The United States said Thursday it will soon decide whether to suspend Bangladesh from a duty-free accord as it urged action by Dhaka to improve labour rights following a massive factory collapse.
After a call by US unions, President Barack Obama’s administration in January launched a review on whether to keep Bangladesh in the Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, which provides duty-free access for thousands of goods.
The review was under way when Rana Plaza, a nine-story garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, crumbled on April 24 and killed 1,129 people despite concerns expressed previously by workers over the building’s integrity.
“The administration will announce a decision on next steps in the GSP review of Bangladesh by the end of June,” said Lewis Karesh, who handles labor issues for the US Trade Representative’s office.
“All options remain under consideration, including possible suspension, limitation or withdrawal of GSP benefits,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the committee, sounded supportive on the suspension of Bangladesh. He noted that the GSP does not cover textiles, which are by far the South Asian nation’s largest export to the United States.
“While only a small fraction of Bangladesh’s exports would be affected, given ongoing violations of the GSP workers’ right criteria, GSP suspension would send a strong signal that the United States is serious about protecting workers and improving workplace safety,” Menendez said.
But Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said that Bangladesh has been responsive to appeals by the United States, saying that the country has allowed the registration of 27 trade unions since September.
“Our hope is that Bangladesh will seize the current moment to strengthen labor rights and improve working conditions. This administration wants to see Bangladesh succeed,” Blake said.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster, more than 40 companies – most from Europe – have signed on to an agreement that would include independent monitoring of factory conditions and a stronger role for labor unions.
But only three US companies have joined, with US retail giants Walmart and Gap opposed.
Blake said that the decision to enter the accord was up to each company but that the US government has asked firms “to carefully examine what they can do to support improved working conditions in Bangladesh.”