In the aftermath of November’s tragic factory fire, which killed 112 workers, Bangladesh may be dropped from the list of developing countries given duty-free trade access to the United States. Even before the Tazreen Fashions fire, a U.S. trade official told the Wall Street Journal, “the administration had reached the conclusion that too little had been done to address worker rights concerns in Bangladesh.” The official added, “The fire has only intensified our concerns.”
While their duty-free U.S. access already excludes garment exports, Bangladesh is exempt from taxation on many other types of exports to the U.S., such as sports equipment, appliances, and plastic products. If the decision is made to remove Bangladesh from the list–it will be decided sometime this spring–other foreign brands may reduce their orders from Bangladesh, and the EU, which allows Bangladesh to export garments duty-free, may reconsider their restrictions.
Many question the pragmatism of penalizing Bangladesh for the fires, pointing to the foreign corporations who contract with unsafe factories, and recent efforts to improve conditions. Mahbub Ahmed, of Bangladesh’s Commerce Ministry, told the Wall Street Journal that Bangladesh has made progress over the last two decades in implementing workers’ rights. “Working conditions in Bangladesh will not become the same as the West overnight,” he said. “But we’re making progress: We’ve eliminated child labor and many of our newer factories are world class.”
Ahsan Mansur, of the Dhaka-based Policy Research Institute, said that the garment industry actually offered higher labor standards than many others in Bangladesh. “Taken in the overall context of rural poverty, which is less visible to western observers, it is a significant improvement,” he said.