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GSP Review of Bangladesh Recognizes Progress, Urges that More be Done on Worker Safety and Rights

Washington, D.C. – A USTR-led interagency review has concluded that while Bangladesh has made progress over the last year to address fire and building safety issues in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector, further progress is needed, including to address serious worker rights issues, before reinstatement of Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) can be considered.  President Obama suspended Bangladesh from GSP in June 2013 based on Bangladesh’s failure to meet statutory eligibility requirements related to worker rights. 

“We urge the government to complete remaining factory inspections as soon as possible to prevent recurrence of workplace tragedies such as those that occurred in 2012 and 2013,” said United States Trade Representative Michael Froman.  “There is more work to do, building on the collaboration between the government of Bangladesh, private sector stakeholders, and the International Labor Organization, to address the concerns about factory safety in the apparel sector.  We also urge the government to accelerate its efforts to ensure workers’ rights and to take measures to address continuing reports of harassment of and violence against labor activists who are attempting to exercise their rights.”

The Administration recently concluded a USTR-led interagency review of progress by the government of Bangladesh in implementing the GSP Action Plan, which provides a basis for the potential reinstatement of GSP trade benefits.  The review found that there has been progress in some important areas, particularly with respect to fire and building safety issues.  Under the general supervision of the Bangladesh government, over 2,000 initial safety inspections of factories have been completed in the RMG sector over the last year, most by teams organized by private sector initiatives led by North American and European brands and retailers.  These inspections resulted in the closure of at least 31 factories, the partial closure of 17 additional factories, and the identification of needed remedial measures in hundreds more.  The government is responsible for the inspection of several hundred more factories and has hired additional inspection teams to carry out and sustain the inspection effort.

The review also found that further progress is needed in several key areas under the Action Plan.  In particular, urgent progress is needed to fairly and systematically address reports of unfair labor practices and to advance and implement needed legal reforms.  The U.S. Government is concerned about continuing reports of harassment and violence against union activists seeking to establish new unions or to exercise their legal rights.  There has also been little progress in advancing the labor law reforms called for in the Action Plan, including changes to ensure that workers are afforded the same rights and protections in Export Processing Zones as in the rest of the country.

In addition to engaging regularly with the government of Bangladesh, the U.S. Government is also closely coordinating with the European Union, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and other international partners under the July 2013 Sustainability Compact on worker rights and factory safety in Bangladesh. 

BACKGROUND

The President’s June 2013 decision to suspend Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the GSP program resulted in U.S. imports of GSP-eligible products from Bangladesh becoming ineligible for duty-free treatment.  In 2012, the total value of U.S. imports from Bangladesh under GSP was $34.7 million; the top GSP imports from Bangladesh included tobacco, sports equipment, porcelain china, and plastic products. Legal authorization for duty-free treatment for all countries under GSP expired on July 31, 2013.  The Obama Administration supports Congressional action to reauthorize the GSP program at the earliest opportunity.

The U.S. Government provides assistance through the Department of Labor (DOL), the Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for programs that support the strengthening of worker rights and safety in Bangladesh.  For example, DOL is providing technical assistance to help the government of Bangladesh better enforce fire and building safety standards and to train workers’ organizations to more effectively identify and report violations and propose and monitor remediation efforts.  The Department of State is supporting programs that seek to strengthen the capacity of trade unions to recruit new members, form legally-registered, plant-level unions and bargain with employers to improve working conditions for RMG sector workers, and increase the participation and skills of women to be active organizers and leaders of workers’ organizations.  USAID’s civil society strengthening initiatives include the Global Labor Program, which works in Bangladesh to strengthen capacity of independent, democratic trade unions and labor NGOs to engage in social dialogue, participate in policy debates, and promote access to justice for workers.  USAID also supports human rights and counter-trafficking in persons initiatives that promote the rights of migrant workers and vulnerable populations.

The review was conducted by the USTR-chaired GSP Subcommittee of the interagency Trade Policy Staff Committee, which includes representatives of the Departments of State, Labor, Commerce, Agriculture, and the Treasury, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development.