Decision on next steps by June
The United States on Thursday said withdrawal of Generalised System of Preferences facility for Bangladesh was under consideration and the decision on it would be announced by the end of June.
‘All options remain under consideration, including possible suspension, limitation or withdrawal of GSP benefits,’ said Lewis Karesh, who handles labour issues for the US Trade Representative’s office.
‘The administration will announce a decision on next steps in the GSP review of Bangladesh by the end of June,’ he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The US urged action by the Bangladesh authorities to improve labour rights following a massive factory collapse at Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24.
After a call by US unions, the Barack Obama’s administration in January launched a review on whether to keep Bangladesh in the GSP, which provides duty-free access for about 5,000 goods to the US.
The review was under way when Rana Plaza, an eight-storey garment factory, crumbled and killed 1,130 people, mostly garment workers, despite concerns expressed previously by workers over the building’s integrity.
Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the committee, sounded supportive on the suspension of Bangladesh. He noted that the GSP did not cover textiles, which were by far the South Asian nation’s largest export to the United States.
‘While only a small fraction of Bangladesh’s exports would be affected, given ongoing violations of the GSP workers’ right criteria, GSP suspension would send a strong signal that the United States is serious about protecting workers and improving workplace safety,’ Menendez said.
‘No one will want to wear a piece of clothing made in Bangladesh if it’s on the blood of workers,’ Menendez said.
But Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said that Bangladesh had been responsive to appeals by the United States, saying that the country had allowed the registration of 27 trade unions since September.
He said Bangladesh has given assurances its parliament will pass amendments this month to its labour law to address freedom of association and worker safety. But he added, ‘There’s a great deal of corruption and governance challenges that still need to be met.’
‘Our hope is that Bangladesh will seize the current moment to strengthen labour rights and improve working conditions. This administration wants to see Bangladesh succeed,’ Blake said.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster, more than 40 companies — most from Europe — have signed on to an agreement that would include independent monitoring of factory conditions and a stronger role for labour unions.
But only three US companies have joined, with US retail giants Walmart and Gap opposed.
Blake said that the decision to enter the accord was up to each company but that the US government has asked firms ‘to carefully examine what they can do to support improved working conditions in Bangladesh.’
‘Had there been a union representative on the ground at Rana Plaza, that tragedy would not have happened,’ Blake told the hearing.
Senator John McCain cautioned against such hasty US action, warning it could ratchet up unemployment in an impoverished country.
But Celeste Drake, a trade and policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, was scathing about Bangladesh’s failure to respond to a string of deadly industrial accidents.
‘What’s the body count that you need to really make changes?’ she told lawmakers. ‘We are well beyond what anyone would need to see as evidence that the government’s very feeble efforts and the voluntary compliance programs of the corporations simply are not working.’
The AFL-CIO filed the petition seeking withdrawal of GSP benefits in 2007, which was expedited late last year amid concern from US lawmakers over deteriorating labour rights and the April 2012 killing of prominent labour activist, Aminul Islam — a case that has not been solved.
Eric Biel, the Labour Department’s acting associate deputy undersecretary for international affairs, said there currently were less than 100 government inspectors in Bangladesh to monitor between 4,000 and 5,000 factories that employ some 4 million people, 80 per cent of them women.
Bangladesh’s ambassador to the US Akramul Qader, who attended the hearing but did not testify, defended his government’s record, saying it had improved worker rights and increased the minimum wage. Authorities have closed 20 unsafe factories since the Rana Plaza disaster, he said.
‘We are trying our best,’ Qader said.
While the GSP covers less than 1 per cent of Bangladesh’s nearly $5 billion in exports to the US and doesn’t include the lucrative garment sector, it could deter American companies from investing in Bangladesh and sway a decision by European Union, which is also considering withdrawing GSP privileges. EU action could have a much bigger economic impact, as its duty-free privileges cover garments.
-With New Age input