The US plans to establish separate committees on labour and women's empowerment under the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement to ensure due rights for workers and spur women's participation in the economy.
Michael J Delaney, assistant US trade representative for South Asia, said the dedicated committees would enable the two countries to jointly work on the important issues with an interagency and inter-ministerial team of experts.
The trade negotiator, who is currently in the capital leading a five-member US delegation for the inaugural Ticfa talks today, is optimistic about the efficacy of the arrangement, inked in November last year after decades of negotiations.
“I have long felt that we have not been well served by the absence of a regular, formal trade and investment dialogue between our countries, so I attach considerable importance to the launch of the Ticfa,” he said during a meeting with business leaders at Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the capital.
“We hope to accomplish much in this forum—we have a considerable bilateral trade and investment relationship, but I believe these numbers are only a fraction of the potential.”
In 2013, bilateral trade exceeded $6 billion, up by more than 50 percent on 2009, when it was $4 billion, Delaney said, while highlighting the growing bilateral
economic and commercial relationship.
The US diplomat said the Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza collapse were calls to action for Bangladesh and also for the many international retailers who source goods from Bangladesh's factories.
“As the Triangle Shirtwaist factory tragedy sparked reforms that helped my country create a safer and fairer environment for American workers, the Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza tragedies may one day be looked back upon as watershed events for Bangladeshi workers' rights.”
Delaney said the greatest challenge Bangladesh's garment industry faces is the reputational risk that the twin tragedies have highlighted.
“So far, we have seen a great willingness on the part of some elements of the private sector to roll up their sleeves and help address the labour challenges that the industry faces.”
He said the purpose of suspending trade benefits for Bangladesh was not to penalise the country but to send a strong signal about the urgent need to establish internationally-recognised worker rights in Bangladesh.
Delaney also said there needs to be concerted effort on the part of factory owners and investors along with the international brands that source from them to ensure that they are meeting their responsibilities to uphold the laws of Bangladesh and respect human rights.
He expressed particular concern about the reports of harassment and violence that newly formed unions are facing as they attempt to engage factory management with worker concerns.
“There is the potential for these cases of anti-union actions to become the latest “news” story about Bangladesh—the industry and the country cannot afford to let this happen.”
It is “critical” to the future success of the industry that these problems are addressed directly and that effective mechanisms for labour-management relations are developed, Delaney said.
Responding to a query about offering duty-free access to garment products to the US market, he said the issue is hinging on the outcome of the World Trade Organisation's Doha Round negotiations.
He said Bangladesh matters greatly to the US, as it sets an important example in the region and the world as a moderate, secular, Muslim-majority democracy of 160 million people. “The United States believes that Bangladesh is the key to developing trade and economic corridors between South and South East Asia.”
On the reinstatement of Generalised System of Preferences status, he said there has, without question, been a tremendous effort among all the stakeholders to develop concrete and sustainable solutions to the worker rights and safety challenges Bangladesh faces.
“However, I think we all recognise that much work remains to be done, and work that has been started needs to be seen through to its completion."
US Ambassador Dan Mozena, DCCI President Mohammad Shahjahan Khan and AmCham Aftab ul-Islam also spoke.