The United States on Friday defended its
suspension of Bangladesh's trade preferences as an "opportunity" to
improve conditions for workers there.
"The United States believes this moment represents an opportunity for Bangladesh to take action to improve labour safety standards," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in Washington.
The Bangladesh Foreign Ministry called the suspension a "shocking" blow to its stepped up efforts to improve factory safety after more than 1,100 people died in the April collapse of a building housing multiple garment factories.
The Bangladesh garment manufacturers association objected to the move, as did a German industry organization that charged it would not help local industry.
"It is not clear to us why the United States took such a decision when Bangladesh was trying to improve the situation at the factories and the welfare of the workers," Atiqul Islam of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association told bdnews24.com.
US President Barack Obama notified Congress on Thursday that he intended to suspend Bangladesh's benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences that allowed zero or reduced tariffs on some imported products. He cited the lack of support for "internationally recognized worker rights."
The US suspension was already in the works in January, after a Bangladesh factory fire in 2012 killed 112 workers. A panel at the US Trade Representative (USTR) found in January that suspension of preferred status was in order.
The AFL-CIO, the leading US labour organization, has petitioned since 2007 for Bangladesh to improve workers' safety and rights.
The European Parliament has warned Bangladesh that its preferred status with the European Union was at risk over poor working conditions.
The Foreign Trade Association of German Retailers criticized the US move. "(Bangladesh) is not helped by this - to the contrary," director Jan Eggert told dpa in Berlin. "It means no more orders will be placed, because the import prices will rise."
Ventrell said the US would work with Bangladesh to develop more protections for workers' safety, an intention echoed by European officials.
Netherlands Foreign Trade Minister Lilianne Ploumen, in Washington this week to discuss the Bangladesh situation with US officials as well as other issues, said she had just come from Bangladesh, where she had visited Rana Plaza, site of April's tragedy, and some of the injured survivors of the factory collapse.
"I feel the Bangladeshi government should really step up their efforts to implement (and enhance) their laws," she told dpa.
Ploumen said the garment industry had "mushroomed" so that the people who are stepping into the industry - "some of good will, others not so" - lack expertise to run a textile factory responsibly.
"Lots of produce goes out the back door to semi-legal or illegal workshops," she said.
Bangladesh had been able to export to the United States nearly 5,000 types of items without paying import tariffs. Nearly a quarter of its textile exports, valued at 4.5 billion dollars, are exported to the United States every year.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni warned in May that foreign consumers would have to accept a "modest increase" in the cost of clothes to help pay for the 3-billion-dollar cost of bringing all factories up to safety standards.
"I believe consumers in the West are ready to pay this modest increase, or even a little more, for the millions of women who stitch for them in a distant land," Moni said.
An estimated 20 million people depend on Bangladesh's ready-made garment industry, including more than 4 million workers directly employed in 5,000 factories.
The industry has contributed to significant social changes, freeing women from poor, rural economies or their traditional roles of homemakers.
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