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 1:54 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT