A move by the United States to suspend Bangladesh’s special trading privileges to compel the country to improve its deplorable working conditions should pressure Canada and the European Union to do the same, labour advocates say.
President Barack Obama’s administration announced Thursday it is ending Bangladesh’s special trading benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preference program, which allows for nearly $40 million worth of goods to be imported duty-free.
“This was not a decision taken lightly by the administration,” said U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.
The stick also comes with a carrot. U.S. officials will work with the Bangladeshi government to restore benefits if action is taken to improve safety conditions.
The move is both a reaction to the recent Rana Plaza disaster, when more than 1,120 people died when the building housing several garment factories collapsed, as well as a response to a petition filed six years ago by American labour unions with long-standing concerns over industrial accidents and deteriorating workers’ rights in Bangladesh.
The April 24 collapse shone a spotlight on the horrible conditions endured by labourers in the South Asian country, who toil long hours in decrepit buildings for low pay so westerners can buy cheap fashions.
It does not appear Ottawa has any plans to follow the American lead, calling the move largely “symbolic” as it doesn’t apply to the garment industry.
A finance ministry official told the Star that Canada is “concerned about working conditions in the global ready-made garment sector” and supports efforts to improve standards.
Canada’s Least-Developed Country Tariff program provides duty-free access to most imports from 49 countries, including Bangladesh. The program was created to promote economic development in poor countries, the official said.
With no tariffs on Bangladesh’s garment imports to Canada, cheaply made clothing flows easily into the country. In 2003, only $330 million worth of garments were imported from Bangladesh, but by 2012, that grew to $1.2 billion, according to the Canadian International Council’s publication OpenCanada.org.
The European Union also allows garments to be imported duty-free.
Unions and human rights advocates lauded the American move as a “crucial step forward,” saying the Bangladeshi government routinely ignores international calls to improve standards.
“The only message that Bangladesh can hear is that you won’t get duty-free access to the U.S. until you clean up your act and give workers minimal rights,” said Charlie Kernaghan, the director of the U.S.-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.
“This is a plus for the Obama administration. Maybe it will wake up the EU . . . . Europe gives them a free walk. There has to be some push back or the Bangladesh government will do nothing,” he said from Seattle.
Since the April disaster, Canadian labour activists have tried to convince Ottawa to use its tariff program to force Bangladesh to improve safety and establish workers’ rights.
The pressure is now on Canada, said Hassan Yussuff, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress.
“I applaud the U.S. decision. I hope Canada and the EU follow,” Yussuff said from Ottawa.
The intent of the U.S. downgrade is not to harm or punish workers but to get Bangladesh to make a serious commitment to improving factory conditions.
The Rana disaster is one of a long string of tragedies to strike Bangladeshi factories due to lax standards, and the government consistently promises change but nothing happens, he added.
“I’m hoping at the end of the day Bangladesh gets the message, promising is no longer acceptable,” Yussuff said. “You have to demonstrate in a meaningful way, otherwise you’ll pay a heavy price.”
The slap from the U.S. sends a signal to all its trading partners, said Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
“Countries that benefit from preferential trade programs must comply with their terms,” Trumka said in a statement. “Countries that tolerate dangerous — even deadly — working conditions and deny basic workers’ rights, especially the right to freedom of association, will risk losing preferential access to the U.S. market.”
Kernaghan has just returned from touring the Rana Plaza disaster site. He met dozens of injured workers in hospitals and in their homes. Many survivors say they have not spoken to any of the western clothing brands that have pledged to help.
He describes the clothing factories as essentially sweatshops that treat their workers as “indentured servants.”
“Conditions are horrible,” he said. “Everyone works from 8 in the morning till 10, 11, 12, 1 a.m. They are going seven days a week. The wages remain a pitiful 12 cents an hour for helpers and maybe 22 cents an hour for senior workers . . . They are cheated out of overtime pay. They have no rights, whatsoever.”
Outside the collapsed Rana Plaza building, women still walk around the rubble, holding pictures of their loved ones and hoping to find signs of them, he added.
Source: The Star