Farhad Chowdhury: Actions against ‘obstructers of the democratic process’ had already been announced. Among these, the US President Joe Biden has suddenly issued instructions for punitive measures including trade bans, visa restrictions against ‘labour rights violators’. Last Thursday, he signed a memorandum titled ‘Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights and High Labor Standards Globally’. The entrepreneurs of Bangladesh’s garment industry have been scared since the country’s foreign minister Anthony Blinken announced the matter in an announcement that day. Considering the current situation of the country, they fear that the matter may be used for political purposes.
While announcing the issuance of the memorandum, Anthony Blinken said, “Through this, the United States has recognized the protection of workers’ rights as an important part of its national security and foreign policy.” Sanctions, commercial fines, and visa restrictions will be imposed to hold accountable those who threaten, intimidate, attack union leaders, labor rights defenders, and labor organizations. We want to live with people like Kalpana Akter, a Bangladeshi garment worker. He said, he is still alive because the US Embassy worked for him.
The statement of the garment sector stakeholders in the country is that after restrictions on law enforcement and visa policy, the statement focusing on the issue of labor rights has now become a cause of great concern. The memorandum announced after the political context and the spate of labor protests over minimum wages in the garment sector is now scaring entrepreneurs afresh.
Especially the entrepreneurs of the large companies that export to the US market are now the most afraid. The leader of such an organization told on the condition of anonymity yesterday, “There is no reason to fear Bangladesh in terms of labor rights.” But the political context has many reasons to be alarmed. It is difficult to predict the intentions or actions of any country or individual. Considering the context of geopolitical and internal politics, Bangladesh is now in tension with the United States. Many believe that the United States could use any number of tools to impose sanctions amid political tensions. Fear is working on it.
Entrepreneurs say they have, and continue to, invest heavily in improving the working environment and worker safety following the recommendations of Accord and Alliance, a coalition of Western buyers and labor unions, following the Rana Plaza disaster. In the meantime, the latest announcement by the US has spread anxiety among them. Because not all factories are the same. Among them, if any action is taken on the entire garment sector by exploiting the situation of a few factories, it will be a big disaster.
Syed Nurul Islam, Chairman and CEO of Chittagong-based WELL Group told, “We have done what the Accord-Alliance of International Buyers and Labor Organizations has asked to improve the workplace environment. More has been done in some cases. Now if there is a labor movement in the name of social unrest, and if there is political affiliation; Then whoever is in power will do his job. As a result, if sanctions are imposed, the immediate first impact will be on industrialists. At the end of the day, entrepreneurs will be directly affected by such sanctions or restrictions. Naturally I am concerned. Joe Biden’s memorandum and Anthony Blinken’s statement are certainly frightening. Because many kinds of political events can happen in our country, in which workers get directly or indirectly involved. Law and order forces take action against it. We owners cannot fight against anyone. If you beat me, I leave after being beaten. But the state will not remain silent. The state apparatus will go a step further. The US declaration said that if anyone interferes with workers’ rights, they will consider taking action.
An entrepreneur has invested a huge amount in improving the labor environment of the factory targeting the US market. His company exports garments worth more than $300 million annually. 85 percent of it goes to the United States. On the condition of anonymity, the entrepreneur told, ‘Tazreen, we have increased the production capacity targeting the US market clothing buyers to deal with the post-disaster situation of Rana Plaza. We have invested a huge amount in improving the workplace environment. Investments have also been made in monitoring compliance with labor laws. Despite all this, I am afraid of recent announcements from the Biden administration. Because labor rights are good in my factory and I have no concern about it. But the labor rights situation of all garment factories in the country is not the same. Many factories still have weaknesses. Besides this there is the political context. Now in this situation, if the United States gives any kind of sanctions using labor rights as a tool, then the entrepreneurs of the garment industry will be directly affected.
