Bangladesh needs more commitment to “reach the top” in terms of labour standards: US

Thea Lee

The United States has said as Bangladesh moves to graduate from a least developed country to a middle-income country in 2026, more will be expected of it on labour rights, as well human rights and good governance.

"Strong labour laws and their implementation are needed to provide US companies and investors with assurances that Bangladesh is a stable and predictable environment and can create greater economic opportunities for both of our countries," US Department of Labor's deputy undersecretary for international affairs Thea Lee told UNB in an exclusive interview done remotely.

Asked whether US sees other countries the same way like Bangladesh when it checks labour standards and workers' rights, Lee said the US Department of Labor and the US government seek and support respect for fundamental workers' rights in all countries with which they have trade and diplomatic relations, and for all countries that are part of the global economy.

Lee, who was named deputy undersecretary for international affairs on 10 May, 2021, said their government has consistently supported the people and workers of Myanmar in their efforts to advance democracy and protect human and workers' rights in their country.

"We continue to work with likeminded nations and the international institutions in supporting these desires of the people of Myanmar, calling for the restoration of the democratically-elected government," Lee said, adding that they have strongly condemned - and supported international efforts to counter - the denial of democratic and human rights by the military regime.

She said the US Department of Labor and the US government recognize the important progress that the Bangladesh garment industry has made related to building safety and remediating safety hazards identified through engineers' inspections of export garment factories over the 10 years since the Rana Plaza collapse.

24 April marks the ten-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in which 1,134 workers were killed.

There has also been "significant progress" in establishing and training worker-management safety committees at many of the garment factories, said the deputy undersecretary who has been advocating for workers' rights, both domestically and internationally, for over thirty years.

The US welcomed the establishment of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety In Bangladesh at the time of its establishment, and recognizes today the important contributions it has made to the progress in the RMG sector since the collapse.

"There is also significant work that remains to be done. This includes completing all remediation of safety hazards at all inspected factories," Lee said, adding that many factories lack functioning fire detection systems and fire suppression systems.

Many have yet to complete critical building structural strengthening. Building safety compliance must be continuously monitored and maintained. This requires dedicated attention in an ongoing manner, she mentioned.

"To "reach the top" in terms of labor standards takes commitment, resources, and will. Bangladesh has long been the 2nd largest exporter of garments in the world. The industry is known for its world-class products. However, such a designation in the global garment industry comes with expectations and obligations," Lee said.

These include not just producing good quality products but also good jobs, with safe working conditions where workers' rights and dignity are respected, Lee thinks.

She said they have been a longstanding and reliable partner of Bangladesh and have consistently supported programmes to advance internationally recognized worker rights in Bangladesh's desire to "reach the top".

"We have been a leading member of the Sustainability Compact and associated "3+5+1" group. We continue to engage regularly on labor with the government of Bangladesh, including through the Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement ("TICFA") and the High-Level Economic Consultation."

Lee mentioned that they also have the newly launched Labor Working Group led by their labor attache at the US Embassy in Dhaka.

"The labor attache is working closely and regularly with your government, industry, unions and with likeminded partners to advance high labor standards and their enforcement in practice," she said.

"Her presence in Bangladesh is a direct reflection of the importance our government places on our ongoing partnership, and our investment in seeing Bangladesh make real progress in the labor space," Lee said.

Rewards for Progress

Asked what are the rewards that the US government is considering for the progress made so far, Lee said the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) comes with clear statutory requirements and eligibility criteria which apply to all beneficiary countries.

With respect to worker rights, the Trade Act of 1974 requires that GSP beneficiary countries must be taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights.

These include: freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of forced or compulsory labour; the establishment of a minimum age for the employment of children; implementing commitments to eliminate the worst forms of child labour; and ensuring acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.

Following the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, the US suspended GSP benefits due to labour rights violations concerning unsafe working conditions and lack of inspections in the RMG sector, restrictions to labour organizing, and violence against workers and trade unionists.

For more than a decade, the US has regularly engaged with Bangladesh on these concerns through the GSP Action Plan, Sustainability Compact, TICFA and other dialogues.

