Labor Issues in Bangladesh

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
As-prepared statement to Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC
June 6, 2013

Good morning. Thank you Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Corker and all the members of the committee for this opportunity to speak with you today regarding labor issues in Bangladesh. I am honored to join Associate Deputy Undersecretary Biel this morning. Your interest and engagement will play a vital role as Bangladesh confronts important labor rights issues following the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in April and the Tazreen Fashions fire last November. I have a longer statement that with your permission I will submit for the record.

Engagement on labor issues is part of our broad and expanding partnership with Bangladesh’s government and people. Bangladesh works closely with us on all of the President’s signature development initiatives in climate, health and food security, and in encouraging greater regional integration and connectivity. In the past two decades, Bangladesh has made remarkable development progress, in part because of the growth of its ready-made garment sector. Despite the benefits the industry has brought, however, the tragedies at Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions have made clear that significant challenges remain.

Our goal is to help Bangladesh continue to build on its economic achievements, but to do so in a way that ensures the growth of its export sector does not come at the expense of safe and healthy working conditions. We believe three key reforms are particularly important to improving labor rights and conditions in Bangladesh: guaranteeing workers’ rights to organize, guaranteeing fire safety, and ensuring structural soundness of factories and other facilities.

Last month, Secretary Kerry underscored to Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni that the recent tragedies and weak progress on labor rights and safety had undermined the Bangladesh brand and placed the country’s future development at risk. He urged Bangladesh to make transformative and sustainable improvements in workers’ rights and working conditions. He pressed for further labor union registrations and the enactment of amendments to the labor law that will address freedom of association and worker safety. These changes would enable the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation to launch a “Better Work” program for the garment industry in Bangladesh that would lead to still more improvements. We hope these changes will be enacted by Parliament before the end of this month.

Secretary Kerry’s meeting with the Foreign Minister is only one of our many efforts to improve labor rights and workplace safety in Bangladesh. We are seeing some results: our advocacy helped lead to the registration of 27 trade unions since September 2012; the signing of a comprehensive fire safety plan; and a Bangladeshi commitment to dramatically increase the number of government labor inspectors.

We have also engaged U.S. companies sourcing from Bangladesh. On May 8, Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Barbara Shailor and I, along with colleagues from USTR and the Department of Labor, organized a conference call with U.S. buyers. We urged them to coordinate efforts with each other; to communicate their concerns about labor conditions to key officials in Bangladesh; and to provide assistance to independent safety and fire inspectors. We shared our “Best Practices for Companies Operating in Bangladesh,” which I have submitted along with my written statement.

Bangladesh is now at a critical moment in its history. Last week Ambassador Mozena met with leaders in a recently formed union in the garment industry, one of the 27 new unions which have been registered since last fall that I mentioned earlier. These workers highlighted to the Ambassador their successful efforts, since forming the union, to improve factory floor conditions, such as obtaining potable water, a clean lunchroom, the removal of electrical hazards, and the unblocking of exit stairwells.

Their efforts show the potential for a broader sea change in Bangladesh’s approach to labor issues. Still, much more work needs to be done. My hope is that Bangladesh will seize the current moment to strengthen labor rights and improve working conditions. This Administration wants to see Bangladesh succeed, and we will remain engaged with all the relevant actors, both here and overseas, to support those efforts.

Again, I very much appreciate your interest in this important issue, and I am happy to take your questions.