Working people around the world are watching in horror and disbelief as the number of workers who have needlessly died in Bangladesh rises. Now, over 800 brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and loved ones have been confirmed dead in a tragedy that never should have happened – and hundreds more remain missing. There is no doubt that the collapse of the Rana Plaza building and factories in Bangladesh will be known as one of the worst workplace catastrophes in history. We must collectively as a nation and as a world, together with Bangladesh, take immediate steps to prevent these kinds of disasters in the future.
First and foremost, the AFL-CIO encourages the unions and corporations throughout the supply chain to negotiate, sign and implement a binding agreement regarding workplace fires and building safety in Bangladesh. The proposed Fire and Building Safety Agreement, already accepted by two major brands, guarantees worker participation, recognizes the role of government and takes measures to combat corruption by requiring rigorous inspections, transparent reporting of audits and public oversight of results. This agreement offers an integrated and sustainable solution. Agreements like these are needed in many countries where major brands and retailers have chosen to produce their goods under a low-wage and no-rights model, but the many recent and needless deaths and injuries in Bangladesh make that country the most urgent priority right now. Companies that say they want to improve conditions in Bangladesh must join the brands that have signed this agreement, rather than seeking an alternative with less transparency and accountability.
We call on the U.S. government to immediately withdraw, suspend, or limit Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits for Bangladesh until it fulfills its most basic duties to workers. As the AFL-CIO has maintained since filing a GSP petition in 2007 (and in earlier years), suspending trade benefits is a crucial mechanism to pressure the Bangladeshi government to take clear and concrete actions to afford workers their internationally recognized worker rights. Clearly, the pace of progress has been inadequate to date.
Over 80 percent of garments produced in Bangladesh are exported to the United States and the European Union. This creates shared responsibility for finding a sustainable solution to the lax conditions and weak workplace protections. Major brands and retailers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere have made millions from high profit margins based on low wages and dangerous conditions. We call on the retailers not to leave Bangladesh, but to take an active role in improving conditions by pressuring the government to implement reforms and by negotiating with workers and local employers. People outside Bangladesh must insist that retailers, brands, investors, and our governments use their power to promote sustainable development and shared prosperity for workers in Bangladesh who produce our clothes.