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Menendez Speaks at AFL-CIO on his Newly Released Report on Assessing Labor Rights and Safety in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following remarks yesterday at an event to release a new report produced by his staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, investigating labor rights and worker abuses in Bangladesh. Menendez spoke at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. 

Menendez’s remarks can be found below:

“President Trumka, thank you for that kind introduction and above all, for your stalwart leadership of this organization and tireless efforts to improve the lives of American workers which is unparalleled. I really appreciate the vigor, the vitality, the tenaciousness of your leadership. I’ve seen it when you’ve addresses the Senate Democratic caucus which is overwhelmingly friendly but nonetheless, you keep our feet to the fire, as you should and I appreciate what you do for workers each and every day. Let’s give President Trumka a round of applause, he really deserves it.

The United States owes its economic strength to our vibrant middle class—and we must remember that unions like the AFL-CIO help build that middle class. And while many Americans are not unionized, they too owe their quality of life to you and to the generations of labor leaders and organizers who fought for fair pay, better benefits, and basic fairness in our economy. So I thank everyone with the AFL-CIO for continuing to stand up for American workers and never, ever giving up.  And so long as I am New Jersey’s Senior Senator you can count on me to stand with you in the struggle for workers’ rights both her at home and in my role as Ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I also want to thank the Solidarity Center for promoting the rights of workers worldwide.

I reread your mission the other day: “Empowering workers to raise their voice for dignity on the job, justice in their communities and greater equality in the global economy.” This mission is not only inspiring, it is essential to everything America stands for.  I especially want to applaud the courage and determination of your organizers around the world. Your staff is not only building the next generation of labor organizers abroad, but often doing so in difficult and sometimes, even dangerous conditions.  So thank you all for what you’re doing to build a brighter future for workers worldwide. You have been a great partner to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and I look forward to many more years together fighting for workers’ rights, from Latin America and Africa to Europe, Asia, and beyond. 

I understand we have representatives of the Bangladeshi Embassy representatives here today and we thank them for joining us this morning. The Bangladeshi Ambassador here in Washington worked as a fellow in the office of Senator Ted Kennedy, who was not only one of the labor movement’s greatest champions, but also a deep believer in strong U.S. relations with Bangladesh. His efforts in the Senate during Bangladesh’s war for independence set the early days of the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship on a positive course, one rooted in constitutions that highlight democratic values. In recent years, we’ve seen the Bangladeshi government live out those humanitarian values; including by hosting over a million Rohingya refugees amid a devastating crisis. At a time when the world is too often failing to protect refugees, Bangladesh is truly leading by example.  So we express our thanks to the Bangladeshi government, its representatives for your government’s continued leadership in this regard.

Today, I hope to talk about the global struggle for labor rights and how we can better support workers abroad. 

I am also, as the President said, releasing a new report about these very issues in Bangladesh, and how the international community can work with the Bangladeshi labor movement, government and industry to secure the gains made since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013.  I want to thank Damian Murphy of my staff who’s traveled to Bangladesh, been very engaged and was critical and working both with the Solidarity Center and others in terms of helping us devise the report.

Following a string of tragedies that also included the Tazreen Fashions fire of 2012, international brands formed two initiatives meant to improve building safety for Bangladeshi workers.

These higher standards—built with international expertise and Bangladeshi initiative—have been adopted in many factories with great success. 

But today, we’re in the midst of a transition period, as Bangladeshi actors assume sole responsibility for continuing this important work. I believe this is a good thing. Bangladesh has a tremendous opportunity to set a new gold standard for building safety and workers’ rights if they choose to seize it. And with American consumers increasingly concerned about how their clothes are made, I’m confident that Bangladesh would be rewarded for showing the world how it champions worker safety and treats them with dignity. 

Today’s report begins by highlighting the success of the international initiatives created after Rana Plaza, from improved fire, structural, and electrical safety conditions to the inspection and remediation of many Ready-Made Garment, or RMG, factories across Bangladesh. Bangladeshis should take pride in these achievements. Few predicted such success at the start of these international initiatives.

So I want to thank the Accord and the Alliance for their efforts – they showed what the private sector can do when it comes together in common cause. They also created an important proof of concept – if it could be done in Bangladesh, why not in other emerging economies around the world? The Accord and the Alliance improved standards in many factory buildings. But our report also shows that we still have a long way to go.

Despite building improvements over the past seven years, we found that the workers inside are not necessarily safer.  Abuse unfortunately remains widespread, and workers’ rights are often sacrificed for the sake of meeting quotas in a relentless fashion industry.

All too often, women suffer the most egregious abuses.  My staff met a Bangladeshi woman and labor organizer who shared how thugs— at the bequest of the factory owner—raped her and assaulted her for their activism.  These conditions should be acceptable to no one.

Society must recognize that women are the backbone of the RMG sector in Bangladesh and therefore the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy. And employers should treat the protection of their rights as a critical national resource.

