Opinion

The Great Debate

A cry for worker fairness

By Senator Robert Menendez
June 5, 2013

People rescue a garment worker trapped under rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Bira

The tragedy at the Rana Plaza clothing factory was a sober reminder that Bangladeshi garment workers still lack basic rights and protections. My mother was a seamstress. She worked in the textile factories of northern New Jersey. I saw how hard and tiring her work was. But it was never lethal. And it shouldn’t be.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building on April 24 was the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry, killing at least 1,127 people and injuring many more. It should be a turning point for the international community. Just as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City galvanized action to improve U.S. factory safety standards, the Rana Plaza tragedy is a call to action for consumers here in America and around the world.

That’s why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday is convening a hearing on worker safety and labor issues in Bangladesh.

In many ways, Bangladesh is a success story and an important partner for the United States. It is a moderate, Muslim-majority democracy and a key trade partner, supporting 10,000 American jobs. As the world’s seventh-most-populous country, Bangladesh has made dramatic strides on everything from global food security to gender equality to maternal and child health. It is also at the heart of global efforts to tackle climate change.

The strength of the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship was on full display during Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni’s recent visit to Washington. The meeting between Moni and Secretary of State John Kerry also provided an opportunity to underscore growing concerns among the Obama administration, Congress, labor groups and civil society about the dismal state of worker safety and labor rights in Bangladesh. In the wake of Rana Plaza and November’s Tazreen factory fire, it is clear that the status quo is not an option.

Local police and an industry association had warned only days before the Rana Plaza collapse that the building was unsafe. How did the owners respond? By threatening to fire people who didn’t show up for work. Sadly, this has been standard operating procedure in an industry where accidents, fires and other disasters have killed and injured thousands with little consequence.

For years, American and European retailers have turned to Bangladesh to produce clothing at rock-bottom prices. It is now an export powerhouse, second only to China in global apparel exports. Women make up at least 80 percent of the garment industry there. They work for minimum wage, which is roughly $38 a month. Bangladesh now has the lowest labor costs in the world. Unions face daily intimidation and violence, and management accountability is limited.

Since the tragedy, the Bangladesh government has committed to a number of positive steps, including amending its labor laws, raising the minimum wage for garment workers, registering more trade unions and increasing the number of building inspectors. But similar promises have gone largely unfulfilled in past.

Bangladesh has a long way to go in creating a culture that is friendlier to workers – one that enforces pro-labor legislation, allows for freedom of association without repercussion and enforces building and fire inspection codes.

Global retailers must also do their part. Major European retailers have signed a binding building and fire safety agreement. Now U.S. retailers and manufacturers need to cooperate on a similar industry-wide plan that includes workplace safety standards, cost sharing for improvements and compensation for injured workers.

Without significant changes that can improve labor conditions and worker safety, the Obama administration should seriously consider suspending the Generalized System of Preferences benefits to Bangladesh, which are coming up for review. Suspending these tariff breaks would send a strong signal that Washington is serious about protecting workers and improving workplace safety.

Cheap goods from Bangladesh, paid for in the lives of its people, are no bargain. American and European consumers, global retailers, factory owners, the Obama administration and the Bangladeshi government need to come together to make real change.

If we don’t take collective action today, there will likely be another tragedy tomorrow.

 

PHOTO (Insert A): People rescue garment workers trapped under rubble at the Rana Plaza building after it collapsed, in Savar, 30 km (19 miles) outside Dhaka April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

PHOTO (Insert B):Firefighters work to control a fire at a factory belonging to Tung Hai Group, a large garment exporter, in Dhaka. Eight people were killed. May 9, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Comments
5 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

THIS, and incidents like it, are the DIRECT RESULT a “laissez faire” free trade global economy.

ANY economic system that operates “beyond the law” is guaranteed to cause “collateral damage” in terms of both human and environmental casualites.

The oxymoron of a “global economy” MUST be stopped before we destroy the planet, and ourselves along with it.

Human greed and folly MUST be controlled by proper regulation, which is TOTALLY missing from the “global economy” today.

We are literally destroying ourselves in the name of profits.

THAT is the main problem we face, but we are either unwilling or unable to face it and deal with it properly.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive
 

Senator Menendez, I agree with you wholeheartedly, but look at who we all have to convince to buy into your nice words.

Congress, who is being paid by the textile industry’s lobbyists. The textile industry, who is being rewarded with favorable legislation by Congress for funding their reelection campaigns, and about half of the American people who say without shame, “It’s not my problem. Why should I pay more for a shirt?”

If the President does as you recommend and suspend the Generalized System of Preferences, he’ll be vilified by Congress and half the American people as a socialist, communist, dictator, Muslim (pick one or more), and they’ll see this as proof of his determination to destroy the U.S. Millions of taxpayers’ dollars will be spent by Congress to attempt to impeach him – again.

But hey, I’ll be happy to buy textiles from a company with factories in countries other than Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan…Anybody wanna tell me who that might be?

As an aside, this is how unions came into existence here. How soon we forget the dire need to protect our mothers, fathers and children in this country from the evil of unbridled greed.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

@ JL4 –

Outstanding analysis!

We need more than a “cry for worker fairness”. We need enforceable legislation, but as you say, that is not likely to happen due to “vested interests”.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive
 

“Bangladesh is a success story and an important partner for the United States. It is a moderate, Muslim-majority democracy and a key trade partner, supporting 10,000 American jobs.”

The notion that the most densely populated nation on earth and, not coincidentally, among the world’s poorest is somehow a “success story” is preposterous. So too is the claim that Bangladesh is a “key trade partner” or that it supports 10,000 American jobs. We have a trade deficit of over $4 billion per year with Bangladesh. If Bangladeshi workers were paid a fair wage, that trade deficit would be at least ten times larger. Real math – not fuzzy globalism math – says that that’s a loss of about 700,000 American jobs.

Senator Menendez, you care nothing about Bangladeshi workers. All you care about are corporate lobbyists and maintaining an illusion among voters of caring about workers’ rights issues. If you cared about American workers, you wouldn’t be such a cheerleader for failed and flawed 19th century trade theories.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive
 

“They work for minimum wage, which is roughly $38 a month.” – that’s what is killing America. Great Abraham Lincoln understood that slavery of any form is not just immoral, but counterproductive in the end as well.
Greed is shortsighted by definition! ©

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive
 

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