US Urges Bangladesh to Improve Its Workers’ Rights and Working Conditions

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Highlighting the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in April and the Tazreen Fashions fire last November in Bangladesh, the United States of America today urged the Asian country to address its labor rights and safe and healthy working conditions.

In his testimony in Washington DC, Assistant Secretary Robert O. Blake, Jr. for Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs says the engagement on labor issues is part of America’s broad and expanding partnership with Bangladesh’s government.

Albeit Bangladesh has made remarkable development progress, in part because of the growth of its ready-made garment sector, Mr. Blake underlines that tragedies at Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions have made clear that significant challenges remain.

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Aerial view of the building following the disaster.

US goals on Bangladesh

According to Mr. Blake, one of US goals is to help Bangladesh continue to build on its economic achievements.

But to do this, Bangladesh must find a way that ensures the growth of its export sector does not come at the expense of safe and healthy working conditions.

The US believes 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.

Mr. Blake points out that just 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.” – Mr. Blake

Secretary Kerry reportedly pressed for further labor union registrations and the enactment of amendments to the labor law that will address freedom of association and worker safety.

Mr. Blake explains that 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.

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Board with photos of missing people posted by relatives.

The US government hopes these changes will be enacted by Parliament before the end of this month.

US seeing result on Bangladesh’s labour unions

According to Mr. Blake, Secretary Kerry’s meeting with the Foreign Minister is only one of our many efforts to improve labor rights and workplace safety in Bangladesh.

The US is seeing some results just recently. One US 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.

Furhermore, the US government also engaged U.S. companies sourcing from Bangladesh.

He narrates that on May 8, Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Barbara Shailor and him, along with colleagues from USTR and the Department of Labor, organized a conference call with U.S. buyers.

The US 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.” – Mr. Blake

Bangladesh at a critical moment

According to Mr. Blake, Bangladesh is now at a critical moment in its history. He reports that 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.

The 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.” – Mr. Blake

The US hope is that Bangladesh will seize the current moment to strengthen labor rights and improve working conditionns and the Obama Administration wants to see Bangladesh succeed.

“We will remain engaged with all the relevant actors, both here and overseas, to support those efforts.” – Mr. Blake

Last April, an eight-storey factory complex collapsed killing at least 377 people.

Reports say it is the deadliest tragedy to hit Bangladesh’s clothing industry. The factory housed five clothing factories with a total of 3,122 staff.

Some 2,500 survivors have been reportedly accounted for.

US-Bangladesh partnership

The United States has partnered with Bangladesh in many areas, including vibrant, free media and civil society.

The US is concerned about freedom of media all over the world.

In Bangladesh, the US has meet regularly with editors and other journalists.

And there have been cases of concern where journalists have been killed, people have disappeared, people have received threats of one sort or another, he noted.

In May 2012, poverty-fighting organization CARE and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched SHOUHARDO, a combined nutritional support with women’s empowerment initiatives to reduce child stunting, a key measure of malnutrition.

Implemented by CARE from 2004 to 2010, the first phase of SHOUHARDO was the largest non-emergency USAID food security program in the world.

The program was designed to reduce malnutrition among 2 million of the poorest people in Bangladesh.

UN says two million children are suffering from acute malnutrition in Bangladesh, where one-quarter of all households are hungry.

Out of the two million wasting children between the ages of six months and five years, 500,000 are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, or severe malnutrition, according to the report, which was conducted to assess the impact of soaring food prices in Bangladesh in 2008.

Nearly 60 per cent of the households surveyed said they had insufficient food over the past 12 months, with real household income plunging 12 per cent between 2005 and 2008.

Malnutrition, which can directly cause death, affects child development and increases the risk of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth.

Mina Fabulous follows the news, especially what is going on in the US State Department. Mina turns State Department waffle into plain English. Mina Fabulous is the pen name of Carmen Avalino, the NewsBlaze production editor. When she isn’t preparing stories for NewsBlaze writers, she writes stories, but to separate her editing and writing identities, she uses the name given by her family and friends.