Panel Discussion on Managing Human Rights Risk in the Garment Sector Supply Chain
The United States has been a strong and consistent advocate on the important issue of business and human rights and the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles framework. The recent tragedies in Bangladesh, in particular the Rana Plaza building collapse and the Tazreen Fashions factory fire, have made clear the terrible consequences of failing to respect worker rights and provide safe working conditions in the garment sector. We are committed to working with all stakeholders to identify concrete ways to improve the labor situation in Bangladesh. At the same time, we realize that addressing a number of other issues—good governance, transparency, and accountability—is also critical to creating sustainable change in the garment sector not just in Bangladesh, but around the world.
We take very seriously the need for governments to protect the rights of workers. The Government of Bangladesh has made important efforts over the last six months to do so, including registering 29 unions, crafting legislation to amend its labor law, and forming an inter-ministerial committee to address fire and building safety issues in the ready-made garment sector. In our bilateral dialogue with the Government last month in Dhaka, we stressed that while these steps are welcome, significant further improvements in workplace safety and respect for labor rights must become a national priority.
We recognize also that the UN Guiding Principles stress that businesses are responsible for respecting human rights. The Bangladeshi manufacturers’ and exporters’ association has stated its commitment to do more following the recent tragedies to increase the number of inspectors, improve training for workers and managers in fire safety, and better manage the risks—financial and human—of illegal subcontracting.
International brands also have a role. We have convened a number of meetings and conference calls at senior levels of the U.S. government since November to share information with the brands. On these calls, and in other public settings, we have urged them to adopt best practices grounded in the Guiding Principles, the OECD Guidelines, and other tools. We are encouraged to see many brands coalesce around multi-stakeholder initiatives that share these best practices—including credible monitoring, public reporting, and perhaps most importantly, respect for the critical role of workers in identifying problems and crafting solutions.
The U.S. government currently funds projects to build the capacity of unions and union federations in Bangladesh to organize and engage in collective bargaining, including with a focus on empowering women to become union leaders. We also fund a project to implement the Guiding Principles in specific sectors around the world, including Bangladesh’s garment sector. Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it will award up to $2.5 million for projects to strengthen training and capacity both of the government and workers’ organizations to address fire and building safety issues in the ready-made garment sector.
Over the coming months, we will continue our engagement in Washington, Dhaka, and here in Geneva, with all stakeholders, to achieve our shared goal: that tragedies like Rana Plaza and Tazreen never happen again. We look forward to partnering with Bangladesh as it works to improve respect for human rights in the garment sector and, by so doing, to become a preferred brand, a market known for its respect for worker rights—not its poor working conditions. And we all have a responsibility to engage directly with the people of Bangladesh, brave individuals who are at the forefront of efforts to improve the labor situation and get their country on a path to decent work and inclusive economic growth.
We thank the panel for this thoughtful discussion.