Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed yesterday bemoaned the unfavourable comments made by US Senator Robert Menendez recently on the state of worker rights in the garment sector.
“His comment astonished us. It was painful and unexpected,” said Ahmed, reacting to Menendez's remarks that the government lacks political will to protect union organisers of garment factories against “vicious attacks”.
Ahmed spoke to the media after a meeting with the visiting US delegation ahead of the inaugural meeting of the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement in Dhaka today.
He said the comment came at a time when the two countries are looking to settle their trade disputes by way of Ticfa to boost bilateral trade.
Menendez, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, issued a statement on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, in which he accused the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association of supporting anti-unionism in factories.
“Many factory owners in Bangladesh have suppressed the formation of unions in their factories by firing union leaders and, according to reports, some factory managers have been involved in vicious attacks on union organisers.”
He said the BGMEA “continues to represent the old guard of factory owners and has been reluctant to take any action against its members who engage in anti-union activity”.
The government, while making
progress in the registration of new unions, still lacks the institutional capacity and political will to protect them, Menendez said.
“This has had a chilling effect on labour organising in the country. Many workers now fear losing their jobs if they join a union and union organisers rightly fear for their own safety.”
“Without the strong voice of an independent factory union, workers have no mechanism to ensure their own safety. They cannot make sure that managers keep fire doors shut and stairwells clear, or that cracks in columns and walls are not simply painted over.”
If the BGMEA and the government do not take “immediate and concerted steps” to end the “suppression of fledgling unions”, it is “only a matter of time” before another large-scale tragedy hits the garment industry and the 'made in Bangladesh' brand is tarnished beyond repair, he said.
“The BGMEA and the government of Bangladesh must understand this simple message: Western consumers will not buy clothes that are stained with the blood of Bangladesh's workers.”
Meanwhile, Ahmed said while Tifca is a good platform for both countries, it has to be used effectively for increasing trade and investment in the country.
Michael J Delaney, assistant US Trade Representative for South Asia, who would leading the five-member US delegation in the Ticfa talks, said the relationship between the two countries have progressed substantially over the last one year.
“We have a good opportunity to grow—we can grow trade and investment through holding the Tifca.”
In the Ticfa meeting today, Bangladesh will discuss mainly duty-free market access to the US market, restoration of Generalised System of Preferences status and waiver in trade in services and investment.
As for the US, it has drafted in a modest agenda comprising issues like the review of bilateral trade, progress made with the GSP action plan and US investment in Bangladesh.
The US also plans to discuss market access for goods and services, tariff structure of fire, electrical and structural equipment, as Bangladesh will have to import them to ensure workplace safety.
In 2013, the country imported $712 million of goods from the US and exported goods worth $5.4 billion, according to data from the United States Trade Representative. The US' goods trade deficit with Bangladesh stood at $4.6 billion in 2013.
After a decade of waiting and observation, Bangladesh on November 25 last year signed the Ticfa, a platform for resolving trade disputes between two countries.