Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed yesterday criticised six US Congressmen who in a recent letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed concern over alleged intimidation and harassment of labour activists in Bangladesh.
“Sending such a letter to the Prime Minister is indecent. I hope they [the Congressmen] will not interfere in our internal affairs,” the minister told reporters after a meeting with US Ambassador Dan W Mozena at his secretariat in Dhaka.
“Still, I am sending letters in a couple of days to the Congressmen and USTR Chief Michael Froman inviting them to visit factories in Bangladesh,” Ahmed said.
The Congressmen wrote to Hasina following recent comments on labour rights and workers' freedom of association by the commerce minister and the president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
In the letter, they called upon the government to create a friendly working environment where workers, factory owners, police and the ministers will come together to support workers' rights and their freedom of association. “Public statements to the contrary by the government and industry officials are not only inappropriate, they send signals that are unhelpful to our common goals,” the letter read.
The minister termed the letter a highly political one. "They are not aware of the progress that Bangladesh has made in improving workplace safety after the Rana Plaza building collapse. Only one of the six Congressmen visited Bangladesh,” Ahmed said.
On media reports that a trade union leader had sent a letter to the US Congressmen on torture of workers in Bangladesh, the minister said the trade union leader has denied ever having sent such a letter.
Ahmed also said he does not see any problem in regaining the generalised system of preferences in the US market, as the government has already taken a lot of steps to improve workplace safety.
The US government will review the GSP status of Bangladesh in December. "So, we will fulfil all the remaining conditions [to regain the GSP] by December," he said.
Bangladesh never enjoyed duty benefits for exports of garment items to the US market, Ahmed said, adding that Bangladeshi garment exporters paid $828 million as duty to the US customs last year and $3.41 billion in the last five years.
After the meeting, Mozena said, though significant progress has been made in improving workplace safety, the country needs to do more to get back GSP.
The obstacles that still remain include hiring new factory inspectors, populating the recently-launched factory database, and enacting the implementing rules for labour reform legislation, the envoy said.
Mozena also stressed bringing the export processing zones into conformity with Bangladesh's national labour law.
“Unfair labour practices, especially crackdowns on labour activists, are not acceptable and must stop immediately,” he said.