By David Bergman and Shakahwat Hossain
The Awami League government paid a Washington-based law firm up to $60,000 to lobby the US government against withdrawing GSP tax privileges for Bangladesh in the weeks immediately before the suspension decision was taken, New Age can reveal.
In a letter to the foreign ministry, dated 17 May 2013, the law firm said that it would work at a rate of $10,000 per week in the ‘remaining 2-6 weeks before the expected determination.’
‘We will help Bangladesh ensure that it has made all potential arguments regarding the basis for its continued eligibility,’ Gare Smith, a partner at Foley Hoag LLP stated.
The foreign ministry has also agreed to pay the law firm a further $360,000 over a 12 months period until June 2014 in order to ‘change the negative perceptions regarding the government’s commitment to labour rights and its willingness to address significant challenges in terms of worker safety in the garment sector.’
President Obama made his decision to suspend the eligibility of Bangladesh for tariff benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences on
27 June – six weeks after the law firm’s letter.
The US trade representative at the time, Michael Froman, stated that the GSP statute required ‘certain basic standards for worker rights and worker safety as a condition of eligibility’ but that despite ‘clear, repeated expressions of concern, the U.S. Government has not seen sufficient progress towards those reforms.’
Froman pointed out that the Tazreen fire in November 2012 and the collapse of Rana Plaza buildings in April 2013 ‘served to highlight some of the serious shortcomings in worker rights and workplace safety standards in Bangladesh.’
This new lobbying disclosure comes a week after the prime minster, during her trip to Washington, is reported to have told a delegation from the US Chamber of Commerce, ‘The suspension of GSP in the name of safety, compliance and welfare of the RMG workers doesn’t justify it. The GSP suspension instead of ensuring safety compliance will affect the workers.’
On Sept 29, New Age revealed that the Bangladesh government had also agreed to pay $100,000 to the lobby firm BGR Public Relations in order to influence opinion in the US about the war crimes trials.
In his letter to the Foreign Ministry, written five weeks before the US government made its decision on the GSP preferences, Gare Smith said, ‘This is a critical time for Bangladesh.’
The letter stated that during this short period, the law firm would help the Bangaldesh government to ‘communicate’ with ‘key stakeholders’ including the US trade representative, congressional leaders and various bureaus within the state department ‘with regard to labour rights, labour law reform, and employment initiatives.’
Following the decision, the law firm said that it would then ‘help Bangladesh carry out a comprehensive stakeholder engagement strategy in Washington as part of a broader effort to change negative perceptions regarding the government’s commitment to labour rights and its willingness to address signification challenged in terms of workers safety in the garment sector.’
The contract was signed by the Foreign Secretary on the same day the letter was dated.
A paragraph in the contract which stated that the law firm would separately bill for long distance telephone calls, photocopying and travel expenses, was scribbled over and initialed by both parties.
In July 2013, the US trade representative published an action plan for the Bangladesh government to implement if it wished to regain its trade privileges, which would require an increase in the number of labour, fire and building inspectors, improvements in their training and establishment of clear procedures for independent and credible inspections.
The plan also called for increased fines and sanctions, including loss of import and export licenses, for failure to comply with labour, fire, or building standards and changes in the law to address concerns related to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Source: New Age