House Democrats press Bangladesh on worker protections

The top House Democrats are urging the government of Bangladesh to adopt tougher worker protections in the wake of last month's deadly garment factory collapse outside the capital of Dhaka.

In a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the lawmakers suggest that Bangladeshi authorities, under pressure from business interests, have neglected such protections at the expense of workers' lives.

They're calling on Hasina to "put the highest priority on aggressively enacting and enforcing comprehensive reforms … to ensure that workers in Bangladesh are assured basic safety and internationally-recognized rights."

"We fully understand that there are multiple factors which brought about this tragedy and others like it, and it is critical that all key stakeholders take action," the Democrats wrote. "However, we believe there is simply no substitute for tough, comprehensive, uncompromising government support for legislation and fully-resourced law enforcement … – including the right to organize and form unions … – that both empowers workers and prevents more accidents from happening."

Spearheaded by Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the letter was also endorsed by Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the Democratic leader; Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip; Sandy Levin (Mich.), senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee; and 20 other House Democrats.

The April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building in a suburb of Dhaka killed more than 1,100 people – mostly low-paid garment workers – and renewed scrutiny of worker protections in Bangladesh, which trails only China among the world's leading apparel exporters.

The day before, an engineer had warned the building owner that the structure was unsound and urged people to keep out. Instead, thousands of workers were allowed to re-enter the next day, setting the stage for the deadly collapse just hours later.

In an interview this month with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Hasina defended her administration's record on worker safety, arguing that local government officials had tried to keep workers out of the building that fateful day.

"It is not true that the government hasn't taken any steps," she told Amanpour.

The Democrats, though, sounded a tone of impatience when they suggested that past vows to bolster Bangladesh's safety laws have either been broken or gone unenforced.

"We are … aware that a number of steps have been pledged to address issues pertaining to worker safety and rights," they wrote. "However, continued tragedies … indicate that many workers have not had an effective voice in the workplace enabling them to address concerns with uncompromising owners and/or managers – even when those concerns are a matter of urgent, life-and-death danger."

The Rana Plaza tragedy has led to some soul-searching among some of the world's largest retailers, which have been drawn to Bangladesh's garment district by the cheap labor and lax regulations.

The Walt Disney Co., for instance, is pulling all of its vendors and contractors out of the country in the wake of the tragedy. And dozens of leading European retailers, including Tesco and H&M, this week signed on to a milestone worker-protection agreement designed to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh's factories.

Only two U.S.-based companies, Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH Corp., have endorsed the accord – an element of the debate that goes unmentioned in the Democrats' letter.