Let us not give up ……
The US recently suspended Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) for Bangladesh. Suspension can be reinstated in a year provided Bangladesh government and vendors comply with all the conditions the US government wants them to.
GSP programme has been designed to benefit both the US and the exporting countries. Products from selected developing and least developed countries are eligible for GSP privileges (duty-free access to US markets). Almost all Bangladeshi exports are eligible for GSP benefits, but its main export to USA, RMG, is not.
Some people argue we are in trouble due to this suspension. Although immediate loss for Bangladesh RMG is insignificant, in the long run this may lead to loss of our duty-free status for RMG in EU and other markets. Others disagree and claim that we can turn this crisis into an opportunity if we respond positively to Bangladesh Action Plan 2013 the US government has asked Bangladesh government for compliance.
By satisfying the USTR and pressure groups of USA, Bangladesh may even create a new widow for negotiation to get duty-free access for RMG into US market in future. It sounds like a long shot, but may be conceivable in the distant future. It will, however, depend on changes in the behaviour of vendors of Alliance and economic diplomacy of the government.
The crisis has been caused by carelessness and non-compliant behaviour of some factory owners who mainly count their profits and rarely improve the hazardous conditions in which the workers work. The history of garment industry is full of fires, building collapses and fights between workers and factory owners on wages, leading to deaths of many workers.
The buyers and US government had expressed their displeasure in the past because factory owners did not take adequate measures to recognise the workers' rights. The Rana Plaza episode changed displeasure into anger, resulting in suspension. EU buyers also got concerned and formed a separate platform, called Accord with an Action Plan, similar to that of Alliance. EU, however, did not suspend GSP facilities.
US and European consumers do not buy garments produced in sweatshops. There are pressure groups that prevent retailers from importing garments from countries where workers are forced to work under unacceptable working conditions; there is a lack of adequate fire and building safety; service rules are not of international standard; minimum wages are too low; workers do not have freedom of association, etc.
If Bangladesh wants reinstatement it must implement the Action Plan provided by the US government/Alliance. It must also comply with Accord Action Plan to avoid possible future suspension of duty-free access by EU. The situation has become more sensitive after the fire at Aswad garment factory on October 9, when stakeholders were busy in resolving the problems created by Rana Plaza collapse. Bangladesh will need to work harder to prove that it will be able to meet the expectation of US and EU.
To help the RMG industry leaders and the government, the Alliance and Accord have started factory inspection programmes. US buyers formed a consortium of 22 retailers, called "The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety," with Bangladesh Action Plan 2013 to implement them. EU retailers formed an 87 member consortium called the "Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh." According to Alliance, "The safety record of Bangladesh factories is unacceptable and requires the collective effort of vendors, Bangladesh government, buyers, workers and international organisations."
The Action Plans include inspection of about 600 factories by Alliance and 1,500 by Accord. The government will inspect the rest of the factories. Complications sometimes arise in inspection. In one case a difference of opinion emerged. After inspection, the Accord Team declared the building completely unfit for use by a garment factory. However, the owners took a second opinion from a Buet professor who found part of the building structurally safe. (Source: Talk-Show-Tritiyomatra, 5-10-2013). Such debate will delay the process and diminish the hope of meeting the deadline of reinstatement. For Bangladesh, a positive response to the outcome of inspection by both Accord and Alliance is important for reinstatement of suspension.
Bangladesh does not have much choice. Either it complies with Action Plan or it sees the RMG industries consisting of more than 4,000 factories that employ more than 4 million workers, about 78% of whom are women, perish. In spite of warnings from the government, complaints from the buyers, labour leaders, civil society and the workers themselves, working environment has been poor in most factories.
After Tazreen fire in which 112 workers died BGMEA promised to de-list 600 non-compliant factories. But they did not do it. BGMEA simply warned several factories but it was ineffective. This is one reason that the Alliance and Accord members are determined to carry out inspection as per their own Plan.
US sponsored Bangladesh Action Plan 2013 is in fact a checklist. Bangladesh is required to implement it in its totality, including labour law reforms. Bangladesh does not have much choice if it wants to maintain its leading position in the global RMG market. The vendors must cooperate with the teams of Alliance and Accord to inspect the fire preventive measures and structures of factory buildings in the way they want to. More importantly, vendors must take all the remedial measures recommended by the Alliance and Accord. Compliance is the most important requirement. Gaining reinstatement of suspension is an uphill task, but not impossible. We must not give up trying and must not give up hope of reaching the goal.
The writer is Professor Emeritus, Brac University.
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