I grew up in the labour movement. I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, a city so famous for producing automobiles that it was called “Vehicle City.” As the capital of the US automobile industry, my home state of Michigan was in the forefront of the booming mid-century American economy—and the labour movement that bolstered it.
My father worked in a General Motors automobile factory for 37 years as a United Auto Workers labour leader. He taught me that all workers have the right to dignity and justice in the workplace, a fair wage, a grievance system, safety protections, and the right to organise themselves.
The United States honours its workers with a national Labour Day holiday on the first Monday of every September. Today, I also honour the Bangladeshi workers I’ve had the privilege to meet in all eight administrative divisions during my first year as US Ambassador to Bangladesh.
In my travels across this remarkable country, I’ve toured garment and steel factories, ship-breaking sites, farms, and shrimp-processing plants. I’ve seen the workers in Bangladesh’s informal recycling sectors collecting and separating the smallest electronics components and plastic pieces to keep them out of rivers and the waste stream and give them a new life. I’ve admired the incredible coordination required to fulfil international orders on short notice and produce some of the most beautiful textiles in the world.
I’ve met with parents who leave their children at home in their villages in order to earn money in cities to build a better life. Everywhere I’ve visited, I’ve seen the resilience and spirit of workers building a better future for this extraordinary nation. And I’ve also seen the incredible progress made when employers and employees come together to build a better, safer workplace.
One of my priorities as Ambassador is to expand the already strong economic ties between our great nations. Did you know that Bangladesh supplied nearly USD 7 billion in goods to the United States in the last year? Of that total, around 85 percent came from the ready-made garment (RMG) sector, including woven apparel, knit apparel, footwear, and other textiles. RMG workers—all four to five million of them—are an enormously important driver of Bangladesh’s impressive economic growth.
Equally impressive are the safety improvements made in the six years since the Rana Plaza tragedy. In 2013, international brands made a commitment to set standards and invest in the safety of factory workers who make their products. They formed two initiatives to focus on improving fire, structural, and electrical safety in Bangladeshi factories. Twenty-nine global apparel companies, retailers, and brands representing the majority of North American imports of ready-made garments from Bangladesh formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety to work with factory owners on safety improvements. Another 220 global apparel brands and retailers signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
In their initial five-year terms, the Alliance and the Accord together oversaw the full remediation of life-threatening safety issues in over 700 factories, remediated 90 percent of the hazards identified in 1,400 additional factories, and suspended around 350 factories. The Alliance also trained over 1.6 million workers, 28,878 security guards, and factory managers in fire safety. After the Alliance completed its term in December 2018, several former members launched Nirapon, a locally managed organisation to monitor the ongoing safety, training and helpline efforts of the 600 factories from which Nirapon members source.
At the end of its five-year term, the Accord had completed 90 percent of its remediation work and, in May 2019, was granted permission by the Bangladesh Supreme Court to continue operating for one year. The “Transition Accord,” with over 200 brand and retailer signatories, will hand over Accord Bangladesh operations to a national entity consisting of representatives of the Bangladesh Garment (and Knitwear) Manufacturers and Exporters Associations, global brands, and global and national trade unions.
This admirable progress needs everyone’s support. If we continue to work together and recognise and address areas where improvements are needed, I believe the world could come to see “Made in Bangladesh” as the gold standard for quality products and worker safety and rights.
Earl R Miller is the US Ambassador to Bangladesh.