The congressman, a senior democrat on the House Committee on education and workforce, was visiting the country as part of the US enquiry
US Congressman George Miller
US Congressman George Miller on Wednesday said Bangladesh needed to take urgent action to safeguard the future of its largest export industry, ready-made garments.
“Bangladesh has two choices. They can go to the future and they can assist [in providing] safe working conditions, safe factories and programmes for fire prevention, or they can struggle in the past and lose the value of the Bangladesh label,” Miller said to a small group of journalists at the American Centre in the city.
The Congressman, a Senior Democrat on the House Committee on education and workforce, was visiting the country as part of the US enquiry, regarding garment factory safety for evaluating provision of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP).
He will report his findings back to Sandy Levin, head of the ways and means committee who hold the power to alter GSP status.
“It is very clear that if these people do not have rights at work, if they do not have the right to turn down unsafe working conditions, then Bangladesh will be stuck in the past and I think it will have severe consequences,” said Miller.
Any wrong step taken by the government can have a massive negative impact on the industry, the senior Congressman warned. “I have no interest in taking away these jobs or having these jobs leave Bangladesh. But the government can make a wrong set of decisions and that could happen.”
The congressman pointed out both global brands and Bangladesh are at risk, as ordinary people might not want to be associated with labels produced under poor working conditions. “This is driven by ordinary people and I don’t know that they want to be associated with labels that have blood all over them.”
He cautioned that the government must understand the necessity to work urgently to address the problems.
“If these brands cannot adjust to that and make these improvement, and this government can’t understand the need [that] they have to get this right, it will be one of the greatest miscalculations, by my political judgement.”
Miller said Bangladesh enjoys GSP benefits but it does not comply with international standards for workers’ rights. “That is not present in the full form in Bangladesh.”
He said he had meetings with ministers and senior government officials and everybody recognised that it is a constitutional right of workers to form trade unions.
“We shall see but our patience is not endless,” he said, adding that he hoped the US government and international community would insist that international standards of compliance be established, and Bangladesh meet them as quickly as possible.
The Congressman said buyers drive the price in the RMG sector and this practice cannot continue. “I don’t think these workers should subsidise an improper price for the loss of their lives or injury on the job. But that’s what is happening. That can’t continue.”
“Something is wrong, and it is in the interest of lots of people to quickly remedy that problem,” he said.
He stressed that brands bear a great responsibility and some of brands including Benetton and Zara agreed on fire code and want to implement it right now, but some US companies including Wal-Mart, Gap, JC Penny are trying to hold on to the old model.
“Some brands are starting to show their responsibility and in the fire accord they are willing to put up some money.”
Miller ruled out the possibility of increasing the country’s duty free access to the US until some changes are made. “In the middle of these tragedies you want to start discussing reducing duties?”
Duty free access currently does not cover RMG in the US, unlike in the EU. The Congressman also expressed widely held frustration over the government’s handling of the murder of Aminul Islam, the labour organiser who was found dead last year.
“It seems to be pretty clear that you keep raising the issue that somehow he wasn’t a labour leader. I don’t know why they’re saying that because this person was tortured and murdered; there’s been a long connection there and I don’t know why that continues to be raised,” Miller told the Dhaka Tribune.