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USAID Announces Program to Empower RMG Workers in Bangladesh

Two years after the Rana Plaza building collapse shifted the world’s attention to garment worker safety issues in Bangladesh, much remains to be done to improve conditions and infrastructure in the country’s factories—but the United States has said its commitment to the country is “strong and enduring.”

Coinciding with the tragedy’s anniversary, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) declared Friday a three-year Worker Empowerment Program in Bangladesh to support labor rights, union organizing and women’s empowerment in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector.

“USAID’s Worker Empowerment Program demonstrates the United States’ vigilance in promoting fundamental labor rights, including workplace safety and health, so tragedies such as Rana Plaza can be prevented in the future,” said USAID assistant administrator for Asia, Jonathon Stivers, in a statement. “We have partnered with the government of Bangladesh, international donors and the garment industry to empower workers by giving them a real voice in this vital sector and to reform labor laws consistent with international standards.”

The new program aims to strengthen independent worker organizations by empowering workers—particularly women—with the skills and support required to protect their rights, promote their interests, and improve conditions in their workplace and community. This will complement USAID’s existing Global Labor Program, which trains workers on labor laws, provides legal support, and assists workers in organizing and registering new unions.

According to a recent report from Human Rights Watch, unions exist in 10 percent of Bangladeshi facilities and those who try to organize or advocate them often face violence and intimidation by factory owners or lose their jobs. Since the USAID program’s inception, it has registered nearly 300 new labor unions in the RMG industry, covering more than 65,000 workers.

The U.S., along with the European Union and the International Labor Organization, will continue to work with the Bangladeshi government to ensure that economic and sustainable growth and development go hand-in-hand with workers’ safety rights. As U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman outlined in a separate statement on Friday, “A great deal remains to be done—especially with regard to addressing violence against labor union activities, reforming labor laws and completing and following up on factory inspections.”