(US Senator Robert Menendez is a Reuters columnist but his
opinions are his own.)
By Senator Robert Menendez
June 6 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
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
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
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
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.)