Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed yesterday accused IndustriALL Bangladesh Council of acting against the country's interests by secretly writing to the US that garment workers are being harassed here.
Without naming the organisation, Ahmed said: “This organisation has written that garment workers are harassed and repressed in Bangladesh.”
The minister, however, said Nazrul Islam Khan, a senior leader of BNP, and Roy Ramesh Chandra, a former senior leader of Sramik League, are respectively the chairman and secretary general of the organisation.
“They sent the letter to the US secretly. I would not have known about the harassment of garment workers had I not travelled to Washington,” Ahmed said at a media briefing at his secretariat office on his visit to the US capital on June 10-14.
During the visit, Ahmed met senior officials of the Obama administration, including those from the United States Trade Representative (USTR).
The minister did not reveal though whether the government would take any initiative against those who sent the letter.
But he added: “Of course, it has to be taken into consideration. We will definitely think about the issue as the letter goes against the interest of the country.”
Chandra, however, denied that the local chapter of IndustriALL, a global union federation, has sent any such letter to the US government.
“His comments are not based on facts. They are baseless. He got perplexed over misinformation,” he told The Daily Star.
The labour leader went on to urge the minister to publish the letter if he has any.
Ahmed said a complaint cell has been opened in his ministry, where allegations of worker harassment were brought in against 19 factories. Ensuing investigations, however, found no existence of such harassments.
“Rather, we have heard that workers have harassed managers in some factories.”
The minister was mainly in the US to chair a seminar, “Globalisation and Sustainability of Bangladesh Garment Industry” at the Harvard University.
During the tour, he had meetings with Nisha Desai Biswal, US assistant secretary of state; US Trade Representative Michael Froman; Catherine A Novelli, under-secretary of the US State Department; and seven Congressmen.
“They have expressed satisfaction about the progress Bangladesh has achieved after the collapse of Rana Plaza building,” Ahmed said.
The minister hopes that the US would soon withdraw the suspension of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), allowing Bangladesh to sell products, except garments, in the key export market duty-free.
“If we don't get back the GSP even after taking so many steps, we will think that Bangladesh has not got the GSP back due to political or other considerations. We have already sent them a letter about the progress we have made so far.” In June last year, the US suspended Bangladesh's trade benefits under the GSP, citing the country's failure in ensuring internationally-recognised worker rights.
Following the suspension, Washington laid out an action plan to help the country win back the GSP. The plans comprises reforming labour laws, improving labour, fire and building standards, and removing obstacles to workers' freedom of association and collective bargaining.
“We have implemented most of the 16 conditions. They have expressed pleasure about the progress in many areas. They have also asked us to speed up the processes where there has been limited progress.”
However, no country in the world currently enjoys the GSP benefits from the US following its expiry in 2013.
“If the GSP is revived by the US Congress, then the suspension order against Bangladesh will be withdrawn. There is no reason why Bangladesh won't get back the GSP.”
Ahmed said he had informed the US government about a survey conducted by the Democracy International for the USAID and the UK aid.
The survey, which studied factories and workers, showed that 80 percent of the respondents believe that there is no worker repression in the country, he said.
The minister mentioned labour leaders Kalpona Akter and Babul Akter of Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, who have become reference points for Bangladesh in the west.
“Foreigners name them but none of them are garment workers. They were never elected by garment workers to become their leaders. Garment workers want that their trade union leaders are elected by their own votes,” Ahmed said quoting the survey.
The minister reaffirmed his government's commitment to improving working conditions in factories, while citing the duty-free benefits for imports of equipment needed to improve health and safety conditions as a case in point. “The negative perception about Bangladesh has petered out following my US visit.”