Today, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Robert Casey (D-PA), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Angus King (I-ME), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Carl Levin (D-MI), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) urged President Obama to do all within his power to pressure Bangladesh to support safer working conditions that could have prevented the worst garment factory accident in history. The senators urged the Administration to suspend trade preferences for Bangladesh until it makes marked progress on efforts to ensure worker safety. Last month, more than 1,100 workers were killed, and hundreds of others permanently disabled, when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed.
"President Obama must do everything in his power to prevent tragedies like the Bangladesh factory collapse from happening again," Brown said. "For several years, labor unions and workers rights groups have documented safety and workers rights violations in Bangladesh, which went unheeded. More than 1,100 lives could have been saved if the public and private sectors stepped up. It's time our government takes a strong stand and works with the Bangladesh government and the private sector to prevent future tragedies."
"Lax labor standards put workers at risk and perpetuate an uneven playing field making it difficult or impossible for American workers to compete as companies search the global labor market for the lowest bidder," Casey said. "U.S. trade policy can't turn a blind eye to these transgressions. With additional trade fights on the agenda, the Administration must set an example."
"It is essential to stop the "race to the bottom' among clothing brands, hunting for the cheapest place to make clothing without regard to the cost in human life or the cost to American jobs," Harkin said. "Until workplaces in Bangladesh are safer, until their workers are making more than a pittance, until workers are able to effectively organize and speak out against fundamentally abusive work practices, then our government should not give trade preferences to any products from Bangladesh."
"The Rana Plaza incident was tragic and avoidable. We must not stand by while workers labor in deadly conditions to feed their families," Cardin said. "The U.S. market accounts for 30 percent of Bangladesh's apparel exports, so we have a responsibility to act. After more than 23 years of pressure on Bangladesh to improve safety and workers' rights with little progress, it is time for us to take more decisive steps until it can provide internationally recognized rights for its workers.
"Bangladesh needs to improve its safety and labor standards, and it needs to uphold internationally-recognized worker rights," Levin said. "The United States should consider these issues when determining Bangladesh's continued eligibility for Generalized System of Preferences benefits."
"The tragedy in Bangladesh earlier this year was heartbreaking, but sadly, not completely unexpected," Murphy said. "Safety and workers' rights have not been neglected in Bangladesh for years, and the collapse of Rana Plaza could be the first in a series of workplace tragedies in the area if nothing changes. We need to support and encourage workers' rights and workplace safety abroad just as we do here at home. In a recent Foreign Relations Committee hearing, the Administration reiterated its commitment to working with the private sector and urged it to leverage its market power to make change in Bangladesh. I'm glad these steps have already been taken, and I hope the President will continue to do all he can to support labor markets that take workplace safety seriously."
"It's time to raise the bar on labor and environmental standards," Merkley said. "The series of tragedies in Bangladesh demand that we do more."
The senators also called on President Obama to continue his outreach to the business community so that it can use its global leverage to demand safer worker conditions in countries like Bangladesh. Following the factory collapse last month, eight U.S. senators wrote to major retailers urging them to reconsider signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
The senators' letter to President Obama can be read in its entirety below:
June 25, 2013
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We share your thoughts and prayers for the victims of the tragic Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh in April. The death toll in this accident, the worst garment factory accident in history, has now reached 1,127, and the tragedy has left hundreds of others permanently disabled.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh underscores the urgent need for brands and retailers to work with governments to adopt a common and legally enforceable response that ensures that basic workplace safety and fundamental worker rights will be guaranteed. The promise of Bangladesh's ready- made garment sector was that it would put the nation on a path toward becoming a middle-income country -- lifting millions out of poverty. However, this promise has not been fulfilled because of the lack of worker rights which have resulted in deplorable working conditions and low wages.
Recent events have proven that voluntary initiatives and self-monitoring are not effective approaches to ensure worker safety. The most recent tragedy was preventable, especially since there has been a serious pattern of putting workers in hazardous and life-threatening environments. As U.S. officials noted in June 6 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the U.S. private sector can and must leverage its market power to help advance positive change for workers in Bangladesh.
We believe that several U.S. brands and retailers are ready to put an end to these tragedies by collectively stepping-up and showing a commitment to real, enforceable standards. Brands such as Inditex (Zara), H&M, and now the U.S. brands Abercrombie & Fitch, PVH, and Sean John have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. We appreciate the efforts of the State and Labor Departments and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in reaching out to the private sector to emphasize the importance of taking demonstrable, enforceable action to ensure such tragedies do not happen again, and to encourage brands and retailers to join in signing the Accord.
Further, we support any and all actions aimed at ensuring worker rights and safety in Bangladesh. With respect to the ongoing review of Bangladesh's eligibility for Generalized System of Preference (GSP) benefits, we urge that the Administration suspend Bangladesh's eligibility for GSP, and establish a roadmap and timeline for reinstatement based upon tangible improvements in worker safety and related labor law reforms. We hope you will fully take into account the recent tragedies, as well as the labor eligibility criteria of GSP, which requires beneficiary countries to take the relevant steps to advance internationally recognized worker rights.
We look forward to working with your Administration to develop a coherent response to ensure that the growth of Bangladesh's export sector (and those of other low cost producers globally) does not come at the expense of safe and healthy working conditions or fundamental labor rights.