WASHINGTON — Labor conditions in Bangladesh came under congressional scrutiny on Thursday as lawmakers called on the Obama administration to review the country’s eligibility in a U.S. trade preference program in the wake of the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. fire that killed more than 111 garment workers there.

This story first appeared in the December 21, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Legislators are stepping up the pressure on the Obama administration to consider whether to remove trade benefits for Bangladesh under the U.S. trade program, saying they are concerned that labor rights are “deteriorating” in Bangladesh.

Reps. Joe Crowley (D., N.Y.), Sander Levin (D., Mich.), Jim McDermott (D., Wash.) and Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.) led a group of House lawmakers in pressing the office of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to complete its review of Bangladesh’s compliance with labor eligibility requirements under the Generalized System of Preferences, a program that provides duty-free benefits for about 4,800 products from 131 designated countries.

Apparel, textiles and footwear imports from Bangladesh and all GSP countries are not eligible for the duty-free benefits.

“We are seriously concerned about the deterioration of working conditions and worker rights in Bangladesh,” the lawmakers said in a letter. “The latest apparel industry fire, with over 100 workers killed, in the Tazreen garment factory is the latest in a series of events and practices constituting this decline. Chillingly, concerns about fire safety and the failure of Bangladeshi authorities to enforce laws in this regard have been raised repeatedly by the labor community both here and in Bangladesh.”

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The AFL-CIO originally filed a petition covering labor rights in Bangladesh in 2007 and USTR has been reviewing the country’s compliance with GSP labor requirements since then.

According to a recent World Trade Organization review of Bangladesh, 96 percent of its exports to the U.S. consist of ready-made garments and textile products, bought by retail groups such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc. and Target Corp. Although Bangladesh can apply for duty-free benefits under GSP, only 0.62 percent of its exports to the U.S. qualify under the GSP program, the WTO said.

But the fresh focus by lawmakers on the Tazreen Fashions fire and labor conditions in Bangladesh sent a clear message to U.S. brands and retailers that the country could potentially face punitive trade measures if it does not act to address labor issues.

Under GSP, developing countries are granted preferential duties on exports to the U.S. but the benefits can be rescinded if it is determined there are labor violations and there is no progress on labor rights.

The letter cites several concerns that the Congressmen say constitute a decline in labor rights in Bangladesh, including the unsolved murder of a prominent labor organizer, Aminul Islam; ongoing criminal charges against labor leaders; unaddressed fire and other safety issues, and the Bangladeshi government’s refusal to register labor unions as official organizations.

“We understand that the Obama administration has made positive inroads working with Bangladesh in the past — for example, developing a plan of reforms in 2010 and 2011,” the lawmakers said. “We are disappointed that these reforms have not been carried out and that change with respect to working conditions and labor rights in Bangladesh appears to be going in the opposite direction.”

In related news, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said this week it plans to expel 850 “noncompliant” member apparel factories because of failure to conform to labor and safety standards, according to Bangladeshi news reports.

The BGMEA has been embroiled in the controversy and outcry from workers and labor groups over the Tazreen fire.

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