DHAKA, Bangladesh — The tension was palpable here as U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman led a delegation for the second U.S.-Bangladesh dialogue.

This story first appeared in the May 28, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The talks began even as there was a citywide shut down called by an 18-party opposition coalition on Sunday. These shut downs are often characterized by not only protests but also the burning of vehicles and bombings.

The talks also took place against the backdrop of the deaths of 1,127 apparel industry workers in the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24, causing a global outcry for improved worker safety and increased pressure on major apparel brands and retailers to take action.

Sherman spoke at the Ruposhi Bangla Hotel here about the timing of her visit, but it was her unequivocal statement on manufacturing in Bangladesh that cheered the representatives of the garment industry.

“We are encouraging international investors not to turn their back on Bangladesh, because the solution is reform, not withdrawal,” she said. “Ultimately, success will depend on the will and commitment of industry, government, civil society and everyday Bangladeshis to come together to change the culture of workplace safety and worker rights in Bangladesh.”

RELATED STORY: Report Examines Causes of Rana Plaza Disaster >>

Global brands pulling out from garment manufacturing in Bangladesh and a consequent loss of business have been of grave concern after the incident at Savar. But the pressure on brands has only intensified since the building collapse which followed a fire at Tazreen Fashions that killed 111 workers in November and another at Smart Fashions in January that took seven lives.

Sherman’s roundtable discussion with government, labor, factory owners and buyers on labor issues in the apparel sector were all the more crucial as leaders of the industry have been scrambling for ways to restore some of the lost credibility for a crucial segment of the economy, which provides jobs for more than 3.8 million workers.

“We need to do all that we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Sherman said. “We are working together with the government of Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi and American private sectors, labor and civil society groups, our partners in the international community, and members of the Bangladeshi diaspora.”

She was categorical in assigning responsibility as well as in her offer of friendship. “The responsibility for enforcing robust labor standards is the responsibility of the government of Bangladesh. But as your country faces these challenges, its friends stand ready to help,” she added.

Sherman said support for enhanced safety inspections could be secured from American companies that source garments from factories in Bangladesh. “Engineers and architects from the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States have stepped up to help recruit a corps of independent safety inspectors. The United States is also funding local labor and civil society organizations to promote respect for fundamental rights at work, including freedom to join a labor union.”

Talking about worker safety, Sherman spoke about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which “shook the conscience of the American public and spurred government and industry to implement crucial reforms” and helped find a way forward.

“We hope that, out of the grief and debris of Rana Plaza, out of the ashes and pain of the Tazreen Fashions and Smart factory fires before it, you can chart a new way forward; that you can build a national consensus on how to improve the lives of workers — indeed the lives of all citizens — in Bangladesh,” she observed.

The first U.S.-Bangladesh dialogue was held in September in Washington, D.C. The session in Dhaka was cochaired by Bangladesh foreign secretary Md. Shahidul Haque, who led the local delegation.

RELATED STORY: Bangladesh, Retailers in Key Safety Steps >>

Over the last few weeks, some dramatic changes have been obvious in Dhaka. Following a delegation from the International Labor Organization after the incident at Savar, the government formed a wage board to look at the issue of higher wages in the sector. The freedom of association for labor and the need for trade unions was also discussed by the cabinet and is expected to come up for approval before the Parliament session in June.

Sherman reiterated the importance of reforms for workers and the industry. “They are also critical to restoring Bangladesh’s image in the eyes of the international community,” she said.

Parallel to the meetings with Sherman was another set of talks with a U.S. business delegation that attended seminars, met officials and leaders of the industry and got a sense of the business environment in the country.

Sherman spoke about “robust and growing bilateral ties between the United States and Bangladesh”; the two countries do more than $6 billion in trade every year. She unveiled several new programs, including a $2 million initiative as part of President Obama’s Global Health Initiative, and another $8 million for the Global Climate Change Initiative. Discussions during the two-day dialogue were about trade and investment, governance and development, security cooperation and regional integration.

“But as a steadfast friend of your country, I must be frank and say that the ultimate success of the Bangladesh story is not guaranteed,” Sherman warned.

“My colleagues and I, along with a great many Bangladeshis, have watched with dismay as the streets of Dhaka have been shut down by hartal after hartal, by angry demonstration after angry demonstration. I cannot presume to tell the people of Bangladesh or your leaders what issues demand attention, what wrongs must be righted, or what approach your country must take as it faces the grave challenges of the future. In Bangladesh, as in any democracy, this is for the people alone to decide,” she said.

While U.S. Ambassador Dan Mozena introduced Sherman at the speech organized by the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, the delegation also included Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Karen Hanrahan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Kelly Clements, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Robert Ichord, Principal Director to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and South East Asia Brigadier General Joaquin Malavet, State Department Political and Military Affairs Office Director Vangala Ram and USAID Director Richard Greene.

Sherman spoke about a growing relationship with Bangladesh, especially while ramping up American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.

“To borrow a phrase from Indian Prime Minister Singh, we dream of a world where one can have breakfast in Kolkata, lunch in Dhaka, and dinner in Rangoon,” she said.

The U.S. State Department on Monday noted that U.S. and Bangladesh government officials said they discussed several trade and investment issues, including Bangladesh’s request for duty-free access on the country’s garment exports to the U.S.

The discussions came against the backdrop of global scrutiny over Bangladesh’s record on workers’ rights and safety and at a time when Bangladesh stands to lose other trade benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences.

The Obama administration is reviewing whether to consider withdrawal, suspension or limitation of the benefits to Bangladesh. A decision is expected at the end of June. The GSP program in the U.S. does not provide duty-free benefits for apparel, Bangladesh’s largest export.

The Bangladesh government appears to be seeking separate duty-free access for its apparel exports from the U.S., but it could not be learned if that has been a long-standing request. The U.S. will likely scrutinize any request for duty-free access for apparel in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh.

The cochairs said they also discussed the status of labor law reform, the registration of unions in the garment sector, fire and structural safety standards and the prospects for establishing an ILO “Better Work” program.

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