BANGLADESH — The U.S. government is wading further into the high-profile labor and safety issues that have surfaced in Bangladesh in the last year, offering money to assist efforts to reform industries operating there and opening up additional debate on Capitol Hill.
Scrutiny over safe labor practices in Bangladesh’s burgeoning garment industry was increased following a factory fire at Tazreen Fashions that killed more than 100 garment workers last November. That tragedy was followed in late April with an even more staggering event in which 1,200 people died when the Rana Plaza building collapsed.
In the months since the two tragedies, discussion about how to ensure that development in poor countries does not come at such a high price for workers has increased, and debates over labor safety issues in those regions has intensified. Public pressure has been brought to bear on the companies with supply chains that connect to the Bangladeshi factories and production areas like them.
The U.S. government has also taken an increased interest. On June 13th, the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) announced that it will award $2.5 million in competitive grants to fund improvements in labor and safety enforcement and monitoring in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The awards will support recipients focused on strengthening Bangladesh’s ability to improve fire and building safety standards, and to build the capacity of worker organizations to effectively monitor fire and building safety standards and implement changes. The grant applications are due to the agency by August 2nd, and awards will be announced by September 30th.
The funding announcement came on the heels of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on labor issues in Bangladesh on June 6th. At the hearing, ILAB’s Acting Associate Deputy Undersecretary Eric Biel testified that the agency has “pressed the [Bangladeshi] government to address issues ranging from workers’ rights and working conditions in the ready-made garment and shrimp processing sectors to the governance of Bangladesh’s Export Processing Zones.”
Biel went on to stress the important role the private sector plays both in Bangladesh’s economy, and in effectively combating the current safety challenges. He stressed that the intent of the new scrutiny is not to stifle Bangladesh’s economic growth or industry, but rather to work with the government, businesses, and workers involved to make sure that the nation’s growth can progress as safely as possible. The twin tragedies in Tazreen and Rana Plaza provided a tragic reminder, he added, of just urgent the issues of labor rights and worker safety standards are in Bangladesh.
A growing number of U.S. and European garment companies have signed an agreement which commits to ensuring that fire and building safety improvements are made in factories, and that greater respect for workers’ rights is prioritized. Brands including PVH (the first company to sign on), Abercrombie & Fitch, and Sean John have all signed the pledge.
– Liza Casabona