According to the data of the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) under the US Department of Commerce, the United States imported $9,993,225,000 worth of clothing from the world market in 2022. Among them, clothes worth $974.62 crore have been imported from Bangladesh. As such, Bangladesh provides 9.7 percent of the total clothing imported by the United States.
Executive President of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) Mohammad Hatem told, “Many people should be afraid of this announcement. In this case, politics is behind what is said about labor rights. They are trying to use the political purpose in different ways. Some with the name of labor leaders are running various processes to disturb our garment sector. It is now clear that many people do not like the progress of Bangladesh economically.
He also said, “However, there is no reason to fear in this issue.” There has not been, is not happening or will happen in our country with regard to labor rights that any such action should be taken. We have no weakness. As much as there is, China, Vietnam, India is in every country. In particular, there are very bad labor conditions in some countries, which Bangladesh does not have. Be it workplace or labor rights. Many countries have very delicate situation in these fields, Bangladesh is very advanced. So, there is no reason to fear. Now anyone or any country can do that if they do something purposefully. I don’t think our work environment and labor rights have any situation that warrants any kind of sanction. So, I don’t think we have any reason to worry. The political issue is different.
The United States has long been the country’s largest apparel export market as a single country. According to the statistics of the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) under the Ministry of Commerce, Bangladesh has exported $4,570.91 crore worth of clothing to the world market in 2022. Out of this, $905.99 crore worth of clothing has been exported to the United States. According to this, almost 20 percent of the total garment exports have been in the United States.
However, the announcement of the United States is not applicable to the garment sector of Bangladesh, the leaders of BGMEA, an organization of garment manufacturers and exporters, say that the factories here are being operated in accordance with the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention. The industry has to pass many types of public and private audits to operate in this country. Any question of violation of labor laws does not apply to the garment industry of Bangladesh.
BGMEA Vice President Shahidullah Azim told, “There is definitely fear, because the exporters do not sell the garment products in the local market, but in the international market.” As a result, if any obstacle comes, it is supposed to be difficult for it. I think there is no reason to fear. If one does his job properly, if he follows the law, there will be no reason for trouble. The United States has said that those who do not obey labor laws, do not control labor standards will be punished. That is, there is no reason to fear those who obey the law and control labor standards.
Syed Mohammad Tanveer, managing director of Pacific Jeans Group, also feels that there is less chance for Bangladeshi entrepreneurs to be alarmed in the overall context. He told, “We have no weakness. Rather we have ratified many ILO conventions. According to the criteria of ILO, Bangladesh’s labor rights and human rights are better than many other countries in international standards. There is no reason to panic here. The fear of those who are afraid is relative, it can be for many reasons. I think there is no justification for fear. Our factories in the garment industry are far ahead in compliance ratings as per the criteria set by Western buyers. All small, medium and large factories are in a much better position than many other countries in terms of fire and building safety, workers’ protection and rights.
Advocate AKM Naseem, country program director of Solidarity Center, an international labor rights organization affiliated to The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFLCIO)told, “The issue of minimum wages in the garment sector has not been properly resolved. There will be questions about this. The death of the worker is undesirable. Four laborers have died in labor rights issue, it is unprecedented. From that point of view, many things are not positive now.
Kalpana Akter, the Bangladeshi worker mentioned in Antony Blinken’s Thursday announcement, is now the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS). He said, “The policy that has been adopted is not my country’s, but the foreign labor policy of the United States.” It is equally applicable to all countries. He knows why the US Secretary of State chose my name. My name has nothing to do with the declared policy. The policy mainly deals with violation of labor rights. Whether it is being violated in Bangladesh is a big issue. Even if we all look with the naked eye, we can still see that labor rights are being violated. Fears clothing owners should conquer now. One should come out of fear now by adopting strategy through well-planned planning. If it is politics, then why are you giving the opportunity for politics. I wouldn’t be surprised if the employer thinks labor rights aren’t being violated. However, I am saying that we can survive this policy only if we fix the issues of violation of labor rights. The policy is for all countries, not just us. Now if we have a violation here, there will be fear.’’
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