WASHINGTON — A U.S. State Department delegation is set to visit Bangladesh next week to continue to press the government and garment industry for reforms in the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse that claimed 1,127 lives.
Wendy R. Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs, plans to lead the delegation to Dhaka from Sunday to Tuesday, the third stop on a three-country trip that also includes Indonesia and India, according to the State Department.
Sherman plans to hold a series of meetings with Bangladeshi officials. She will also conduct a roundtable with labor, government and apparel industry officials in the aftermath of one of the worst industrial accidents in history, as the delegation kicks off a high-level dialogue in Dhaka.
Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), who has kept up the pressure on U.S. retailers and brands to sign a binding fire and building safety accord that many of their European counterparts have signed, could also be planning to go to Bangladesh next week, according to sources. However, Miller’s office would not comment on his plans.
The spotlight is on the Southeast Asian country after the building collapse in Savar and a series of fires that killed hundreds of garment workers there and galvanized global retailers, brands and unions to come up with a solution.
According to the State Department, Sherman will lead a roundtable “to discuss standards in the garment sector in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy.” Sherman will also meet with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and the leader of the opposition party, Khaleda Zia, as part of the second U.S.-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue.
The dialogue is considered a primary forum in which the two countries can expand and deepen bilateral cooperation on a wide range of issues, including development, civil society and governance, trade and investment, security and countering violent extremism, science and technology, and women’s empowerment and gender equality.
Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences are in jeopardy as a result of recent tragedies in the garment industry and could be a topic of discussion during the State Department meeting. The Obama administration is reviewing whether to consider withdrawal, suspension or limitation of the benefits to Bangladesh, but a decision is not expected until the end of June. The GSP program in the U.S. does not provide duty-free benefits for apparel, Bangladesh’s largest export. However, the European Union’s GSP program does include duty-free benefits to Bangladesh apparel exports. The EU has said it is considering taking action under GSP to pressure Bangladesh to improve labor conditions.
The Bangladesh government is said to be working with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and other groups on the ground to invite participants. It is unclear if U.S. firms will be represented.
The global fashion industry is divided over the approach to take for reforms that it hopes will improve the working conditions and safety of workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry. A group of 40 retailers and brands signed onto the binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety last week with IndustriALL Global Union, UNI Global Union and Bangladesh unions and labor groups. European retailers and brands, including H&M, Inditex, Carrefour, Marks & Spencer and Benetton, represented the majority of companies that signed the agreement. Only two U.S. companies, PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfger, and Abercrombie & Fitch Co., have signed the accord.
On a separate track, six U.S. trade groups joined together to form the nonbinding North American Bangladesh Worker Safety Working Group and unveiled the nonbinding Safer Factories Initiative that includes short-, medium- and long-term strategic goals through a funding mechanism for training, upgrades of factory structures and ensuring the safety of new construction. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has introduced its own plan to address working conditions in Bangladesh.