U.S., Bangladesh, Private Partners Work to Improve Worker Safety

A Bangladeshi woman holds a portrait of her missing daughter at a makeshift morgue in Savar, near Dhaka. Hundreds of workers have been killed in garment factory fires and building collapses in the last few months.
A Bangladeshi woman holds a portrait of her missing daughter at a makeshift morgue in Savar, near Dhaka. Hundreds of workers have been killed in garment factory fires and building collapses in the last few months.

By Jane Morse
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
May 9,  2013

U.S. government agencies are enlisting the cooperation of U.S. buyers in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry to work with Bangladeshi authorities on the shared interest of ensuring safe working conditions.

Two weeks after a Bangladeshi garment factory collapse killed more than 900, officials at the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative convened a conference call May 8 with U.S. buyers in Bangladesh’s garment industry to discuss U.S. efforts to improve workers’ rights and working conditions in Bangladesh and to review how the private sector can assist.

There is an urgent need for government, business owners, buyers and labor organizations to work together to improve labor safety and the lives of working people in Bangladesh, said Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake Jr. and State Department Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Barbara Shailor.

In a media note released May 9, the State Department said that “both the United States and Bangladesh have a shared interest in ensuring that the growth of Bangladesh’s export sector does not come at the expense of safe and healthy working conditions or fundamental labor rights.”

According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country is the world’s second-largest apparel exporter, after China. But Bangladesh has recently suffered a number of high-profile tragedies in its garment industry. On May 8, a fire in an 11-story garment factory in Dhaka killed eight people. The collapse of a garment factory building in April at Rana Plaza in Savar City killed more than 900 people. Still another factory fire in Savar in November 2012 killed 112 people.

The State Department is urging U.S. buyers to coordinate efforts with each other and with the government of Bangladesh and the BGMEA, as well as civil society and labor groups, on factory safety and fire safety initiatives, including helping pay for independent safety and fire inspectors. Buyers have been asked to communicate their concerns about labor conditions to the BGMEA and the Bangladeshi government, and to urge immediate passage of labor law amendments to lay the basis for the establishment of an International Labour Organization and International Finance Corporation Better Work Program.

In 2012, in testimony delivered during a July 19 during hearing on human rights held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, Eric Biel, acting associate deputy under secretary of labor in the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, said U.S. concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh are significant and cut across key sectors of the economy. These include, he said, “violations of freedom of association and unsafe working conditions in the rapidly growing garment sector, as well as child labor in the ‘informal’ garment sector.”

Biel emphasized that the most important responsibility of the U.S. government is “engaging directly with the people in Bangladesh who are in the forefront of efforts to improve the protection of workers’ rights. Many of them put their lives at risk every day in order to advance that goal.”

Learn more:

State Department Call With U.S. Buyers in Bangladesh Ready-Made Garment Sector on the State Department website.

Statement on building collapse in Bangladesh by acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris on the Labor Department website .

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, report on Bangladesh on the Labor Department website.