After the Bangladesh garment factory collapse in April that left more than 1,100 workers dead, their broken bodies mingled with brand-name clothing tags, the country’s politicians and sweatshop owners no doubt hoped the resulting furor over worker rights and safety would soon blow over. It hasn’t.
Bangladesh’s garment workers are notoriously poorly paid, making as little as $38 a month to produce cheap clothing for consumers in far richer countries. They are commonly abused, largely non-unionized and routinely exposed to fire and other workplace hazards. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka was one of the worst industrial disasters ever.
Now, in a stinging rebuke to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, U.S. President Barack Obama is moving to suspend Bangladesh’s trade benefits until its officials deliver on promises to improve worker rights and workplace safety. Under pressure from American trade unions, Obama served notice late last week that he intends to revoke the break on some tariffs that Bangladesh enjoys, and make it harder for certain products to get into the U.S. market.
At root this is a symbolic gesture, affecting barely $40 million worth of Bangladeshi products such as tobacco and sports gear.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has no plans to follow Washington’s lead, partly out of a principled concern not to put poor workers out of jobs. But the European Union has been mulling trade action, and Washington’s move can only strengthen the hand of those who want to rescind Bangladesh’s duty-free privilege.
That threat should concentrate minds around the Hasina cabinet table, where politicians have been scandalously tolerant of employer intimidation and brutality, appalling working conditions and criminally unsafe workplaces.
Galvanized by the Rana Plaza disaster, and fearing a consumer backlash, Canadian and international brand-name clothing firms that have goods made in Bangladesh are marshaling their collective commercial clout to force some changes.
The Hasina government has promised to increase wages, to let workers form unions and to better enforce its safety laws. Yet as the Obama administration’s frustration has just signaled, its efforts have been half-hearted at best. It still reflexively defers to affluent and politically connected factory owners who balk at improving workers’ rights or investing in safety. That has to change.
Profits shouldn’t trump lives. And the world is no longer looking the other way.
The Star, Toronto