After several deadly factory disasters in Bangladesh --- including the collapse of an eight-story garment factory last month that left at least 1,127 people dead -- labour advocates are stepping up pressure on the Obama administration, calling for it to convey its disapproval of working conditions in the country by revoking its special trade status.
But federal officials remain conflicted over the American government's responsibility for safer labour conditions overseas, and in meetings in recent weeks they disagreed over what combination of carrots and sticks would work best to achieve this goal.
Some officials, particularly in the State Department, say that if trade status is revoked, Washington will lose its leverage to pressure Bangladesh to improve building codes and labour rights. Labour advocates and officials from the Labour Department counter, however, that this leverage is lost anyway if the administration is never willing to use it.
“By failing to take serious action before now even in the face of phenomenal, unprecedented death of workers, US trade officials have already sent the wrong message to Bangladesh,” said Brian Campbell, policy and legal programmes director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a workers advocacy group. “It's time to send a strong signal.”
Bangladesh is among more than 125 countries that receive breaks on United States tariffs under a World Trade Organization program, the Generalized System of Preferences, intended to promote economic growth around the globe. The United States trade representative is to decide the fate of the country's trade status in June.
In meetings this month to discuss the disasters, officials from the State and Labor Departments agreed that Bangladesh had failed to improve labour rights sufficiently but they disagreed over what to do about it.
Some State Department officials argued that taking away Bangladesh's preferential trade status would damage diplomatic relations with a country that has faced repeated Islamist threats and hurt its economy, which has lately averaged trade-fueled growth of about 6 percent a year.
Bangladesh's garment industry does not enjoy American duty-free status, though other sectors in the country do. But State Department officials said that a decision by the Obama administration to scale back benefits might prompt foreign brands to reduce orders from the country. It might also lead the European Union, which does exempt the garment industry from tariffs, to revoke this status.
But Labor Department officials argued that more pressure was urgently needed. In December, American officials gave the Bangladeshi government a list of areas requiring improvement in order for the country to avoid losing its status. But there has been minimal progress, officials said. The list called for an end to government harassment of labour organisers and greater rights for workers in the country's special export processing zones.
During these meetings, American trade officials also pointed out that under the trade agreement they are required to certify that countries receiving trade privileges meet certain eligibility standards, including the protection of internationally recognised worker rights, which are widely ignored in Bangladesh.
Federal labour officials also said the administration should publicly apply pressure on retailers like the Gap and Walmart to sign an international accord providing for a binding inspection programme and mandatory improvements in workplace safety, according to officials who participated in the meetings but are not authorised to speak to reporters.
Many major European retailers have signed the international accord but most American retailers have cited liability concerns, opting to do their own audits of factory conditions. Eight Democratic senators wrote on May 16 to retailers including Wal-Mart Stores, Target and Kohl's, arguing that this type of self-monitoring has proved to be ineffective and urging the companies to reconsider signing the accord.
On Thursday, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a group based in Washington, said it was working with retailers including Wal-Mart Stores, Gap and Target to put into effect a programme to improve fire and safety regulations in Bangladeshi garment factories.
The State Department declined to answer specific questions about the trade status. But in a written statement, Patrick Ventrell, the acting deputy spokesman, said that his office continued to convey its hope directly to the Bangladeshi government that it would “take additional steps to improve worker rights, including the right to freely associate and engage in collective bargaining.”
In a letter to members of Congress this month, Dan Mozena, the ambassador to Bangladesh, argued that good relations with Bangladesh were vital to regional security and United States strategic interests and that labour conditions were improving.
Earlier this year, the Bangladeshi government emphasised the same point in meetings with American trade officials.
“Compliance with rights, including labour rights, will necessarily be gradual” in poor countries, the top civil servant in Bangladesh's Commerce Ministry said at a March hearing held by the trade representative's office.
Bangladesh's garment sector represents roughly $19 billion in annual revenue and employs nearly four million workers, most of them women. It sells more than $4.5 billion worth of goods to the United States each year.
American trade officials say their frustration was growing even before the recent disasters.
“This has been a long process of one step forward, two steps backwards,” said an official from the United States trade representative's office, who was not authorised to speak on the record. The official added that Bangladesh had its trade status reviewed previously in 1990 and 1999 for many of the same labour violations that remain problems now. The trade status was not revoked because the Bangladeshi government made commitments to improve, the official said.
In 2007, the AFL-CIO petitioned the United States trade representative to take a tougher posture toward the Bangladeshi government by revoking the country's trade benefits.
“If the country improves and enforces its own laws, real change can happen for these workers,” Cathy Feingold, international director of the AFL-CIO, said on Thursday.
One of the biggest concerns among American officials has been the treatment of Bangladeshi labour activists.
Last April, Aminul Islam, a prominent worker advocate, was found dead, his body bearing signs of torture.
Reporters in Bangladesh said there was evidence that the government's security forces might have been tied to the death. No one has yet been arrested.
According to American diplomats and labour officials, there has been little progress in the investigation.