How improving worker safety may ease US trade sanctions against Bangladesh

    Hands of women working in the garment industry in Bangladesh. An action plan to improve worker safety in the country could lead to the lifting of the U.S. trade sanctions against the South Asian nation. Photo by: M.Crozet / International Labor Organization / CC BY-NC-ND

    The U.S. trade office in Dhaka announced last week an action plan to improve worker safety in Bangladesh that, when fully implemented, could lead to the lifting of American trade sanctions against the South Asian country, which NGOs believe do more bad than good.

    The Bangladesh Action Plan outlines the steps that the Bangladeshi government must take in addressing worker rights and safety if it is to regain the benefits of the Generalized System of Preferences, which allows the country to export up to 5,000 different products duty-free to the United States.

    President Barack Obama announced on June 27 the suspension of Bangladesh’s trade privileges by September 3 in the wake of a series of building collapses and fires that have claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Bangladeshi garment workers in the past year.

    In order to ”reinforce and support the efforts of all international stakeholders to promote improved worker rights and worker safety in Bangladesh,” the plan says the government must hire more inspectors, increase fines for not complying with construction safety standards, support for trade unions, close down or relocate unsafe buildings, and create an anonymous hotline for workers to report violations.

    Trade sanctions ‘premature’ — NGO

    U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Bangladeshi ambassador to the U.S. Akramul Qader met on Thursday in Washington, D.C. to discuss the implementation of the roadmap which, if successfully carried out by the Bangladeshi government, could prompt the U.S. government to reinstate GSP benefits.

    The possible lifting of U.S. trade sanctions is a welcome change for some NGOs working in the country, who see it as an undue measure likely to negatively affect workers and the Bangladeshi economy.

    “The stoppage was very premature and this sort of tactics may harm the interest of workers not only in the garment sector but other export sectors as well,” said Bangladesh Red Crescent Society chairman Mohammed Serajul Akbar.

    Akbar told Devex that while the looming GSP suspension could have adverse effects on laborers, it will not affect how the Red Cross and other aid groups operate in Bangladesh.

    Better safety standards for buildings

    Petter Matthews, director for the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative, also has a grim outlook for the trade sanctions, saying they could lead to job losses in the affected industries even as international pressure is needed to help boost the safety of buildings and infrastructure in a country like Bangladesh.

    “Ultimately, the safety of workers and the public can only be guaranteed through the application of a proper regime of quality control that runs through the design, construction, operation and decommissioning of built assets,” he told Devex.

    Matthews called on multilateral and bilateral donors, as well as foreign retailers, to work with the Bangladeshi government to raise the transparency of the systems for constructing buildings and infrastructure, which he noted could be time-consuming and difficult when done without active assistance from development partners.

    “The Rana Plaza was not the first building to collapse in Bangladesh with tragic consequences. A determined effort by the Bangladeshi government and its international partners could help to ensure that it is the last,” he added.

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    About the author

    • Johanna Morden

      Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.

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