Bangladesh must take workers’ rights and workplace safety to internationally-recognised benchmarks soon for retention of preferential trade access to the US market, a senior Congressman said yesterday.
George Miller, a leading advocate in the US Congress on education, labour, the economy and the environment, said now is the time to take action.
“Let’s get down to what is required under GSP [generalised system of preferences] and that is the internationally-recognised benchmark of workers’ rights and safe workplaces and workers’ right to organise. That is not present in its full form in Bangladesh.”
Miller, a senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and Workforce, has been touring parts of Bangladesh to personally inspect the factory conditions and to meet with workers, accident victims and industry and government officials.
His trip was capped by a press briefing organised at American Centre in Dhaka to convey his findings.
On Bangladesh’s chances on retaining the GSP, he said it is likely to depend on the speed at which the country establishes and meets the benchmarks of international compliance of worker rights.
“The decision on GSP is not mine. We cannot go any length of time without international compliance, and other issues that have been impediments to registration of unions being sorted.”
The proposed amendments to the labour law, he says, have flaws, but he is hopeful that they would be fixed.
Although the current labour law allows the right to form union, it is not being practised by workers out of fear of getting sacked. “That is not supposed to happen under ILO conventions.”
Had there been a strong union to collectively bargain for a safer workplace, the high rate of fatalities and injuries the industry has been experiencing in recent times could have been averted.
“Bangladesh has a choice. They can go to the future and they can insist upon safe working conditions and safe factories and programmes on fire prevention. Or, they can struggle in the past and lose the value of the Bangladesh label.”
Miller, who has been in politics for 40 years, says if the country opts for the latter option, it will have “severe” consequences, as the recent events have educated the public about the behind-the-scene goings-on in the garment industry.
“I don’t think that’s going to work for Bangladesh, for the retailers, for the buyers, and of course, then it’d be a problem for the factories.”
“Our patience isn’t endless.”
He cited the case of a factory he visited, where the owner took off wrappings of a shirt and pointed out two brands on the label: one was the brand of the shirt and the other the brand of the country.
“Both those brands are at risk, because of the loss of lives. And we know how quickly a brand can be destroyed. I don’t think people want to be associated with labels that have blood all over them.”
Conversely, Miller said the “deadly” practices of the industry — where the buyers drive the price and move elsewhere if the price is not met — have to change as well.
“I don’t think consumers in the United States, Europe, or anywhere else are going to continue to look kindly upon brands that eke out the last penny — and for which someone loses their lives.”
Miller lauded 40-plus companies that have signed on to an accord that pledges to fund factory upgrades in Bangladesh.
But he is disappointed by those brands, such as Wal-Mart and Gap that “think it is business as usual”.
“The longer they resist, the more visible the brands become — associated with that problem.”
Miller, however, is hopeful that Bangladesh would do the “right thing”.