COLUMN - A cry for worker fairness: Senator Robert Menendez

Thu Jun 6, 2013 7:48pm IST

(US Senator Robert Menendez is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Senator Robert Menendez

June 6 (Reuters) - 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 near Dhaka, Bangladesh, 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.

(US Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.)

(Robert Menendez)