Exporters worried, unions urge improvements
Business leaders and apparel exporters are worried over a recent US presidential directive on labour rights situation while union leaders and trade analysts suggested bringing improvements to avert trade sanctions.
The opinions were sought by The Daily Star yesterday over US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken's statements on the labour rights situation in different countries on Thursday.
At the rollout of a Presidential Memorandum on "Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labour Standards Globally", Blinken said the US would hold accountable those who threaten, intimidate, and attack union leaders, labour rights defenders and labour organisations.
Tools like sanctions, trade penalties and visa restrictions will be used against them, he said.
"I am worried about the fate of garment export from my factories as more than 90 percent of my shipment is destined for the US," said AK Azad, chairman and chief executive officer of Ha-Meem Group.
The group exports garment items worth nearly $500 million a year.
Azad suggested that the government handle the situation politically and diplomatically.
Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, echoed him.
"We are worried about the fate of garment export from Bangladesh to the US," he told The Daily Star over the phone.
However, the US should keep in mind that they give a lot of trade facilities, including zero-duty benefits, to countries like Africa, Vietnam and Myanmar where there are a lot of questions about labour rights, he said.
On the other hand, Bangladesh is bringing improvements to the labour rights situation step by step and has come a long way when it comes to ensuring labour rights and practices in consultation with international communities, Hassan said.
Mohammad Hatem, executive president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said he was worried as "no labour rights violation" took place in Bangladesh.
Blinken talked about the global labour rights situation, not only about Bangladesh, he said.
Union leaders disagreed.
Four workers died in the latest spell of labour unrest over fixing the minimum wage of the garment sector, said Nazma Akter, president of Sammilito Garment Sramik Federation.
The workers and union leaders face difficulties exercising freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of movement, she said.
The government and factory owners should be very much proactive towards ensuring labour rights, she said.
Akter also suggested withdrawing all the unrest-related police cases against workers, refraining from harassing and intimidating the workers and reassessing a recently declared wage structure to improve the sector's image abroad.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, also suggested that the government and factory owners be more focused on ensuring labour rights.
He demanded withdrawal of 43 police cases against the workers and unconditional release of 115 workers and seven union leaders under arrest.
He also demanded immediately initiating investigations over the four deaths.
Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said Bangladesh should take note of the US statement and address those concerns as the country was the single largest export destination and a major source of cotton.
Bangladesh should address the labour rights issues and trade union concerns, something that International Labour Organization also suggested, he said.
Mostafa Abid Khan, a former member of the Bangladesh Trade and Tariff Commission, said it seems that Blinken's speech was very carefully drafted.
It is nothing to be worried about now but the need to bring improvements to the labour rights situation should also be recognised, he said.
The US does not give any duty benefit to Bangladesh on exports, he pointed out.
Local garment exporters face a 15.62 percent duty on export to the American markets. The exports amounted to over $10 billion last fiscal year, nearly 90 percent of which was garment items.