Today marks the one-year anniversary of the building collapse at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh that claimed over 1,100 lives and injured thousands more – the worst industrial disaster in the history of the garment industry. Like the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster in the United States over one hundred years ago, Rana Plaza, and the Tazreen factory fire that preceded it in November 2012, have become potent symbols of the significant and unnecessary risks that many workers are still forced to take in order to earn a living and support their families. As we mourn the victims, we are again called to action so that tragedies like Rana Plaza and Tazreen never happen again.
All stakeholders in Bangladesh – including the government, employers, and buyers of Bangladeshi products – bear a responsibility for ensuring safe working conditions and that workers have a voice to protect their interests. To that end, we are working with all stakeholders to implement the Action Plan we laid out after President Obama suspended Bangladesh’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences program last June. We are also closely coordinating with the European Union and the International Labor Organization (ILO), key partners in a July 2013 Sustainability Compact on worker rights and factory safety in Bangladesh.
In the last year, the government of Bangladesh has made progress in some important respects. For example, Bangladesh has allowed over 140 unions to register, permitted re-registration of a leading labor rights non-governmental organization that had been stripped of its registration, agreed to an ambitious plan for safety inspections and factory-level monitoring and remediation across the garment sector in collaboration with the ILO, begun the hiring of new labor inspectors, and conducted preliminary safety inspections.
But there is much more work still to be done. There continue to be concerns about basic worker rights protections under both Bangladesh’s labor law and its special Export Processing Zone law. The Bangladesh government’s hiring of inspectors is lagging, and the results of inspections need to be made publicly available on an easily accessible database. The government of Bangladesh must also do more to ensure protection when workers face intimidation and reprisals for trying to organize. Addressing these issues would help workers secure safer working conditions and better wages and enable Bangladesh to realize its full economic potential.