US Senator Robert Menendez has urged the Bangladesh government and the BGMEA to take immediate steps to end the suppression of fledgling trade unions by readymade garment workers.
“If the BGMEA and the government of Bangladesh 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 Bangladesh’s garment industry, and the ‘made in Bangladesh’ brand is tarnished beyond repair,” the senator said.
Menendez, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, issued the statement on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy.
“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,” he said.
In the statement, Menendez said, “One year ago this week, the world’s conscience was shocked by the deaths of over 1,130 Bangladeshi garment workers when Rana Plaza, the building which housed their factories, collapsed on top of them.”
Following the incident, the US government has suspended trade benefits for Bangladesh until it takes several concrete steps to improve workers’ rights and safety, said Menendez.
The International Labor Organization has initiated its largest-ever safe factories programme in Bangladesh and coordinated safety inspections, as well as compensation for the victims of Rana Plaza, he mentioned.
International retailers have taken important initial steps to address building and worker safety in Bangladesh, he added.
Menedez claimed that 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.
“The industry association for Bangladesh’s garment factory owners, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (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,” he said.
The US senator said the government of Bangladesh, while making progress in the registration of new unions, still lacks the institutional capacity and political will to protect them, which has had make 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, he said.
“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,” he added.