As Bangladeshi government and a locally-run private entity—the Ready-Made Garment Stability Council—assume responsibility for monitoring building safety and labor rights, it’s time for all stakeholders involved to address some important questions:

Number one: Will the government maintain progress on building safety and pursue new measures to protect labor rights?

Number two: Will the new Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council build on the progress of international initiatives and continue to strengthen building safety, respect labor rights, and protect workers from abuse?

Number three: Will international brands demand higher building safety standards and greater respect for workers’ rights, including protection from abuse, and be prepared to walk away if factories fail to meet those expectations?

If the answer to each of these questions is yes, the label “Made in Bangladesh” will become a badge of honor that represents true purpose and brings its people great pride. But if the answer is no, I fear that Bangladesh could lose its status as a top destination for the RMG sector.

This new report also underscores how labor leaders and activists who fight on the front lines for change remain especially vulnerable to abuse.

We found that the environment for union organizers and activists has deteriorated significantly, as evidenced by the violent repression of workers who protested for a better minimum wage in December 2018 and January 2019. While hundreds of unions were registered following the tragedy at Rana Plaza, union leaders now face substantial bureaucratic hurdles and continued intimidation from factory owners. What was once a promising future for Bangladeshi labor unions has unfortunately lost momentum. 

We also learned that factory owners are not being held accountable for violating the 2006 Bangladesh Labor Act. Joining a union or even filing a complaint can cost workers their jobs and throw their families into duress. Where is the accountability required under the law? The Bangladesh Department of Labor has not fully prosecuted, or enforced reinstatement of union leaders in, most, if not all, unfair labor practice cases—more than 15 of which have been pending for years. My friends, starting investigations only goes so far. It is up to the government of Bangladesh to deliver the justice necessary to change lives for the better and strengthen the labor movement.

This month, the United States will mark 109 years since the Triangle Fire in New York City.  Its impact on labor rights was historic, and its legacy of reform reverberates today. It brought new laws and improved workplace conditions throughout New York and the nation - some of which remain in effect to this day.  The parallels between the Triangle fire and Rana Plaza tragedies are striking. Both tragedies disproportionally impacted women. Both galvanized unprecedented action by government, industry, and the general public. Both resulted in a burst of union creation. But it’s important remember that America’s fight for labor rights did not end with the burst of reforms passed back in 1911. Our struggle for workers’ rights continues to this day.

So if there’s any lesson for Bangladesh to take from the Triangle factory tragedy, it’s that reform is not a one-time event. Factory compliance is a not one-time event. Union registration is not a one-time event.  Accountability is not a one-time event.  Indeed, Bangladesh’s labor laws are only as strong as their enforcement.

The ability to form a union is the floor – not the ceiling. How unions are treated after formation also matters.  It’s not enough for brands and factory owners to adopt policies against workplace abuse—they must be willing to fire and prosecute managers who physically and verbally abuse workers. Only then does real cultural change take hold. 

So how can we deliver that change?  Our report includes more than 30 recommendations, and I will highlight just a few of the recommendations are included in the report that are available at the end of this presentation.

First and foremost, the Government of Bangladesh should protect union leaders from retaliation and illegal terminations. This means carrying out prompt and impartial investigations into factory owners alleged to have broken the law, including by suppressing union activity and verbally, physically, and sexually abusing workers. And it means prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law.

In addition, Bangladesh should register unions that meet all requirements effectively and transparently. The local industry, through the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), should ensure that workers’ representatives have power equal to the BGMEA and participating brands on the Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council Board of Directors. The private sector also has a responsibility to hold factory owners and managers accountable for credible allegations of worker abuse and labor violations.

Apparel retailers and global brands that source from Bangladesh should collectively develop and implement a zero-tolerance policy on violence and harassment of workers, especially when it is gender-based, and make these expectations public. The world’s leading fashion brands have the responsibility and the power to demand higher safety and labor standards in their supplier factories.  And they should be prepared to break contracts with suppliers who fail to live up to them.

The brands should also ensure that pricing and sourcing contracts with RMG factories incorporate cost of labor and safety compliance—including cost of the minimum wage increases, overtime payments, and all legal benefits—to eliminate incentives for managers to cut corners, sacrifice safety, and abuse workers.

With these and other recommendations, I believe Bangladesh has a real path to achieving even greater progress. But let me be clear: the work of the international community is not done.

The United Nations should immediately launch an investigation into allegations of worker abuse—including gender-based violence. The UN should also conduct a visit to Bangladesh focused on the right of workers to join a union and conduct union activities without retaliatory actions like firings and false criminal charges.

The International Labor Organization should launch a Commission of Inquiry on Bangladesh in response to alleged violations of the ILO Conventions on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.

