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Chairman Menendez Applauds Administration’s Decision to Suspend Preferential Trade Status to Bangladesh

Menendez Presided over Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on June 6 focused on Labor Issues in Bangladesh

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commended the Administration’s decision to suspend Generalized System of Preference (GSP) benefits to Bangladesh.

Earlier this month, Menendez presided over a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing examining labor issues in Bangladesh, following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory.

“It is long overdue for Bangladesh to reform its labor practices and ensure workers’ rights,” said Menendez. “Bangladesh is an important trading partner, but we cannot and will not look the other way while workers are subjected to unsafe conditions and environments endangering their wellbeing, especially after the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashion Factory tragedies resulting in over 1200 deaths.  Bangladesh’s labor laws must be dramatically improved and suspending GSP benefits will hopefully help kick-start these overdue reforms.”  

“American companies operating in Bangladesh must reform their business practices and take meaningful steps to improve working conditions for factory workers.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will not rest until a solution is reached that affords Bangladesh’s workers the rights and protections they deserve,” Menendez added. “No one will want to wear clothing that is ‘Made in Bangladesh’ if it is made on the blood of workers. It’s time for American industry to show leadership and work with their European counterparts on a global standard for safety.”  

Senator Menendez authored an op-ed in Reuters about the tragedies in Bangladesh, titled, “A Cry for Worker Fairness” and it appears below. 

Op-Ed, Reuters

A cry for worker fairness

June 5, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

By Senator Robert Menendez

The tragedy at the Rana Plaza clothing factory was a sober reminder that Bangladeshi garment workers still lack basic rights and protections. My mother was a seamstress. She worked in the textile factories of northern New Jersey. I saw how hard and tiring her work was. But it was never lethal. And it shouldn’t be.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza [2] building on April 24 was the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry, killing at least 1,127 people and injuring many more. It should be a turning point for the international community. Just as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City galvanized action [3] to improve U.S. factory safety standards, the Rana Plaza tragedy is a call to action for consumers here in America and around the world.

That’s why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday is convening a hearing on worker safety and labor issues in Bangladesh.

In many ways, Bangladesh is a success story [5] and an important partner for the United States. It is a moderate, Muslim-majority democracy and a key trade partner, supporting 10,000 American jobs. As the world’s seventh-most-populous country, Bangladesh has made dramatic strides [6] on everything from global food security to gender equality to maternal and child health. It is also at the heart of global efforts to tackle climate change.

The strength of the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship was on full display during Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni’s recent visit [7] to Washington. The meeting between Moni and Secretary of State John Kerry also provided an opportunity to underscore growing concerns among the Obama administration, Congress, labor groups and civil society about the dismal state of worker safety and labor rights in Bangladesh. In the wake of Rana Plaza and November’s Tazreen factory fire [8], it is clear that the status quo is not an option.

Local police and an industry association had warned only days before the Rana Plaza collapse that the building was unsafe. How did the owners respond? By threatening to fire people who didn’t show up for work. Sadly, this has been standard operating procedure in an industry where accidents, fires and other disasters have killed and injured thousands with little consequence.

For years, American and European retailers have turned to Bangladesh to produce clothing at rock-bottom prices. It is now an export powerhouse, second only to China in global apparel exports. Women make up at least 80 percent of the garment industry there. They work for minimum wage, which is roughly $38 a month. Bangladesh now has the lowest labor costs in the world. Unions face daily intimidation and violence, and management accountability is limited.

Since the tragedy, the Bangladesh government has committed to a number of positive steps, including amending its labor laws, raising the minimum wage for garment workers, registering more trade unions and increasing the number of building inspectors. But similar promises have gone largely unfulfilled in past.

Bangladesh has a long way to go in creating a culture that is friendlier to workers – one that enforces pro-labor legislation, allows for freedom of association without repercussion and enforces building and fire inspection codes.

Global retailers must also do their part. Major European retailers have signed a binding building and fire safety agreement. Now U.S. retailers and manufacturers need to cooperate on a similar industry-wide plan that includes workplace safety standards, cost sharing for improvements and compensation for injured workers.

Without significant changes that can improve labor conditions and worker safety, the Obama administration should seriously consider suspending the Generalized System of Preferences benefits to Bangladesh, which are coming up for review. Suspending these tariff breaks would send a strong signal that Washington is serious about protecting workers and improving workplace safety.

Cheap goods from Bangladesh, paid for in the lives of its people, are no bargain. American and European consumers, global retailers, factory owners, the Obama administration and the Bangladeshi government need to come together to make real change.

If we don’t take collective action today, there will likely be another tragedy tomorrow.