Bangladesh hires K St. lobbyists amid outcry over fatal factory fire

The government of Bangladesh has hired lobbyists on K Street amid outcry about two garment factory accidents that killed more than 1,200 people.

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The country last week hired representation at Foley Hoag LLP to deal with the intensifying calls from Washington for a crackdown on the garment industry. It’s the first U.S. lobbying hire by Bangladesh in five years.  

Foley Hoag said on the disclosure form that it will talk with the Obama administration and members of Congress “in furtherance of the Government of Bangladesh's interest in promoting respect for worker rights in Bangladesh and promoting trade between Bangladesh and the United States.”

The financial terms of the contract were not disclosed, as is typical on registration forms.

President Obama and lawmakers have put pressure on Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry to improve working conditions after the accidents. Earlier this month, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, threatened to remove the country’s preferential access to the American marketplace.

“How many more people have to die before we decide that is not something we can morally sustain?” he said

The U.S. Trade Representative has threatened to take away some of the import tax breaks often given to developing countries, such as Bangladesh, that send goods to the United States.

One of the accidents took place just outside Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, at the illegally modified Rana Plaza, an eight-story building containing a shopping mall, five different factories and a floor of generators. The structure collapsed on April 24, killing more than 1,120 people and injuring an additional 2,500. 

In the fall at least 112 workers died in a Bangladesh garment factory fire after not being able to escape. An average of six fires at Bangladesh factories have been reported each month since then, according to the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, which advocates for worker rights worldwide.

Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, travelled to Bangladesh this month and said he found that American companies have both turned a blind eye and, in some cases, encouraged the poor working conditions in order to turn a larger profit. 

Foley Hoag plans to talk to members of Congress, the trade representative, the Labor Department and the State Department about “how best to promote respect for worker rights in Bangladesh” and how it can keep its products from being charged import tariffs, according to the Justice Department foreign lobbying registration form, which was dated June 12.

Bangladesh has about 10,000 factories and warehouses, and 80 percent of its garment products are sent to the EU and the U.S. 

While American companies are only able to contract with those with safety regulations in place, Bangladeshi factories will often subcontract work to unregulated facilities.

Following the Rana Plaza collapse, 40 companies — mostly in the EU — signed on to an agreement called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh that vowed to push for binding safety standards for the facilities. Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and SeanJohn were the co-signers.

Gap and Walmart have opted out of the movement, and instead have said they will launch their own safety program attached to a Washington think tank. Former Sens. George Mitchell (D-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have agreed to oversee that program.