Likewise, the United States has a role to play. I applaud the work of Ambassador Earl Miller, who like Ambassador Dan Mozena and Ambassador Marcia Bernicat before him, has amplified U.S. interests, values, and respect for labor rights in Bangladesh.  We have had outstanding representatives in Dhaka since 2013. The U.S. must maintain this approach, including our suspension of trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences until Bangladesh fully implements the 16-point labor action plan.

I also recommend revising that document to reflect current challenges—particularly violations of labor rights and worker abuse.  We should also consider imposing visa bans against government officials and factory owners implicated in retaliatory violence against labor organizers.

Congress should also increase funding for U.S. programs promoting labor rights in Bangladesh, particularly the right to organize and collectively bargain.

Finally, I will call upon the Government Accountability Office to examine labor rights in apparel-producing countries to better inform U.S. policymaking and programming.  This will pair with legislation that I will introduce later this year on labor rights in Bangladesh.

As I said earlier, Bangladesh has the opportunity to set a new gold standard for workers’ rights. And Bangladesh can lead by example at a time the world desperately needs it. Indeed, the status of labor rights around the world, as President Trumka said, is increasingly grim. Guatemala and Honduras now lead the world in murders of trade union leaders and activists. In Cambodia, respect for freedom of association has deteriorated significantly. Reports reveal that workers who complain about working conditions face threats, retaliation, and even criminal charges.

In Zimbabwe, where democratic challenges have only heightened since the ousting and passing of Robert Mugabe, labor rights are likewise under siege. I understand that 28 union leaders from across the trade union movement, including key women and youth leaders, face criminal charges for protesting the non-payment of wages. Criminal charges for protesting the nonpayment of wages.  I’m particularly concerned about the case of Florence Taruvinga, Vice-President of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.  She has been on trial for more than a year in retaliation for organizing a peaceful work stoppage back in January 2019. Indeed, around the world, it is women who most tragically have it worst.

Studies have shown that nearly one in three women in Cambodia’s garment industry experience workplace sexual harassment; that 90 percent of commercial agriculture workers in Kenya had experienced or observed sexual abuse at work; and that in Bangladesh, 80 percent of garment workers report experiencing some violence and harassment in some form.

At a time when so much imperils the labor movement, I’ve been troubled by the Trump Administration’s efforts to slash funding for workers’ rights programs abroad. Thankfully, Congress has fought back and protected funding. But even so, we must remember that funding alone only goes so far. The United States must reclaim our history as a champion for freedom of association and workers’ rights abroad. Unfortunately, I hear nothing but radio silence from this Administration in this arena.

We have do more to train our Ambassadors and diplomats to better support the work of labor unions and workers. We must only support trade deals that protect labor rights – not just because it’s good for workers in other countries but because it’s ALSO good for workers in OUR country. 

American consumers should never be complicit in the abuse of any worker anywhere in the world. 

In Dhaka, a garment worker named Shopna, summed up the sacrifices made by the workers who produce the clothing we wear, saying:

“It makes me happy that [consumers] are wearing something that I made. But I want to let them know that this more than a piece of cloth. This piece of cloth is bathed in my blood, sweat, and dignity. I’ve sacrificed all of that to be able to make a pair of pants that you will wear and feel comfortable.” 

We have do our part to improve conditions for workers like Shopna. America has get back to the business of leading on these issues in all corners of the globe. And the work of organizations like the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center has never mattered more.

Let me close by saying on a personal note, because this issue is indeed personal to me.  I am the son of a seamstress who worked tirelessly in the factories of northern New Jersey to support my family. She was not unionized. I saw the effects of her working in a factory and not being unionized. She was very good at what she did, so they took her off the sewing machines which she’d come home at night with her fingers bleeding and said organize you know work with all the other seamstresses on the floor. But, she never got paid as the floor supervisor. The two guys who were in the factory did. She never go paid as a floor supervisor. It taught me about equal pay for equal work. It taught me about the conditions in the factory in which she worked.

So I know how difficult this work can be, but it should never be fatal. The work environment should never be hostile. And the right to organize and collectively bargain should never be trampled on. All of us have live up to these values. And I truly believe Bangladesh has an opportunity to lead the way, to set that gold standard, to be that country that not only produces good products but does so safely and ethically. 

I want Bangladesh to succeed. I want the Bangladeshi economy to grow. I want Bangladeshi workers to thrive. And I believe the Bangladeshi people share in these dreams. They want the label “Made in Bangladesh” to be a source of pride. 

Bangladeshi labor leader Kalpona Akter, a true hero for labor rights, testified before our committee here in Washington not long after the Rana Plaza disaster.  She recently said that, “Cheap clothes are not cheap.  Someone always has to pay for them.  And that someone is a worker.”

My friends, the struggle for labor rights is the life’s work of so many in this room. Its work that demands that all of us - unions, government, the private sector and workers themselves – join hands in common cause. 

Let that be our task, let that be our goal.  And as you take up this charge, I will stand with you every step of the way—just as I always have.

Thank you very much for having me.”