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Workers in Bangladesh Need a 1-2 Punch

After the catastrophic Rana Plaza garment factory building collapse that resulted in 1,129 dead and 1,500 injured Bangladeshi workers, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), held a hearing to investigate “Labor Issues in Bangladesh.” I testified for the AFL-CIO at the hearing.

I tried to get across two main points that prove the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) has been too neglectful for too long, shirking its duty to protect the very workers who are the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy and make it grow. 

First, given the six-year review of Bangladesh’s inadequate labor practices and the GOB’s failure to comply with the legal requirements to stay in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program (GSP is a unilateral tariff benefits program that the U.S. grants to Bangladesh and other developing countries), the U.S. government must act now to withdraw, suspend or limit Bangladesh’s GSP benefits. 

Second, because the GOB cannot solve the massive labor abuses in its country without the cooperation of important economic players, the U.S. brands who source in Bangladesh—and make multimillion-dollar profits off Bangladeshi workers who are paid rock-bottom wages to work in death traps—must join the binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

So far, only a few American-based brands (including Sean John, PVH, and Abercrombie & Fitch) have joined. Other large American brands, including Walmart, Target, Gap and JCPenney, have refused to sign. Some of these American brands are pursuing an alternate agenda. An agenda that, if based on existing corporate social responsibility programs, simply won’t work.

Many of Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers, the vast majority of them young women, risk their lives every day, working in thousands of unregulated and poorly constructed factories. Their contribution to Bangladesh’s $19 billion garment industry has been rewarded with abysmally low wages, denial of rights and unacceptable workplace conditions.

As I told the Committee, “Given that about 60 percent of Bangladesh’s factories are at risk of collapse, and that two of the four worst factory disasters in the history of the garment industry happened in Bangladesh in the last seven months, it is time for those profiting most from the system to help reform it.” 

But without laws securing those rights and a credible threat of sanctions to deter violations, some employers will continue to cut corners.  Which is why the GOB must take meaningful, concrete, measurable steps to ensure its workers can exercise their internationally recognized labor rights, including the rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining and acceptable conditions of work. 

As I told the Committee, “The time for granting the benefit of the doubt has passed. Workers have paid for U.S. patience with their lives.”

Menendez agreed that protecting labor rights for workers is imperative. He remarked, “No one will want to wear a piece of clothing made in Bangladesh if it's on the blood of workers,” while urging the administration to do more than “saber rattling” with respect to workers’ rights in Bangladesh.

A decision in the case is expected tomorrow. Check back on the AFL-CIO Now blog for more information. 

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