coalition of labor groups has put the estimated cost for full compensation for victim’s families and injured survivors at Rana Plaza at $71 million. The estimated cost for victims of Tazreen is $5.7 million. To date, Canadian company Loblaw Cos. Ltd., along with European firms Primark, El Corte Inglés and Benetton, are the only companies to join a compensation coordination committee for Rana Plaza victims, according to labor groups.
“I think there is a huge momentum. I think this is a historic turning point,” Akter said of the efforts under way to improve safety and working conditions in Bangladesh. “We are trying our best to use this opportunity and the accord is one big piece of it. I believe worker justice starts with worker safety. They definitely have a brighter future, but it will be not be easy to get that and we have a long way to go.”