DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh said it has met the conditions put forward by the United States for better safety and workers' rights in its factories that were essential to regain preferential trade status the impoverished South Asian nation lost in 2013 after two disasters killed 1,500 garment workers.
The preferential trade status does not cover Bangladesh's influential garment industry, which helps the country earn $25 billion annually and mainly exports to the United States and Europe. But Dhaka has long lobbied for its garment industry to have duty-free access to the United States and the lost status was seen as a big blow to that goal.
The government said in its statement late Tuesday that all of the 16 conditions set by the U.S. have been met. It has so far shut down some 364 apparel units for lack of sufficient safety measures. It has amended labor laws, enacting new rules for allowing workers to form unions, increased the number of factory inspectors and settled many criminal cases against trade union leaders who said the charges were meant to silence them. Some 500 factory-based trade unions have been registered and workers' welfare associations have been formed in special export zones.
A delegation of the U.S. Trade Representative's office praised the progress but also found shortcomings. The delegation is visiting Bangladesh to review improvements in safety standards at factories and changes to legal documents allowing for wider workers' rights.
Michael J. Delaney, assistant U.S. trade representative, gave guarded appreciation of the progress.
"We saw very good progress initially on union registrations, with an unprecedented number of unions successfully registering. Now however, there seems to be slowing in this area, with an increasing number of union registrations being denied," Delaney said in remarks shared by the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka.
The team also expressed concern about the alleged harassment of the union leaders.
"We have also heard continuing concerns about the protection of unions from harassment. We want to work with the government to ensure that the Ministry of Labor has the capacity to address these allegations and to ensure unions' rights and responsibilities under the law,' Delaney said.
Delaney said it would be crucial that Bangladesh is prepared to take on "increased regulatory responsibilities."
Progress in meeting the 16 U.S. conditions is needed to regain the Generalized System of Preferences benefit under which the U.S. allows imports of some 5,000 goods from 122 of the world's poorest countries with low- or zero-tariff benefits.
In 2012, the total value of U.S. imports from Bangladesh under the GSP benefit was $34.7 million with tobacco, sports equipment, porcelain china and plastic products topping the list.
The trade benefit was withdrawn after the collapse of Rana Plaza, a building complex housing five garment factories outside the capital, Dhaka in 2013. The Rana Plaza disaster and a fire at a Tazreen Fashions factory in November 2012 left about 1,500 workers dead and hundreds injured.
The garment industry is crucial to Bangladesh's economy as it employs about 4 million workers, mostly rural women, and many other sectors including banks are heavily dependent on it.
In August, the United States renewed the trade benefit for 122 countries until 2017, but said Bangladesh needed to do more.
A leading workers' rights activist says more needs to be done to ensure the safety of the country's factory workers.
"If you talk about safety and structural aspects of the factories, no doubt, there is major improvement, but if you take the issues of freedom of association and workers' right to bargain collectively, we still lag behind," Kalpona Akter, executive director of Bangladesh Center for Workers' Solidarity, told The Associated Press.
"The registration of 500 or so unions is a fact, but some mainstream trade union groups are not being allowed to get registration. If you look at numbers, that looks good, but many of those are formed and controlled by the owners,' Akter said.
"We must see practically how it works," she said.