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US Says Bangladesh Must do More to Improve Worker Rights and Safety

While Bangladesh has made efforts to improve its tarnished textile industry and increase safety in the sector, the United States said what has been done is not enough.

A statement from the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) office Wednesday, said although Bangladesh has made some positive strides, the country must do more to address the worker’s rights and safety issues that led President Obama to suspend its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade benefits in June last year.

When it pulled the country’s trade privileges following the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse and Tazreen factory fire last year, the U.S. outlined an Action Plan detailing what Bangladesh would need to do to have the status reinstated. The plan included increasing government inspections, enacting labor law reforms to allow for freedom of association and collective bargaining, and publicly reporting on labor inspection results, among other initiatives.

USTR Michael Froman said, “The Obama Administration has been engaging the Bangladesh government and stakeholders over the past year to press for changes to address the worker rights and worker safety issues that led to the President’s decision to suspend GSP trade benefits.” He added, “We are seeing some improvements that move us closer to our shared goal of protecting workers from another workplace tragedy such as the April 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, including a significant increase in the registration of unions. However, we remain concerned about the large number of factories that have yet to be inspected, the lack of progress on needed labor law reforms, and continuing reports of harassment of and violence against labor activists who are attempting to exercise their rights.”

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In reviewing the post-GSP removal action plan, the U.S. assessed Bangladesh’s progress on all points and found that there has been progress in some areas. Since last year, the Bangladesh government has registered roughly 120 new garment sector labor unions, dropped criminal charges against labor activists, and is working with initiatives like the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety to facilitate factory inspections. The country has also reportedly suspended operations at 20 factories where structural failure or other catastrophic incidents were highly likely to occur.

But Bangladesh has failed to keep up with hundreds of factory safety inspections and hasn’t yet hired the additional inspectors it committed to. According to the USTR, the country has also been sluggish in responding to reports of violence and harassment of labor activists.

At a meeting with a 10-member delegation from Bangladesh in June, U.S. leaders cited concerns that the uptick in unions has incited the harassment and said the Bangladesh government has done little to control the issue. The review concluded that Bangladesh needs a better mechanism for responding to and addressing allegations of unfair labor practices.

Labor law reforms that would allow for freedom of association and ensure workers in Export Processing Zones are given the same rights as workers in the rest of the country have also yet to be made.

U.S. collaboration with the Bangladesh government on improving the country’s conditions has been ongoing, and efforts between the U.S., European Union, the International Labor Organization (ILO), and other international partners under the EU-launched Sustainability Compact are expected to aid in upgrading Bangladesh’s garment industry. The Sustainability Compact seeks to improve labor, health and safety conditions for workers, and encourage responsible behavior among businesses.

The GSP subcommittee will carry out its next review of Bangladesh’s progress on the GSP Action Plan this December.