DHAKA, Bangladesh — In the 2013 year, 1,100 garment workers died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. This tragic event drew attention to the horrid working conditions that plague factories throughout the country. Workers could toil in these factories for 450 hours a month and receive not even $10 for their work.
Some workers report managers threatening to kill, beat or fire them should they attempt to set up a union. Managers are also known to employ local gangsters to follow labor organizers home in order to constantly intimidate them.
Despite this awful mistreatment, Bangladesh is the world’s seventh largest country by population and the world’s third largest Muslim country. It has a prospering and developing economy that has experienced high, sustained growth of about 6 percent a year. Since 1990, it has doubled female literacy, reduced child mortality by 60 percent, and become self-sufficient agriculturally.
Additionally, The United States has strong trade ties to the country. It is the largest foreign investor in Bangladesh while simultaneously importing more Bangladeshi products than any other nation. The fruitful economic relationship between Washington and Dhaka led to an impressive $5.7 billion in bilateral trade last year.
The United States has a clear stake in continuing its relationship with this blossoming economy, but it must take a strong stance against its blatant violations of workers rights
The price for Bangladesh’s impressive growth and progress has come at an unreasonable price.
Before the Rana Plaza tragedy, the United States had turned a blind eye to Bangladesh’s egregious working conditions, inadequate labor laws and insufficient fire safety codes. However, both the European Union and the United States have recently turned up pressure on Dhaka to improve its labor standards.
In July 2013, the EU and US announced an “Action Plan” for Bangladesh to maintain Generalized System Preferences (GSP) trade status. GSP status is a trade agreement in which developing countries are afforded duty free access to the United States market for thousands of products.
In return, these countries must meet a specific criteria, including a certain standard of working rights.
As part of the initiative to improve working conditions in Bangladesh, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a committee hearing on worker’s rights in the region. It revealed progress, as 222 Bangladeshi factories affiliated with an American advisory council on workers had been inspected. The council has pledged to inspect 100% of all member factories by the end of 2104.
Additionally, factories and corporations involved in Bangladesh have pledged $100 million to assist vendors in financing safety remediation efforts, including $5 million for worker’s compensation and wage loss during construction.
Still, much room for improvement remains.
Despite amendments to labor laws that have allowed an upsurge in union formations, Human Rights Watch reports that the management runs many of these unions. These “yellow unions” occur when managers force a group of workers to pose as a union in order to limit their bargaining power and avoid government prosecution.
Under Bangladeshi law, 30 percent of workers must organize to form a union.
Bangladesh must continue to update its labor laws in order to adequately meet international labor standards. Its minimum wage of US $68 still falls short of worker demands of US$103 per month and many retailers have not signed an accord on Fire and Building safety. Furthermore, laws regarding unions and bargaining remain insufficient to create a fruitful working environment.
Without a serious and thorough revamp of labor laws and a greater sense of corporate social responsibility from international businesses, Bangladesh’s workers will continue to suffer.
– Martin Levy
Sources: Human Rights Watch, United States Committee on Foreign Relations