In wake of devastating factory collapse, U.S. senators press reforms in Bangladesh apparel industry

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 6, 2013 

— Key senators on Thursday urged the Obama administration and U.S. retail companies to press for change in Bangladesh’s apparel industry after an April building collapse killed more than 1,100 factory workers.

At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senators leveled a new round of harsh criticism on an industry they said has consistently failed to reform its operations.

“When do we go from saber-rattling to some action?” asked Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the committee’s chairman. “Because while we have seen some movement in laws that have been proposed and or passed, we have seen very little, if any, enforcement at the end of the day.”

At the hearing, officials from the State and Labor Departments and an official from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative volleyed with lawmakers over what steps the U.S. should take in the disaster’s aftermath. Senators called on both the White House and major American retailers to bring collaborative sanctions against Bangladeshi clothing manufacturers.

With an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 factories within its borders, Bangladesh’s apparel industry employs roughly 4 million workers, 80 percent of them women. Cheap labor and lax standards for workers’ rights and workplace safety draw retailers from around the world. The country’s annual exports top $24 billion.

But despite the size of the industry, government oversight is startlingly lacking.

“Currently, given the size of the sector, the fact that you’ve got only a double-digit number of labor inspectors is something that’s an obvious shortcoming,” said Eric Biel, acting associate deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

Lewis Karesh, an assistant trade representative, told lawmakers that the administration is also seriously considering suspending the South Asian nation’s “generalized system of preferences” benefits, which currently allow up to 5,000 Bangladeshi products to enter the U.S. duty-free. One of the requirements for benefit eligibility is that nations must focus on human rights, Karesh said.

Suspension of these benefits would have to come from the president. Karesh said at the hearing that the White House will decide the issue by the end of the month.

Despite the symbolism of such a move, committee members questioned whether the action would have real repercussions for a clothing industry that exports $4.9 billion worth of goods to the U.S. each year, with only a small percentage being part of the generalized system of preferences benefit program.

Senators also pushed for American retailers to establish moral standards for trade with Bangladesh. European retailers, senators said, recently signed an agreement that enhances workers’ rights and safety standards for Bangladeshi factory employees. While American companies have explored similar options, a retail representative told the committee that no agreements have been made.

Bangladeshi government leaders have sent a comprehensive labor reform act to their Parliament, and U.S. officials said they hope it will be passed by the end of June.

Despite the latest attempt at legislation, Senate committee leaders weren’t convinced the industry will see change from within. They urged American retailers to commit to a set of standards before Washington has to step in.

“Either get your act together and establish standards, or find yourself with standards you may not care for,” Menendez told retail industry representative Johan Lubbe. “And I hope that’s the message you take back to the industry today.”

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