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Chairman Menendez Opening Remarks at the Hearing, “Prospects for Democratic Reconciliation and Workers' Rights in Bangladesh”

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the below statement, as prepared for delivery, at today’s hearing, “Prospects for Democratic Reconciliation and Workers' Rights in Bangladesh.”

The remarks follow:

“We meet this morning to discuss U.S. policy in Bangladesh following the controversial January election and ensuing political stalemate.

We also meet for a status update on the rights of Bangladesh's garment workers following the fire at Tazreen Fashions in November 2012 and the collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013, which together killed more than 1,200 workers.

This committee met last June to highlight the challenge faced by workers in Bangladesh.  By meeting again here today, I hope that all those involved – the retailers, factory owners, Bangladeshi government, and workers – understand that this committee remains sharply focused on this issue and will continue to be so until we see real and measurable progress. 

We have, joining us today the first survivor of the Rana Plaza tragedy to visit the United States. She is 19 year old Reba Sikdar who was trapped for two days in a tiny space with 30 others. Only 6 of the 30 survived and we’re pleased that she is joining us here for this hearing.

The tragic details of her story, which, without objection, I would like to enter into the record, are exactly why we will continue to pursue workers’ rights with the Bangladeshi government.

In my view, if the workers of Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza had been able to organize and represent their interests, they would still be alive today.

Simply put, workers are the best guarantors of their own safety when given the right and ability to organize.

In June of last year, this Committee met to discuss efforts to improve labor conditions in Bangladesh.

In November, to mark the one-year anniversary of the Tazreen Fashions fire, The Committee produced a report recommending that the U.S. government expand programs in Bangladesh that improve workers’ ability to organize and engage in collective bargaining. That U.S. brands and retailers should ensure their suppliers in Bangladesh comply with laws allowing workers to organize unions and educate workers in their factories in Bangladesh on their rights of association, organization, and collective bargaining.  And that the government of Bangladesh should crackdown on factory owners who engage in anti-union activity and reform all labor laws to meet international standards.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on whether there has been any progress on any of these recommendations.

We are well aware that any progress we make on labor issues is taking place in a very tenuous political environment. Bangladesh's main opposition group, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted January's election and, as a result, the parliament does not include one of Bangladesh's largest political parties.

In December, this committee passed a resolution which emphasized the critical need for political dialogue in Bangladesh. Led by Senator Durbin, the resolution sent the right message at the right time.  Unfortunately, the leaders of the two main parties have still not agreed on a path forward toward democratic reconciliation.

Last month I sent letters to Bangladesh’s political leaders telling them that the political deadlock will further weaken the confidence of international investors and strongly urged that they begin negotiations on new elections that are free, fair, peaceful and inclusive. The people of Bangladesh deserve no less.

I look forward to hearing what political progress, if any, is being made.

On our first panel is Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.

Eric Biel, Acting Associate Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs – Bureau of International Affairs at the Department of Labor.

And Mr. Lewis Karesh, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for the Labor Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Thank you all for being here.

Let me remind you, your opening statements will be included in the record in their entirety, but if you could please summarize them in five minutes we can proceed with questioning."

Introduction of Second Panel

"Let me introduce our second panel this morning.

They are Ellen Tauscher, Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Ellen it is good to see you again.

Scott Nova is Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium. Mr Nova is here to represent the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

And Ms. Kalpona Akter has come from Dhaka where she is the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. We are honored to have her join us today.

Thank you all for being here.

Again, let me remind you, your opening statements will be included in the record in their entirety, but if you could please summarize them in five minutes we can proceed with questioning.”