Two months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse which killed over 1,100 people and maimed countless more, Bangladesh is getting a slap on the wrist from the United States due to its notoriously poor labor conditions. On Thursday, the Obama administration is expected to suspend Bangladesh's special trade privileges, which allow it to export certain products to the United States duty-free.
"It's only symbolic. It's not very much money," said Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights executive director Charles Kernaghan. "But someone had to put the line down and say enough is enough."
Kernaghan estimated that the Obama administration's move would only cost Bangladeshi industry about $40 million a year; practically nothing compared to the country's annual $5 billion in exports to the United States. Nonetheless, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity's Kalpona Akter said that eliminating Bangladesh's trade privileges could produce "an immense crisis" if it inspires the European Union to take similar measures.
"This will help the workers to get their rights, because the government will feel the heat now," Akter, a former sweatshop worker, told msnbc.com.
The American labor federation AFL-CIO first petitioned [PDF] the United States to eliminate Bangladesh's trading privileges in 2007, in response to what they said was a spate of anti-union harassment and intimidation in the country. Democratic lawmakers revived the call after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in late April. Kernaghan, who recently returned from a visit to Bangladesh, said that the local government has been dragging its feet in response to the worst industrial accident in the history of the garment industry.
"These things are bordering on servitude, even slavery, and the Bangladeshi has done nothing to improve conditions," he said. "This has been handed over to the Walmarts of the world and the GAPs, and they've done a miserable job. So finally, the Obama administration has stood up symbolically."
Following the factory collapse, several European retailers signed onto a safety accord requiring that they pay for safety improvements in the Bangladeshi factories they use. Walmart and GAP have declined to sign the accord, saying they would come up with their own alternative measures. But voluntary safety accords aren't enough, said Kernaghan.
"We've been going to Bangladesh for many years, and the conditions have always been wretched," he said. "The labels hide behind these codes of conduct which are useless, and they've gotten away with it for the past thirty years."
The country needs new laws, said Akter, not voluntary safety accords.
"First thing, these workers should have a safe working place that our government should ensure," she said. "Second is making sure workers are free to exercise a union, and third is stop harassing labor rights activists like us whenever we support labor rights."