John Kerry

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry, in Dhaka on Monday, said more needs to be done to strengthen labor rights and empower workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

Kerry, who met with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other top government officials on a one-day stop in Dhaka en route to India, also addressed security concerns stemming from two terrorist attacks in Bangladesh last month.

“Our bilateral commercial ties have expanded so that America is now Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, largest export market and a primary source of foreign direct investment,” Kerry said, according to State Department transcripts from a press conference in Dhaka. “The $28 billion garment industry has played a uniquely important role in this rise, contributing to the annual sustained growth of your country at 6 percent.

“But growth in its own — growth just for its own sake — is not our only goal,” he added. “You can be growing with the wrong values, you can be growing with the wrong outcomes, you can be growing with people not gaining in their rights or in their income or in their ability to get an education.”

He praised the government and private sector for taking strides to improve worker safety and training in garment factories in the wake of two major tragedies in the sector more than three years ago that claimed the lives of more than 1,245 workers and injured hundreds of others.

“The Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen factory fire before it are just two of the more recent tragedies that underscore a fundamental truth — Bangladesh cannot truly meet the aspirations of its people and share prosperity if its workers are not safe and their rights are not ensured. That is critical,” Kerry said.

Those tragedies spurred the launch of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, made up of 28 mainly U.S. firms, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Gap Inc. and VF Corp., and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, comprised of 200 mostly European companies with two global unions, IndustriALL and UNI Global Union.

Both groups have reported progress midway through a five-year initiative in Bangladesh’ garment industry involving independent inspections on the structural, electrical and fire safety of all factories from which their members source. But remediation problems in some factories remain, often forcing the groups to suspend operations with factories that fail to live up to corrective action plans.

International human and labor rights groups have long complained that there is a lack of worker representation and collective bargaining power in Bangladesh’s industries.

“Enhancing worker safety has to be paired with strengthening workers’ rights,” Kerry said. “The fact is garment factories across Bangladesh actually could benefit enormously from empowering laborers, allowing them to form labor unions, affording them full collective bargaining rights, because no one should ever be compelled to work in hazardous or exploitative conditions.”

The U.S. suspended Bangladesh’s duty-free benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences in June 2013, citing pervasive garment factory safety problems, including the collapse of the Rana Plaza and the Tazreen Fashions fire, and lack of progress allowing Bangladeshi workers to exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively in the apparel sector.

Following the suspension of GSP benefits, the U.S. and Bangladesh signed the Bangladesh Action Plan in 2013, under which President Obama could consider reinstatement of the GSP benefits. But the suspension has been kept in place because Bangladesh has failed to meet several criteria.

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