Top Dems push labor reforms abroad

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Top House Democrats are pushing Bangladeshi leaders to take greater steps to protect their nation's garment workers, who supply clothing to some of the leading retail chains in the United States.

The lawmakers expressed “grave concern” over alleged recent attacks against union activists fighting to reform Bangladesh's booming apparel industry, as well as reports that a top government official had threatened retaliation against a union leader for reporting the violence to the U.S. Congress.

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In a Monday letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Democrats asked for her "personal assurance" that "all appropriate government authorities" will take action surrounding any “unresolved allegations of intimidation and violence that have been brought to the attention of the government."

"It is in our shared interests to see your country’s garment industry succeed and for Bangladesh to become more prosperous as it advances as a middle-income country," reads the letter, which was spearheaded by Rep. George Miller (Calif.), ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "Workers’ rights to organize will play an important role in this process."

Also endorsing the letter are Reps. Sander Levin (Mich.), senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee; Eliot Engel (N.Y.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations panel; Joe Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and Grace Meng (N.Y.).

The issue of workers’ rights in Bangladesh was thrust tragically into the spotlight in April 2013 with the collapse of the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building located outside of Dhaka, the country's capital. 

The accident killed more than 1,100 people, most of them low-wage garment workers, injured an estimated 2,500 more, and sparked global concerns about worker protections in a country that's emerged as a favored manufacturing base for some of the world's largest retailers.

In response, Bangladeshi leaders have vowed sweeping reforms to protect workers, including efforts to shield union members from discrimination and retaliation. The leaders are also hoping to restore certain tax benefits revoked by President Obama last summer in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy.

In Monday's letter, the Democrats expressed concerns that at least one member of Hasina's Cabinet is undermining those efforts. They cited reports indicating that the Bangladeshi commerce minister — along with the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, which represents the industry — had threatened to prosecute a labor leader who informed the U.S. Congress of anti-union violence. 

"We look to your government to create an environment where workers, factory owners, local police and the ministries will all come together to support Bangladeshi workers’ rights to freedom of association — free from discrimination and reprisal," the Democrats wrote. 

"Public statements to the contrary by government and industry officials are not only inappropriate, they send signals that are unhelpful to our common goals."