As the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to unravel the rights, wages, health and safety of workers around the world, a new Senate bill seeks to redress the “deteriorating” environment where exploitation born of greed and economic desperation can flourish.
The Global Labor Support Act of 2021, introduced Thursday by New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the son of a former garment worker, follows a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff investigation that traced a sharp decline in labor rights and freedom of association in Bangladesh in recent years.
Despite the hope that the Rana Plaza disaster would fuel “genuine” labor reform, the report found that garment workers were increasingly subjected to abuse and harassment with no consequences for perpetrators who operated “with impunity.” Hundreds of unions were registered in the aftermath of the tragedy, yet union leaders now faced massive bureaucratic hurdles, intimidation from factory owners and the constant threat of losing their jobs. Workers and labor unions elsewhere are experiencing similar challenges, Menendez said.
“In April 2013, the Rana Plaza tragedy showed the world the devastation caused when workers are not able to organize and stand up for their rights,” Menendez, who is also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, in Bangladesh and many other countries, the situation for workers has only deteriorated since then.”
Labor groups say that factory owners have used the pandemic as an excuse to excise union members, slash paychecks or deny maternity benefits. Protests have also been flaring up across the globe—some with deadly consequences—as workers who face hunger and destitution demonstrate over lost wages, owed severance and unfair dismissals.
The Global Labor Support Act authorizes “significantly” increased funding and support for labor-rights programming, including $13 million a year for a five-year extension of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Labor Program, an initiative meant to promote worker justice that is poised to conclude this year. The bill also calls for the establishment of a Global Labor Rights Fund, which will appropriate $30 million every year from 2022 through 2028 to support organizations whose main purpose is safeguarding labor rights.
The proposed legislation will also bolster U.S. engagement on the issue by installing an “ambassador-at-large” for global labor rights to lead and coordinate the U.S. government’s diplomatic engagement with foreign governments on the protection and promotion of labor rights. It requires the imposition of Global Magnitsky sanctions, which impose restrictive measures against foreign actors who have committed human rights abuses or been involved in significant corruption, on those responsible for violating the rights of workers, as well as an annual public report on the country-by-country state of labor rights by the Secretary of State. For countries with “consistently poor” records, a senior labor attaché position must be created at U.S. missions there.
The bill specifically addresses weakening labor conditions in Bangladesh by authorizing no less than $3 million for programming that supports the country’s unions. At the same time, it requires the White House to request updates from the government of Bangladesh about its previous commitments to labor rights and worker safety. A senior labor attaché must also be deployed to the U.S. embassy in the capital of Dhaka.
“By supporting labor rights and labor unions, this legislation helps us build a better future for workers around the world,” Menendez said.