Skip to main content

Protect Bangladesh workers who make our clothes

By Robert Menendez
updated 9:37 AM EST, Sun November 24, 2013
Garment workers beat furniture on a street during a protest in Gazipur, Bangladesh, on Monday, September 23. Thousands of workers, demanding higher pay, clashed with police on Monday. Garment workers beat furniture on a street during a protest in Gazipur, Bangladesh, on Monday, September 23. Thousands of workers, demanding higher pay, clashed with police on Monday.
HIDE CAPTION
Bangladesh workers protest
Bangladesh workers protest
Bangladesh workers protest
Bangladesh workers protest
Bangladesh workers protest
Bangladesh workers protest
Bangladesh workers protest
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Today marks one year since a fire killed 112 workers in a factory in Bangladesh
  • Robert Menendez: The tragedies in Bangladesh are a call to action for consumers
  • He says no one wants to wear clothes if they are stained with the blood of workers
  • Menendez: We need to push Bangladesh to protect workers and their rights

Editor's note: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee recently issued a report titled "Worker Safety and Labor Rights in Bangladesh's Garment Sector."

(CNN) -- Today marks one year since a tragic fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh killed 112 workers. When the fire alarms went off that day, managers acted with indifference and forced workers to stay at their stations.

Months later, devastation again struck Bangladesh's workers when the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing 1,131. Inspectors had declared the building unsafe, yet management compelled the workers to enter with threats of lost pay or termination.

These twin tragedies galvanized world attention on the terrible conditions under which Bangladeshi workers produce over $20 billion worth of clothing for consumers abroad each year.

Sen. Robert Menendez
Sen. Robert Menendez

For many Americans, Bangladesh is a far-off nation on the other side of the world. The challenges workers face there seem distant.

But in this country we have risen in solidarity when workers' rights have been ignored. Just as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City resulted in dramatic changes to U.S. factory safety standards, the tragedies in Bangladesh are a call to action for consumers in America.

The principles of fairness and equality for working men and women are deeply interwoven within the fabric of our nation's history.

No one will want to wear clothes made in Bangladesh if they are stained with the blood of workers.

Labor safety in Bangladesh
Bangladesh survivor remains in hospital

After these tragedies, I urged the Obama administration to suspend preferential duty-free status for certain products from Bangladesh. Our government responded and since the suspension of Generalized System of Preferences benefits, Bangladesh's government has dropped charges against labor activists and begun to allow local unions to form.

In addition to pressure from our government, American and European companies are working together to establish common standards for fire and building safety. A 77% increase in the minimum wage was announced but is not yet enacted. The AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center is training union organizers and the International Labor Organization has established a program to help develop durable institutions to protect workers' rights.

But considerable long-term work remains. Unions have a troubled history in Bangladesh. In the past they were subject to undue influence by political forces with agendas that did not put workers first. This legacy will be difficult to overcome -- workers need to feel safe in joining a union and management needs to understand that unions can play a constructive role in worker safety as well as factory production.

However, there are disturbing signs of backsliding, so Western governments and consumers must remain vigilant.

Some factory managers have intimidated union organizers and thugs have reportedly attacked workers who dared to organize. Dozens of workers have died in fires in Bangladesh's factories since Rana Plaza collapsed.

We have a responsibility and an opportunity to bring about change in Bangladesh's garment industry.

First, the United States must remain vigilant and ensure that labor law reforms are correctly implemented and labor organizers are protected from anti-union activity. We should also increase funding for efforts, such as the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center programs, that support workers' capacity to organize and engage in collective bargaining.

Second, the government of Bangladesh and the garment industry associations should immediately develop and apply tough sanctions against factory owners who engage in anti-union activity.

Finally, international companies must continue to require their supplier factories to abide by strict safety and labor standards. The latter will require long-term, well-resourced programs to educate their suppliers on workers' rights and constructive worker-management relations. They should also implement a zero-tolerance policy for suppliers who consistently engage in anti-union activity.

A Bangladesh with a fully empowered work force and safe factories will require sustained action by its government, apparel companies, domestic factory owners, organized labor as well as the international community. It will take time, but this time there can be no going back.

A year ago, the world woke up to the horror caused by unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh. We owe it to the victims and the four million garment workers in Bangladesh, who produce a lot of the clothes we wear, to maintain pressure until Bangladesh's workers are given the rights they deserve and the tools they need to protect themselves.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Menendez.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT