The Obama administration may strip Bangladesh of import breaks following deadly accidents in the country’s textile industry, another sign of the pressure building on the Southeast Asian nation to improve labor conditions.
Business, labor and advocacy groups are all struggling over how to respond to the April 24 incident — the worst-ever in the textile industry but an event that could produce meaningful change in a nation on its way to becoming the world’s largest garment exporter.
A group of mostly European nations has signed on to a binding inspection program. U.S. firms such as Wal-Mart have declined, but political backlash may be building. On Thursday, a group of senators wrote to major U.S. retailers urging them to reconsider, and the Obama administration is also debating how to get American firms more constructively engaged.
Such agencies as the Department of Labor and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), meanwhile, are stepping up their efforts. Officials at Labor have agreed to fund a program to improve the Bangladeshi government’s currently weak — and some say corruption-ridden — factory inspection system. The USTR, meanwhile, is moving forward with plans to possibly exclude Bangladesh from import tax breaks given to goods from developing countries unless the country improves labor conditions.
U.S. officials said the decision was made last fall to begin pressuring Bangladesh and the process intensified after the recent incidents.
Requests by labor groups to exclude Bangladesh from tariff breaks have been pending for several years, but the USTR said in documents published in the Federal Register that “the lack of progress by the government of Bangladesh in addressing worker rights issues . . . warrants consideration of possible withdrawal” of benefits.
That has gotten the Dhaka government’s attention. A delegation of top Bangladeshi officials is in Washington this week lobbying to retain the tariff breaks and to convince U.S. leaders in the USTR, Labor and the State Department that they are serious about overhauling local labor laws, prosecuting crimes against labor leaders and making other long-sought changes.
“We reached the conclusion that things were not moving forward and we needed to do something dramatic,” said a U.S. trade official, who was not authorized to speak for the record.
The November fire and last month’s collapse of the Rana Plaza textile center brought into sharp relief one of the core moral questions of globalization: What obligation do the nations that benefit from low-cost goods made in places like Bangladesh have to ensure a safe environment and basic rights for workers? The incidents also highlight the challenge of policing a global economy in which developing nations now absorb massive outside investment each year and corporations rely on ever-more diffuse and distant supply chains to source their goods.