DHAKA, Bangladesh — “It’s been one of the hardest experiences I have had as a member of Congress,” Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) said as he wrapped up a five-day visit to the Bangladeshi capital.

This story first appeared in the May 30, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Speaking Wednesday afternoon, he described his meeting with the workers from Tazreen Fashions, who jumped from the third and fourth floors to escape a fire that ended up claiming at least 112 lives on Nov. 24.

“Their bodies are shattered, their economics are shattered, their family lives are shattered,” he said, pointing out that the time for dithering on issues regarding worker safety has long passed.

“I would say that everybody recognizes that Bangladesh has a choice — they can go to the future and [establish] safe working conditions and safe factories with programs of fire prevention, or they can struggle with the past and lose the value of the Bangladesh label,” he said.

Miller said although Bangladesh had clearly benefitted from having some of the most skilled workers in the world and investors who were willing to put in the money to grow the apparel sector, it was up to the government to make the right choices, especially in issues of safety and freedom of labor and international compliance.

“Our patience is not endless,” he stressed.

As the first member of Congress to visit Bangladesh since the Savar tragedy, where 1,129 people died after an eight-floor apparel factory building collapsed on April 24, Miller has paid close attention to the challenges facing the industry.

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Miller arrived in Dhaka on Saturday, a day before a U.S. delegation led by Wendy R. Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs, began a two-day U.S.-Bangladesh dialogue in Dhaka. He met government leaders, association heads, employers, nongovernmental association and worker leaders and the press; visited factories, and spent time with survivors of both the building collapse and the Tazreen fire.

The Congressman was accompanied by Richard Hudson (R., N.C.), who is also on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“I am here as part of the congressional concern around the tragic incident that has taken place here in the industry in Bangladesh — the Tazreen factory fire and the Rana Plaza factory collapse and these two tragic incidents bring into focus the discussion that has been going on with Bangladesh for many years since the Generalized System of Preferences has been granted to Bangladesh, that is the right of workers to have a say at their workplace to join a union to collectively bargain and to organize their workplace,” said Miller.

The question of a secure work environment, rights at work and basic safety continued to be at the forefront.

“I have yet to meet anybody in the government, outside the government or in the industry that has suggested that if these people had a strong union and the right to reject unsafe working conditions they would have been alive because they tried to flee the fire and they were forced back into the building by their supervisors and for fear of their jobs they didn’t have the confidence to leave and, tragically, they died in that fire,” he added.

“The same was true of Rana Plaza — they tried to leave that building, they were forced back into the building for fear of their job, at the end of the month, would they be paid caused them to reenter the building.”

With an eye set on the renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences, a decision on which is expected to be made by the U.S. in coming months, the Bangladesh government has been working on ways to improve the industry’s reputation.

Miller said that the decision on GSP was not his, but that he would be meeting with the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means committee, Sander Levin (D., Mich.), who has been deeply involved in GSP issues. “We cannot go any length of time without having international compliance and I think people understand what that means,” he remarked.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also has stepped into the controversy, scheduling a hearing on June 6 on working conditions in the country.

Earlier this month, the Bangladesh government revealed its decision to form a new wage board to consider raising the minimum wage from the present $38 a month. Despite the displeasure of local employers, the government also decided to allow trade unions, which will come up for final clearance before parliament in June.

Separately, worker leaders in the apparel industry have said the government’s moves could just be another tactic and might not come to fruition. Miller is optimistic, however.

“There’s going to have to be a system of benchmarks. We know the questions of factory safety and the questions that have been swirling around the GSP petition; this all now comes together,” he said. “People never expected this confluence of events to take place but it did, and we owe it to those who lost their lives, we owe it to those workers who go to work every day to ensure this is a better system for them.

“I think the brands bear a great responsibility for what happens in this industry,” Miller said while describing the role of the brands in the last 30 years as one in which they have “played one company off another, one country off another, whether that was China, Malaysia, Guatemala, El Salvador or Bangladesh.

“It is very interesting to me that you see almost immediately after Rana Plaza a split between the brands where H&M, Zara, Benetton, Primark, PVH said that they were aware of the fire code and that it should happen right away. Then you have Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and The Gap, who choose to try to hold on to the old model that obviously hasn’t worked for safety,” Miller said.

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During his trip, the congressman visited the Apex and Beximco factories, including a meeting with the worker welfare organization at the factory. Among the many people that he met was the chairman of the Committee on Labour and Employment and other government officials as well as garment federation leaders. Each of these groups discussed their concerns, as did the workers at the Solidarity Centre, an international organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO

“There are a lot of questions for Bangladesh to answer. My sense is that they understand that and there is a new sense of urgency about the situation,” Miller said. “There’s a lot to be done here. A lot of people have to put their shoulder to the wheel to make this happen and make it work.”

Meanwhile, Dhaka was lethargic on Wednesday with another full day citywide shutdown called by the alliance of 18 political parties and led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Sunday also was a full-day shutdown, with a partial shutdown on Tuesday.

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