Politics is the main objective behind US labour policy

The wage increase for garment workers is inadequate and their repression is unacceptableProthom Alo

Bangladesh may be the main target of the United States' new labour rights memorandum or policy. From a political angle, there is all reason to be concerned about this policy. There is politics behind the contents of the new policy and the US may use this political intent in various ways.

The Bangladesh embassy in Washington has informed the government about this apprehension. The Bangladesh embassy's trade minister in Washington, Selim Reza, in a letter written to the commerce ministry in Dhaka on 20 November, said that if anyone violates labour rights, the new policy can be applied to individuals, companies and even the state. (Prothom Alo, 30 November 2023).

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The apprehensions expressed by the Bangladesh embassy in the US has also been voice a few days ago at the third death anniversary of the later general secretary of the Jatiya Sramik Federation, Comrade Shafiuddin. Actually, even the US itself till today has not ratified two fundamental ILO core conventions, 87 and 89, regarding the right to organise and the right bargain.

Also, while the US has ratified ILO convention 105 to end forced labour and 172 on hazardous child labour, there are still instances of forced labour and child labour in that country.

You don't have to go far to understand that Bangladesh is the main target of Biden's memorandum or policy regarding labour rights. Speaking about the labour policy the day after it was declared, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said that had the US embassy not stood by the Bangladesh garment labour leader Kalpana Akhter, it is doubtful whether she would have been alive today.

These labour leaders represent Bangladesh workers at the US Congress hearing of the brands buyers. The sums of money spent annually on the foreign tours of these labour leaders, as seen in the social media, is staggering

It may be mentioned here that quite a few years ago garments worker Aminul Islam had been killed by assailants. He had been a part of Kalpana Akhter's garments labour organisation. The US embassy had put pressure on Bangladesh to investigate the killing.

The involvement of the US embassy with quite a few trade unions of the Bangladesh garment industry is so direct, that they don't even try to conceal it. The US ambassador frequently visits the offices of those organisations and news of his discussions with the labour leaders are published in the media. In fact, the labour leaders are often flown to the US.

These labour leaders represent Bangladesh workers at the US Congress hearing of the brands buyers. The sums of money spent annually on the foreign tours of these labour leaders, as seen in the social media, is staggering.

Bangladesh's garment workers are not is the best of conditions. The wage board recently fixed the monthly minimum wage for garment workers at Tk 12,500. The government claimed this was a 56 per cent raise. But the garment workers organisations claim that the annual increment hadn't been counted. If that was added, then the increase would be 26 per cent. And in the meantime, the cost of living had spiralled manifold.

The garment sector labour leader made a noise about this wage raise and then fell silent, but the garment workers did not accept this. The law enforcement agencies took action to quell the demonstrating workers, and four workers, including a woman worker Anjuman Ara, were killed. A total of 88, including workers and worker leaders, were arrested. Around 20,000 workers were accused in over 1500 cases.

This inadequate raise in wages and the repression on the garment workers is in no way acceptable. Those who carry out research on the garment sector content that the garment workers can carry on for half a month with this wage and then they have to depend on loans for the rest of the month. This shoves the workers into a vicious credit cycle.

The US is taking full advantage of this pitiful predicament of the garments workers. Everyone is well aware of the US ambassador's excessive activities concerning a free, impartial, peaceful and inclusive election. The US and the European Union have been alert about the state of human rights in Bangladesh.

However, after BNP's 28 October rally was disrupted and the party went on a back foot, it looks like the US went on a back foot too. However, Ambassador Peter Haas did rush hither and thither between political parties with a letter from the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Donald Lu, calling for dialogue.

That letter too had underlying threats of applying the visa policy if the elections were not to their liking. But once that call for dialogue was rejected, Peter Haas went overseas on 'vacation'. He is back.

During his stint outside of the country, neither the US embassy nor the European countries had any election-related activities. But in one of her speeches, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that, not having been able to do anything about the election, BNP now wants to harm Bangladesh economically. Explaining the importance of a free, fair and impartial election, the Chief Election Commissioner went a step further and said nothing should be done so that there is foreign intervention in Bangladesh's election.

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Given the circumstances, the apprehensions concerning the US labour rights policy may not be all that unfounded. Antony Blinken spoke about Kalpana Akhter and her likes, so these elements made used to create such a situation which can be used against Bangladesh.

If that is so, that it will not be just the garments sector, but the frozen shrimp industry, tea, leather and others sectors that may bear the brunt. And basically it will be the garment industry, the mainstay of export sector, that will fall flat on its face. Thousands of garment workers will lose their jobs and be forced to return to their villages or try to survive by joining other professions. This will not only bring the overall economic situation of Bangladesh to a standstill, but send it into regression.

There is only one reason that the US is using the labour rights policy to throw the garments workers and the common people into a quandary, and that is to punish Bangladesh for getting out of hand. The US wants Bangladesh with it in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. They want a base in the Bay of Bengal. They want the sole right to extract gas from the offshore fields. They even want Bangladesh to join Quad. In order to evade this pressure, Bangladesh has reminded repeatedly the US of the basic tenets of its foreign policy, 'Friendship towards all, malice towards none.' But the US is unwilling to listen.

In order to bring Bangladesh under their control, they will not hesitate to adopt their old ply of regime change, analysts believe. They use the 'visa policy' at times for a free and fair election. They at times bring forward the human rights policy and labour rights policy. None of this is in the interests workers of Bangladesh or any other country. Politics is the main objective. And that politics is all about protecting their own interests.

* Rashed Khan Menon is a member of parliament and the president of Workers Party

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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