Tuesday, June 25, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

What does the new US policy of sanctions, visa restrictions for violating workers’ rights mean for Bangladesh RMG?

The US is the largest destination for Bangladesh's RMG products 

Update : 19 Nov 2023, 08:16 PM

For the first time ever, the United States (US) has introduced a Presidential Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labor Standards Globally, which will allow the country to impose sanctions, penalties and visa restrictions without having to go to the United Nations (UN) first. 

After the announcement on Friday, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) exporters said they were deeply concerned as the policy will have major ramifications since the US is the largest export destination for Bangladesh-made RMG products. 

They also said they are carefully reading the fine print to understand how it might affect the industry. 

They did however acknowledge that there might be some gaps in labor standards in Bangladesh which the US is unhappy with, and therefore must be addressed. 

The US policy on global workers’ rights 

Secretary of the US Department of State Antony J Blinken in his speech said those who threaten, intimidate, attack union leaders, labour rights defenders and labour organizations will be held accountable at the Rollout of the Presidential Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights and High Labor Standards Globally.

“We will work to hold accountable those who threaten, who intimidate, who attack union leaders, labour rights defenders, labour organizations – including using things like sanctions, trade penalties, visa restrictions – all the tools in our kit,” said Blinken.

Seeking anonymity, a top-level apparel manufacturer told Dhaka Tribune that if the US feels that any country or industry is not upholding workers' rights, it can use its new workers' rights policy against them.

They have the authority to impose penalties, visa restrictions and entry restrictions under the application on any companies, goods, or people. 

Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, whose efforts was mentioned by Secretary Blinken said this is a global policy and the US is free to use it against any country that violates labour rights. 

Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow of the CPD, said that the policy is a signal for Bangladesh as the US can take any measures if they feel the workers’ rights are violated. 

Why this worries Bangladesh 

Bangladesh is performing well in terms of worker and infrastructure safety, but exporters are concerned about the recently updated policies.

The manufacturer, who wished to remain anonymous, said that during the meeting between USTR and Bangladeshi enterprises, US representatives brought up the importance of considerable improvements in trade unions, wages, and other areas of workers' rights.

“They called for a law allowing trade unions to organize in both general regions and EPZs. They may not be content with the circumstances, though. Four people lost their lives during additional wage rise protests. It had an effect, too,” he continued.

He added that because the policy applies to all sectors, the state of affairs outside the RMG sector is inadequate and concerning for Bangladesh.

“Any industry, person, company, or specific product may be subject to sanctions or limitations in accordance with the policy. Earlier, such type of restrictions needed UN approval, but now it won’t need any of this, which worries Bangladesh,” he added.

Have workers’ rights improved enough in line with infrastructural development? 

Kalpona Akter said that there has been a significant improvement in the building safety and infrastructure. “But still workers’ rights lag behind. We face enormous challenges in forming any trade unions. There are still invisible political issues in forming unions.”

She also said that improvement in workers’ rights in other industries is negligible which is a problem. 

Professor Mustafizur Rahman said that there are gaps in the workers’ rights, trade union formation, maternity leaves, unions in EPZs, SEZs etc.

Why USA matters

The USA is the largest export destination for Bangladesh RMG from where it earned $8.51 billion in FY23 (18.12% of total RMG exports).

The exporters were already stressed about a decline in growth. Export to the USA witnessed a decline of 3.05% to $2.57 billion in July-October period of FY24 (17.45% of total RMG exports).

Sparrow Group is one of the largest exporters to the US market and their buyers are the most iconic brands of the country.

Talking to Dhaka Tribune, Shovon Islam, managing director of the company, said that he is extremely concerned regarding the policy.

“They can impose sanctions on any particular industry, business, individuals, any product or even on the whole country. I am extremely concerned that if they do it, I don’t know what I will do with my companies and my 14,000 workers,” he added.

Professor Mustafizur Rahman said that the US is the largest destination for Bangladeshi products, so Bangladesh needs to address this issue. 


Industries need robust labour rights implementation

Professor Mustafizur Rahman suggested that the RMG industry should focus on compliance to fill the gap regarding labour rights and trade unions.

He also urged to resolve the issues regarding forming trade unions in the Labour Act (amendment) 2020.

Kalpona Akter said that the sector should have such good workers' rights that nobody can point a finger at Bangladesh. 

“If your house is out of order then you give others the opportunity to criticize you, don’t give others the chance to tell you to fix things at home, do it yourself,” she added.

The RMG industry should create opportunities to communicate with genuine workers’ representatives regarding workers’ rights, she said.

She also warned the way the workers’ movement is being dealt with in Bangladesh does not send a good message to the world.

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