US sanctions will be political if it is imposed, say business leaders

Business leaders attend a seminar on “Current labour issues and international trade scenario” in Dhaka on 11 December in 2023Prothom Alo

Business leaders at an event in Dhaka said Bangladesh has improved much on labour rights issues, which is why there is no situation or environment to impose trade sanctions on labour issues. Yet, if any sanction is imposed on commerce under the US labour policy, this will be political.

They made the remarks while addressing a seminar on “Current labour issues and international trade scenario” organised by the Economic Reporters’ Forum (ERF) at ERF office in Dhaka on Monday.

Presided over by ERF president Mohammad Refayet Ullah Mirdha, general secretary Abul Kashemn moderated the event.

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Addressing the event, Mohammed Hatem, executive president, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), said, “Our labour standard is better than other competing countries and an advanced country like China. Yet, if the US imposes sanctions, it will be for their gain.”

He further said there is nothing to be afraid of the sanctions, and we will have nothing to say if they impose the sanction from a political perspective.

Pointing to the fear of a possible sanction following the announcement of US labour policy, BKMEA vice president Fazlee Shamim Ehsan said, “This situation that exists is political, but we will speak for ourselves. However, the issues will have to be resolved diplomatically.”

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Echoing the factory owners’ voice on labour rights issues to some extent, workers alliance body IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC) president Amirul Haque said there have been many talks on sanctions recently. “However, we want to make it clear that the country is not in that bad situation to face sanctions. Labour standard has improved much. Bangladesh has ratified eight out of 10 fundamental conventions on labour rights issues while the US approved only two conventions. As a result, the US has no right to raise questions on the labour standard of Bangladesh,” he added.

On 16 November, the US announced its new labour policy to protect global labour rights.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the US 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.

Following the unveiling of new US labour policy, the Bangladesh mission in Washington sent a letter to the commerce ministry on 20 November, expressing concerns.

The letter stated, “Though the ‘memorandum’ appears to be a global policy applicable for all countries, there are reasons to believe that Bangladesh may be one of the targets.”

“It seems that there are scopes for this policy to be imposed at individual, firm, or state level, if they anticipate or believe the labour rights are violated,” read the letter.

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Speaking at the seminar, IBC president Amirul Haque stated that the wage of the garment workers is still below the poverty line. They face problems joining the labour organisations. Besides, the compensation act has not been updated. The way the labour law was amended was not accepted. This won’t be accepted globally either. The highest forum to propose amending the labour law is a trilateral counsel committee (TCC). As many as 53 issues regarding amendment of the labour law remained unsettled at the committee. Those were supposed to be settled at a 12-member sub-committee. But the labour ministry tabled the amendment bill of the labour law in parliament before all these things.

Speaking at the seminar, IBC central leader Touhidur Rahman said, “Readymade garment is an international business. That is why we must ensure global labour standards to retain our share in the market. I think there are alarming issues for us.”

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He further told the seminar that four labourers were killed during the movement demanding increasing wages. The owners compensated the families. But the incident of deaths of the labourers need to be investigated.

Touhidur Rahman also said we accepted Tk 12,500 as minimum wage. But this was not a victory for us. We just cooperated. Despite this, 115 labour leaders and regional labourers are languishing in jails, 43 cases have been filed and 20,000 labourers are accused. BGMEA and BKMEA have to consider these issues too.

Former member of Bangladesh Trade and Tariff Commission Abid Khan and BGMEA’s former director ANM Saifuddin also addressed the seminar.