"Following the withdrawal of GSP benefits, the United States recognizes Bangladesh has made progress to improve fire and building safety in the exporting RMG sector through the legally binding Accord," Lee said.

Despite measurable progress over the past decade on building safety, she said, Bangladesh still falls short on fundamental rights of freedom of association and enforcing labour laws through inspections.

As a key bilateral trading partner with Bangladesh, Lee said, the United States wants to see Bangladesh succeed in realizing concrete, measurable progress on worker rights, not only in the garment sector, but throughout the economy.

This means ensuring workers have the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and safer working conditions, including in the export processing zones and special economic zones, she said.

"It is worth noting that, while our government is invested in seeing Bangladesh make progress on these important labor rights, we are not alone. The international community is also watching closely, including through the monitoring and reporting on the timebound Bangladesh road map at the International Labor Organization," Lee said.

The US government "continues to support" the government of Bangladesh and the social partners - independent trade unions and private sector representatives in Bangladesh - to achieve the progress necessary to consider removing the suspension of GSP benefits.

"Our commitment to continue such support and honest cooperation with the government of Bangladesh and the social partners remains firm," Lee said.

Is there any scope to bring Bangladesh under GSP facility anew? 

Lee said the GSP programme expired on 31 December, 2020 and is subject to Congressional re-authorization.

Both the House and Senate have introduced different bills that include provisions to reauthorize GSP and add new criteria on human rights, environment, rule of law, anti-corruption, and economic measures to alleviate poverty.

Both bills also propose expanding the labour criteria to include employment non-discrimination.

"Bangladesh's access to GSP is led by a robust interagency process. Bangladesh will first have to reapply for GSP benefits following the program's reauthorization," Lee said.

The GSP subcommittee will then evaluate whether Bangladesh is meeting all the GSP statutory criteria set by Congress, including any new criteria on labor.

Based upon an interagency recommendation, the President would make a determination about whether Bangladesh is meeting the requisite standard on worker rights, as well as on market access, intellectual property and other criteria established by Congress.

"The United States supports and is working closely with Bangladesh in its efforts to make progress on internationally recognized worker rights, specifically its commitments under the timebound ILO road map," Lee said.

The US particularly wants to see progress on amending the Bangladesh Labour Act to bring it in line with international labour standards.

"We also hope to see progress on simplifying the registration process and seeing the successful registration of applications pending beyond the 55-day legal limit. We must also see progress on increasing the number and capacity of labor inspectors and ensuring penalties are sufficiently dissuasive," Lee said.

"And we need to see progress on unfair labor practices and acts of anti-union discrimination by holding perpetrators accountable. These are some of the steps that would help Bangladesh get back on track," she added.

Bangladesh in the post-LDC era

The US government will remain "engaged" through their work described above as it relates to support for the ILO Road map, the Sustainability Compact and "3+5+1" group, and the efforts to meet GSP requirements.

"Our labor attache at the US Embassy in Dhaka is a source of daily support and a resource to the government of Bangladesh and social partners in meeting labor standards thresholds," Lee said.

The labor attache led the first technical, working-level Labor Working Group on March 9 to identify barriers to union registrations, and importantly, has helped to identify clear solutions.

The labor attache continues to engage with the Ministry of Labour to follow up on areas where further progress is needed.

"The deployment of a labor attache is a clear indication that the United States government is committed to seeing progress on labor, and relatedly, on trade," Lee said.

The US Department of Labor has had long history of providing technical assistance to Bangladesh, including projects to combat child labour and forced labour and to improve working conditions in the RMG sector.

"Our current technical assistance to Bangladesh includes funding to improve working conditions in the RMG, tea, shrimp and construction sectors and to the ILO Better Work Bangladesh to support women's empowerment projects," Lee said. adding that ILAB is actively exploring other technical assistance opportunities to strengthen worker rights.

Better Price

The US Department of Labor understands and agrees that achieving compliant industries and workplaces requires that buyers and brands pay a price to Bangladesh supplier factories that allows owners to meet associated costs with providing safe workplaces, maintaining decent work, and abiding by applicable laws and regulations, Lee said.

"We regularly raise this point in our communications and our engagement with business, including US garment and apparel companies," she said.