Exporters worried over new US labour rights policy 

RMG workers
Prothom Alo file photo

The new policy of the United States, aimed at ensuring labour rights both domestically and internationally, has raised concerns among exporters in Bangladesh.  

Particularly, entrepreneurs in the clothing sector have expressed apprehension, stating that the implementation of the new US policy on labour rights in Bangladesh could impact the country's export sector negatively.  

As a result, they are urging diplomatic discussions to understand what steps Bangladesh should take in response.

US President Joe Biden has signed a Presidential Memorandum with the goal of empowering workers and ensuring labour rights and an improved quality of life for workers. 

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced last Thursday that the United States is committed to protecting the rights of workers in accordance with international labour laws.  

This commitment involves collaboration with governments, workers, labour organisations, trade unions, civil society, and the private sector.  

Blinken emphasised that those who violate workers' rights, engage in threats, or intimidate workers may face sanctions if deemed necessary. 

The announcement by the US on labour rights comes at a time of unrest in Bangladesh regarding the minimum wage in the garment sector, leading to workers going on strike. Simultaneously, the United States has implemented visa policies aimed at ensuring free and fair elections. Given these developments, the new labour rights policy has heightened concerns among exporters in Bangladesh. 

Anthony Blinken referenced Kalpana Akhter, the leader of Bangladesh's garment workers' movement, when discussing the new US policy on labour rights.  

He mentioned that Kalpana acknowledged the support of the US Embassy in Dhaka, which acted as a consultant for her. According to Blinken, she had said that is why she is still alive today. 

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Kalpana Akhtar, the president of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation, told Prothom Alo that the US policy in question applies not only to Bangladesh but to all countries worldwide. The manner of its implementation is left to the discretion of the United States.  

However, Kalpana Akter also highlighted significant shortcomings in labour rights within Bangladesh. She noted that despite legal provisions, workers encounter various obstacles when attempting to establish a labour union.  

According to the Labour Act, obtaining permission from the Department of Labour is necessary to file a case related to unfair labour practices.  

She remarked, "If our employers and government become more conscious of establishing labour rights due to this new US policy, it would be beneficial for the country." 

What exporters say 

Bangladesh's garment exporters are expressing concern about the new US policy on labour rights, given that the United States is a major destination for the country's garment exports. Bangladesh ranks as the third top country in apparel exports globally, exporting various products, including home textiles, frozen fish, leather products, and plastic items to the US market. 

According to data from the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), during the last fiscal year 2022-23, the total exports of Bangladeshi products to the United States amounted to 9.7 billion US dollars, with readymade garments accounting for 8.51 billion dollars. 

AK Azad, the managing director of Ha-Meem Group, a leading exporter of readymade garments, expressed concerns, stating, "We are very worried about this new policy of the United States. From what we understand so far, it seems that there is scope for this policy to be imposed at the individual level as well as at the state level. So now the issue should be looked at diplomatically very seriously." 

It is known that the matter was a focal point of discussion among garment industry owners throughout the day. They mention a certain tension between Bangladesh and the United States on political issues, particularly concerning the upcoming parliamentary elections. The addition of labour issues has heightened apprehensions about how the US will implement this new policy. 

A former leader of BGMEA, the apex organisation of garment industry owners, told Prothom Alo on condiiton of anonymity, "We are very concerned about this because there has been worker unrest in the country for quite some time.” 

Moreover, apparel exports to the US market this year are showing a somewhat negative trend. According to EPB data, readymade apparel exports to the US declined by more than three per cent in the four months from July to October compared to the same period a year earlier. 

Fazlul Haque, the former president of BKMEA, the apex body of knitwear exporters, shared with Prothom Alo, "Many people are worried about the issue due to the current situation. However, the US did not take this step for Bangladesh alone. We don't have the kind of situation that the new policy mentions about forced labour. Nevertheless, communication with the US at all levels should be increased on the whole issue." 

Must work on our weaknesses  

Leaders of the garment workers' movement and labour rights activists argue that the reality is different from what the government or garment owners claim, asserting that workers in the country have the right to speak out and that labour conditions have improved. 

When questioned about this, Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, an expert on labour activities in South Asia currently working at the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Delhi, India, told Prothom Alo last night that when a country has weaknesses in terms of the working environment and labour rights, outsiders feel compelled to speak up. They get an opportunity to voice concerns. To avoid such a situation, he emphasised the need to address internal weaknesses. 

Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed stated that genuine workers' representatives should be given the opportunity to speak about workers' rights, an area where Bangladesh faces significant shortcomings. He pointed out that the way the workers' movement is handled, particularly concerning their wage demands, does not convey a positive message to the outside world.