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UPDATE: Bangladesh Delegation Discusses Progress Toward Reform During US Visit

Last month, a 10-member delegation from Bangladesh led by the country’s Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed, visited Washington, D.C. to discuss the nation’s progress toward reforming its tainted textile industry.

The delegation included Bangladesh’s head of fire defense, leaders from Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), local trade unions and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, among others.

One of the topical points raised during talks was that while Bangladesh has made considerable strides in bettering labor conditions and relative safety among garment workers in the country, U.S. leaders are concerned that the vast addition of trade unions in Bangladesh has done little to in fact affect change for workers.

Over the past year, 160 trade unions have been registered in the country compared to previous years when that total was less than ten, but union leaders have reportedly been harassed and intimidated into inaction by individuals hired by factory owners.

According to sources traveling with the delegation, they were well received but many U.S. leaders voiced concerns over the fact that the uptick in trade unions has spurred harassment of union leaders, and said the Bangladesh government has done little to curb the issue. Ahmed said he intends to investigate the allegation.

In terms of fire safety, Ian Spaulding, senior advisor to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) portion of the delegation was particularly successful.

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“Bangladesh doesn’t understand certain things relating to the Alliance and the Accord standard, and they don’t understand the science behind fire protection,” Spaulding said. “Bringing the National Fire Protection Association, the leading international association on these issues, to Bangladesh is important and helps to bridge that knowledge gap.”

The country has agreed to sign a formal memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the BGMEA, the Alliance and NFPA in the near future to ensure technical cooperation with regard to fire safety standards, Spaulding said.

Reinstating trade benefits with the U.S. under its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program was another topic of conversation during the delegation’s U.S. visit. The U.S. suspended Bangladesh’s duty free trade privileges under GSP last year following the tragic Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza building collapse. While GSP did not cover the country’s garment industry, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of its trade, the suspension blighted Bangladesh’s reputation.

Because the U.S. has suspended GSP, some are concerned that Europe–which is where GSP matters more as most of the fabrics and garments shipped to Europe are duty free under GSP–could follow suit. The EU is Bangladesh’s main trading partner, accounting for roughly 12 percent of the country’s total trade. In 2013, Bangladesh exported 10 billion euro ($13.6 billion) worth of textiles and textile articles to the EU, according to the European Commission. Textiles and textile apparel exports to the U.S. totaled $5 billion in 2013, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

During the week-long meetings, Ahmed asked U.S. Congressman Steve Chabot to support the restoration of GSP for Bangladesh and requested that Chabot, who is also chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, grant duty free and quote free market access to the U.S. for apparel from Bangladesh, the Financial Express reported.

These issues were brought up in talks with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, Congressman Sander Levin, U.S. Associate Deputy Undersecretary Eric Biel, Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Cathy Novelli, and retail associations like the National Retail Federation (NRF), to name a few.

Members of the Bangladesh delegation included Ali Ahmed Khan, director general of Bangladesh’s Fire Service and Civil Defence, Sukkur Mahmud, president of the Jatiya Saramik League trade union, Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), and Mesbah Rabin, managing director for the Alliance for Worker Safety, among others.

Generally speaking, Spaulding said, the meetings included a lot of diverse stakeholders and a lot of discussion over what is the right way to drive change in Bangladesh. “It was a riveting debate about the Accord, the Alliance, the government, the trade union community and ‘What do we all need to do better to drive change?’” he said.

Ahmed has so far been instrumental in making changes to the tax law in Bangladesh for the betterment of the industry. He has worked to implement tax law changes that eliminate taxes on fire equipment, eliminate duty on pre-fabricated materials for building construction, and has made changes to laws that reduce profit tax for factory owners who relocate their factories to new, safer areas.

During the talks, Spaulding said many made reference to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in the U.S. in 1911 as a parallel to Bangladesh’s recent tragedies, and were encouraging Bangladesh to learn some of the same lessons the U.S. did.

“From a historical perspective, it took 26 years before the U.S. made the right to unionize legal after the Triangle Shirt fire, and Bangladesh did it in four months. So, while there are certainly parallels, the argument that was made is that Bangladesh has actually moved very quickly on a number of structural issues,” Spaulding said.

This month’s meeting followed Bangladesh’s agreement with the Chinese government to have a $1 billion roughly 500-acre garment village built in the country. Chinese firm Orient International Holding will build the new industrial garment park, which will include 215 factories, house 300,000 workers and is projected to produce $3 billion in additional exports, Spaulding said. Factories will be built in accordance with structural laws and the village will be subject to national law, which allows for the right to form a union in that village, a source with knowledge of the issue explained.

“They are pretty excited about it because getting changes made in Bangladesh is hard,” Spaulding said. “And since Rana [Plaza] the government has really made some pretty significant changes. And while everybody loves to beat up on Bangladesh, some of it is just not fair.”