SALW received a report back from a lobbying meeting of representatives of the Government of Bangladesh with United States Congress members. The meeting was held Tuesday and covered labor issues in Bangladesh’s garment sector. Apparently, no members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association (BGMEA) were there, contrary to what had previously been indicated.
In attendance were reps from the Bangladeshi American Democratic Caucus (BADC), the Bangladesh Medical Association of North America (BMANA), the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), the United States Department of Labor, the International Trade Council of the U.S. House of Representatives, The United States Trade Representative, staff from the office of U.S. Representative George Miller, and U.S. Senator Carl Levin.
The Bangladeshi government argued that progress to improve labor conditions in Bangladesh’s garment export industry was unprecedented. Using a presentation from the BGMEA, the government argued that an increase in costs to production could be passed along to workers. It requested that U.S. government officials visit Bangladesh in 2014 to meet with the BGMEA.
Senator Levin indicated that safety conditions had improved and some progress had been made on the implementation of laws for minimum wage, but that the Government of Bangladesh and the BGMEA were not taking worker organizing rights seriously enough. He said that he had met with Bangladesh Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed when the latter had visited, and that despite the meeting, Ahmed had punished worker representatives upon return to Bangladesh. Levin pointed out that because many families and workers are dependent on the income from garment work, the workers were made vulnerable. He said that he recognized that garment owners might not be accustomed to dealing with worker rights issues, but steps were necessary.
The Worker Rights Consortium representative said that he agreed that Bangladesh had made enormous economic progress in the garment sector to have become the 2nd largest producer of ready-made garments in the world, but that it’s important to remember that brands sourcing from Bangladesh, the Government of Bangladesh, and others have responsibilities. He pointed to recent violence against a union leader and said that violence against worker representatives indicated a serious problem that must be addressed.
Referencing a claim in the presentation from the BGMEA, the representative from the Worker Rights Consortium said that one of the figures was incorrect; contrary to the claim of the BGMEA that 21 factories had been shut down as a result of safety concerns, the WRC representative said that only 10 had been closed. He acknowledged that this meant workers were left without work, but argued that the concern over safety ought to be paramount in such instances. He also raised concerns that the BGMEA was not tolerating dissent from workers on important issues.
U.S. Congressperson George Miller’s staff member raised concerns that issues of repression against worker representatives were not being taken seriously enough and that the BGMEA and government were sending mixed messages with regard to a dispute at Pioneer. He said they were acting contrary to the interests of workers by, for example, publicly arguing that it was against the interests of the state for workers speaking up about labor issues.
The representative of the Government of Bangladesh said that it was BGMEA, not the Government of Bangladesh, that had made that claim and that the Commerce Minister was not aware of what happened at Pioneer.
The Government of Bangladesh representative said that Bangladesh is a newer country that has only been independent for 43 years. The rep asked for more time to resolve these issues.