US finds rights not well
Days after two dozen top global apparel buyers gathered in Dhaka to share concerns over persistent labour unrest, top US officials painted a grim picture of Bangladesh's human and labour rights situation in a Congress hearing Thursday.
This could ultimately affect the country's exports and trade relations with the US if immediate measures were not taken to improve the conditions.
The garment sector, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the exports, could bear the brunt as major buyers from the US and European countries had been continuing to express their unhappiness over the labour rights situation at factories in Bangladesh.
The buyers seemed very serious about the issue and they had even written two letters to the prime minister in the last three months urging her to intervene and improve the labour rights situation and try the killers of a labour leader.
Eric R Biel, acting assistant deputy undersecretary to the Department of Labour's Bureau of International Labour Affairs, told the Congress hearing on human rights situation in Bangladesh, "Working with colleagues at the State Department we reached out to leading companies within days of the Aminul Islam murder."
Aminul, a local leader of Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), one of the most important and credible local partners of the US advancing labour rights in Bangladesh, was found tortured and murdered after having been engaged in efforts to help factory workers form a union.
Robert O Blake, Jr, assistant secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, also voiced concerns over the involvement of Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) in extrajudicial killings and disappearances.
He also said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the US concern about the murder of labour rights activist Aminul and the disappearance of opposition leader Ilias Ali.
"The rights of workers were also front-and-centre on the Secretary's visit to Bangladesh. We have urged the government of Bangladesh to allow workers to freely form unions, and allow organisations that seek to protect worker's rights to operate freely."
"This is not only an ethical question, but also one that has the potential to have a huge impact on the Bangladeshi economy," he said.
Blake also said American and other foreign buyers were increasingly unwilling to have their valuable brand names associated with abuse of workers' rights and it was clearly in Bangladesh's interests to make progress on this issue.
The ready-made garments industry employs millions of Bangladeshis, 90 percent of who are women.
At the hearing, Biel said, "Violations in key sectors like ready-made garments and shrimp remain widespread, and the still-unresolved killing of Aminul Islam raises new concerns that those advocating on the front lines for the interests of Bangladeshi workers may remain targets of powerful interests opposed to such reforms.
"We join the Department of State in our commitment to continue to closely monitor the ongoing investigation of the Aminul killing in order to ensure transparency, accountability, and justice for his family, his colleagues at the BCWS, and others engaged in the effort to advocate for workers in Bangladesh and improve working conditions and their overall quality of life."
He said the concerns about labour rights in Bangladesh were significant and cut across key sectors of the Bangladesh economy. They included violations of freedom of association and unsafe working conditions in the rapidly-growing garment sector, as well as child labour in the “informal” garment sector, he said.
He said there were similar kinds of violations in shrimp farming and processing sectors; and widespread violations of freedom of association in the country's export processing zones (EPZs), which are governed by a separate set of labour laws.
The US official claimed that the US-based BCWS' advocacy for workers had made it the target of government hostility. "For example, the government has deregistered BCWS and, in 2010, filed criminal charges against its leaders. Those charges have yet to be dismissed, despite an absence of any clear evidence to support them."
The US official said they would continue to press senior government officials of Bangladesh for a resolution that would enable the BCWS to continue its important work.
Biel hinted that the US could use the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme, through which the US provides unilateral trade preferences to developing countries, to establish internationally-recognised workers' rights in Bangladesh.
The US had been engaged in a formal review of Bangladesh's compliance with the GSP eligibility criteria since 2007, when the AFL-CIO filed a petition alleging serious violations of labour rights in the country.
"That review continues," said Biel, according to the website of the US Department of Labour.
He said there were an estimated 3.5 million workers in the RMG sector. The recent growth in the sector had come with a high cost in terms of worker injuries and even deaths due to factory fires and other unsafe working conditions.
Biel also told the hearing that leading brands that source from Bangladesh have recently spoken out about labour violence, unsafe working conditions, and other labour rights concerns.
He said, "Trade associations representing major apparel, retail, footwear, and licensing industries doing business in Bangladesh wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on April 18 expressing deep concern about the killing and calling for a comprehensive, impartial, and prompt investigation followed by accountability for the perpetrators."
On June 21, a large group of key buyers of apparel and textile products from Bangladesh again wrote to the prime minister, highlighting in particular that the government of Bangladesh had not established any mechanism to adjust the minimum wage upward in order to keep pace with inflation and help address the basic needs of the workers, he said.
The top global apparel buyers who had met in Dhaka recently were also due to write to the prime minister about the conditions of the garment and textile sectors and the prospects of their business in Bangladesh.
Biel said buyers, particularly in the RMG sector, should do more to leverage their market power to help improve the labour conditions in Bangladesh.
The US is the single largest export destination for Bangladeshi garment items. The EU comprises 55 percent of the sector's annual export volume.
HRW ON BANGLADESH
The US government should continue to press Bangladesh to improve on labour issues and women's rights, reform abusive security forces, and meet its obligations to refugees, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.
In a hearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US Congress, John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of the US-based HRW, said, “The people of Bangladesh have suffered a great deal of human rights abuses under successive governments, abuses that have all too often been ignored outside of the country.”
He also said, “The situation in the country deserves regular and high-level attention from the US, the UN, and others.”
Sifton outlined key areas of concern in his testimony, including the murder of a prominent labour rights activist, harassment of domestic rights groups, ongoing abuses by Rab, the need to repeal antiquated discriminatory laws, and the country's failure to provide refuge to ethnic Rohingya fleeing Myanmar.