By Julian Pecquet
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on Thursday put Bangladesh on notice that it will face consequences if the country fails to improve its dismal labor rights record following the worst disaster in the garment industry's history.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the United States should eliminate Bangladesh's preferential access to the U.S. market if it fails to make improvements. Menendez called a hearing on the issue weeks after the collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory killed 1,127 people, citing his personal connection as the son of a seamstress as a key reason for his advocacy.
"We have been saber-rattling, but that hasn't produced the results that we want to see," Menendez said. "So in my mind the question is when to go from to some action.
"How many more people have to die before we decide that is not something we can morally sustain?"
Highlighting his commitment to the issue, Menendez pointed out that this was the panel's first hearing on labor rights since Congress debated China's entry into the World Trade Organization 12 years ago.
U.S. government officials at the hearing said the country has made some efforts, notably with last month's adoption of legislation expanding benefits for garment workers and making it easier to start trade unions. But they said they don't go far enough.
"U.S. officials have been explicit with the government of Bangladesh concerning specific actions it should take to provide greater freedom of association and to ensure that workers have safe factories in which to work," said Lewis Karesh, the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Labor. "Despite our many efforts with Bangladesh, beginning in late 2012 we grew increasingly concerned that the worker-rights situation was in fact deteriorating."
He said the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is considering "possible withdrawal, suspension or limitation of Bangladesh's trade benefits" under the Generalized System of Preferences. The Obama administration will announce next steps in its GSP review by the end of the month, he said.
Several lawmakers and the administration officials also called on U.S. firms to do more.
About 40 mostly European companies have signed on to a binding agreement calling for independent inspections of the factories they use in Bangladesh as well as commitments to fund improvements to fire and building safety. Only three U.S. retailers have signed on.
"Now," Menendez wrote in an op-ed prior to the hearing, "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."