By Philip Hamilton
(BGF) – On February 11, 2014 the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (“the Committee”) held a hearing on the “Prospects for Democratic Reconciliation and Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh”. The hearing consisted of two panels. The first panel was composed of testimony from Nisha Desai Biswal, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs; Eric Biel, the Acting Associate Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs at the Bureau of International Labor Affairs in the U.S. Department of Labor; and Lewis Karesh, the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Labor.
The second panel was comprised of testimony from Ellen Tauscher, the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety; Scott Nova, the Executive Director of the Workers Rights Consortium who is a Witness Signatory to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh; and Kalpona Akter, the Executive Director for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
Much of the discussion during the first panel centered around the U.S. role in promoting democracy and the improvement of worker safety and rights in Bangladesh. In particular, the Committee was concerned with further clarifying the U.S.’s overall strategy in Bangladesh, as well as whether U.S. efforts, and the impact of the suspension of the Generalized System of Preferences benefits for Bangladeshi goods were effective. However, two more subtle points were made during the first panel that are of particular interest.
Firstly, Senator Menendez, the Chairman of the Committee, noted that the efforts to improve worker safety and rights in Bangladesh must send a signal to brands, retailers, and the rest of the world that sub-standard work conditions will not be tolerated, in Bangladesh and beyond. This is a critical reminder that we must not forget that worker safety and rights are problems that exist in many countries. As Senator Menendez made clear, we must send a message that brands and retailers cannot sidestep the issue of improving worker safety and rights by simply leaving Bangladesh in favor of a country with less stringent standards.
Secondly, workers are their own best advocates. This echoes a sentiment that was expressed frequently during our November 18th, 2013 online conference on worker safety and rights. As has been widely noted, the workers of Rana Plaza were aware that the building was unsafe, however, because they were threatened with termination or docked pay, and because they lacked the ability to organize, they were forced to work in unsafe conditions. Consequently, if workers are given more rights, especially the right to organize, then they will be able to voice concerns and pressure employers for better work conditions. After all, who knows the work conditions better than the workers?
The second panel, which featured representatives for both the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, as well as Ms. Akter who was once a Bangladeshi child laborer, primarily focused on the similarities and differences between the Alliance and Accord. Moments of tension during the Q&A portion of the hearing abounded, as Ms. Akter and Senator Menendez implied a preference for the Accord. This put Ms. Tauscher on the defense as she sought to downplay the differences between the two industry-led initiatives.
In particular, Ms. Tauscher noted that the the Alliance and Accord have worked together closely on a set of standards. As she noted, having two sets of standards would be the only thing worse than having no set of standards at all, a realization that prompted coordination between the two initiatives. Additionally, she sought to combat the misrepresentation of the Alliance in the media and public opinion. Her testimony stated: “…there has been considerable misinformation about the perceived differences between the Alliance and the Accord and too little said about what we have in common and where we can collaborate. The member companies and other stakeholders of both initiatives share a common purpose: to protect the safety and livelihoods of garment workers in Bangladesh.”
Among the more damaging perceptions of the Alliance that Ms. Tauscher was likely referring to appeared in the New York Times following our November 18th Conference. According to the New York Times, there were fears that the mandatory financial commitments made by members of the Accord would result in a free-rider problem whereby Alliance members would benefit from the financial contributions made by the Accord without having to make any contributions of their own.
Ms. Tauscher went on to note that the Alliance has made significant progress since it’s formation in July 2013. In particular, Ms. Tauscher noted that the Alliance has conducted baseline surveys and off-site interviews with 3,200 Bangladeshi workers from 28 factories, has trained managers and workers from 218 Alliance factories in fire safety, conducted safety, fire, and electrical inspections on 222 factories that produce goods for Alliance members, and engaged local NGO’s, workers’ organizations, and the Government of Bangladesh.
Mr. Nova on the other hand sought to dispel the misperception that the Accord was a European-led initiative. He noted that the Accord receives substantial support within the United States and extended an open invitation anyone interested in joining the Accord. Additionally, Mr. Nova reiterated the Accord’s commitment to correcting the shortcomings of previous efforts to improve worker safety and rights through the use of a binding and enforceable contract, rigorous factory inspections, and through worker empowerment efforts that allow workers to influence practices in the factory and in the Accord. Moreover, Mr. Nova reminded the Committee of the Accord’s innovative provision that grants workers the right to refuse dangerous work.
While much of the discussion during the hearing did not really touch upon the atrocious conditions of garment workers, Ms. Akter’s moving testimony provided a much needed countervailing force, infused with her own experience. Ms. Akter told of her experiences as a child laborer in a garment factory producing for international brands and retailers. After her father became disabled and could no longer work, Ms. Akter, who was only twelve at the time, turned to employment in the garment sector where she made less than $10 per month, was cheated of overtime pay, and harrassed for trying to organize her co-workers. And this is a crucial reminder: The garment sector, for all its ills, is a vital source of employment which many individuals, particularly women, rely upon for their livelihood. The garment sector has also brought substantial economic growth, particularly in Bangladesh, which is a beneficial aspect that cannot be overlooked.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the Alliance and the Accord is that it represents the decision by a significant number of brands and retailers to help drive improvements in worker safety and rights, rather than moving to other garment producing countries. However, Ms. Akter’s testimony served as a powerful reminder that much work remains to be done. All the talk of improvements and accomplishments at the policy-level is meaningless unless it translates into actual improvements in worker safety and rights for those working in the garment sector.