RMG workers protest for higher wages in Dhaka on 12 January 2019. Reuters File Photo
RMG workers protest for higher wages in Dhaka on 12 January 2019. Reuters File Photo

The US government on Thursday said it aims to expand trade and investment with Bangladesh, but the world's second-largest exporter of ready-made garments must do more to protect both workers' rights and intellectual property rights.

The US Trade Representative's office said it raised its concerns during a meeting of the United States-Bangladesh Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement Council in Dhaka on Thursday, which focused on market access for US farm products and financial services.

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The United States and Bangladesh signed a bilateral investment agreement in 2013 and officials meet regularly to discuss bilateral ties. Two-way trade between the two countries totaled $9 billion in 2019, with about 90 per cent of exports from Bangladesh to the United States comprising ready-made garments.

"The US noted its concern at the pace of reforms intended to guarantee workers' rights and safety standards and urged Bangladesh to increase collaboration with private and civil sector stakeholders in its ready-made garment industry," USTR said in a statement.

It said officials also discussed improvements needed to enable greater investment, including better protection of intellectual property rights, clear regulation and monitoring of the trade in pharmaceuticals and medical devices, and a commitment to enable the digital economy.

Bangladesh also needs to support investors’ rights to fair and prompt dispute resolution and arbitration, ensure transparency in government procurement and enforce obligations and notifications under WTO agreements, USTR said.

HRW has reported that Bangladesh garment workers still face lower wages since fashion brands have failed to compensate factories for safety improvements, while piling pressure on suppliers to keep prices low and make clothing faster

Workers' rights have been a continuing source of concern in Bangladesh despite reforms adopted after the collapse of a factory in April 2013 that killed more than 1,100 workers.

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Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, said Washington should push Dhaka to shore up its labour and free speech laws, and ban discrimination and harassment at work.

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The United States should also adopt "mandatory regulations that ensure that US companies doing business in Bangladesh and elsewhere are conducting business in a way that supports decent work and other human rights in their supply chains without exploiting legal loopholes in Bangladesh," she said.

The group has reported that Bangladesh garment workers still face lower wages since fashion brands have failed to compensate factories for safety improvements, while piling pressure on suppliers to keep prices low and make clothing faster.

Washington should push Dhaka to shore up its labour and free speech laws, and ban discrimination and harassment at work
Aruna Kashyap

In early 2019, over 50,000 garment workers participated in wildcat strikes protesting at changes to the minimum wage.

Police used excessive force to disperse the protesters, killing one worker and injuring over 50. At least 7,500 garment workers were dismissed from their jobs. Many of these workers were blacklisted from work at other factories, the report said.