An assurance by U.S. Ambassador Marcia Bernicat that America “absolutely wanted to continue the partnership in Bangladesh’s garment sector” started the Apparel Summit in Chittagong on a high note.
The three-day Apparel and Safety Exposition opened at Radisson Blu in the port city on Thursday with a ribbon cutting by Bangladesh Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed. An estimated 800 delegates are expected to attend.
Bernicat’s words were received eagerly — she was sworn in as ambassador in January — and so far in her tenure has continued the supportive note set by previous ambassador Dan Mozena. Reiterating that the U.S. wanted to help the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association meet its goal of exporting $50 billion by 2021, Bernicat said it was an “ambitious but very possible goal,” adding that the U.S. is the largest single buyer of Bangladeshi garments and would support the implementation of the goal. Bangladesh exported $5 billion worth of apparel to the U.S. last year.
The summit is being held to help finalize a road map to reach the $50 billion target, following a similar summit in Dhaka in December 2014. Bangladesh garment exports are currently $24.5 billion — it is the second-largest exporter of garments in the world, after China.
The collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza in April 2013, in which more than 1,100 workers were killed, has focused attention on how global retailers and brands source from Bangladesh, as well as a host of safety inspections and procedures to the country in the last two years.
“This is an ambitious but very possible goal. But we also know that certain things must occur for it to happen,“ Bernicat said, while first praising the commitment of the industry to improve and develop itself. She commended the registration of 250 new unions; the creation of a public online database of inspected factories; training more than 100 new labor inspectors, and inspections of more than 2,000 factories for electrical, fire and structural conditions by the Bangladesh government, the Alliance and the Accord.
Bernicat spoke about the need for action, too.
“But now the really hard work remains to be done,” she said. “In particular in the area of labor rights.
“We know that empowered workers — in other words, employees who can work in safety and who can voice their concerns and organize without fear of reprisal — are more productive. And increased productivity is good for business,” she said.
Bernicat pointed out that the U.S. government through United States Agency for International Development/Bangladesh launched its $5 million Worker’s Empowerment Program to support independent labor organizing efforts and improve workers’ living conditions in their communities and that the U.S. government will work with two Bangladeshi banks to fund a $22 million credit guarantee to facilitate loans from those banks safety improvements in ready-made apparel factories.
Adding that the U.S. had been working to improve labor conditions and support freedom of association in Bangladesh since before the Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza disasters, Bernicat said that about 11,000 RMG union leaders and members had been trained through USAID grants to the Solidarity Center. More than half of these workers were women, and the training included collective bargaining, union leadership, industrial dispute resolution, media and organizational democracy.