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Bangladesh plans stronger labour reforms after US move

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Bangladesh plans more sweeping labour law reforms after the United States withdrew trade privileges over a deadly garment factory collapse, officials said Wednesday.

Bangladesh expressed outrage last week at President Barack Obama's decision to cut the country's duty-free trade privileges over the building collapse in April that killed 1,129 people.

The US said the government had failed to protect the fundamental rights of workers. Bangladeshi officials, desperate to persuade Western retailers to stay put, insisted they had drawn up legislative reforms since the disaster, the country's worst industrial accident.

However the cabinet led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina this week set up a committee to review the labour laws again, the top civil servant, Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan, told AFP.

"The committee will suggest further improvements to the labour laws taking into consideration labour rights, investment, productivity and the views of the importing countries," said Bhuiyan, the cabinet secretary.

The new committee met on Tuesday in an effort to "review and improve" draft legislation already being debated in parliament, the top labour official told AFP.

"We're examining the safety-related issues of the labour laws, with special emphasis on trade union and factory safety," Labour Secretary Mikail Shipar said.

"The US, the European Union and the International Labour Organisation have expressed concern over safety-related issues," he said.

Bangladesh is the world's second largest garment producer after China and the industry is the mainstay of the economy, accounting for 80 percent of the country's $25 billion annual exports.

Retailers from the US and the EU buy the bulk of the exports.

The government approved draft legislation in May just weeks after the disaster, which underscored appalling safety standards and working conditions for employees of the country's 4,500 garment plants.

The reforms were aimed at making it easier to set up unions in garment factories and compensate workers involved in factory accidents.

Activists say only two dozen factories -- all small plants -- have allowed their workers to form trade unions. Workers in other factories face sacking or harassment for moving to set up a union.

Local union leaders rejected the reforms at the time, saying they failed to improve rights and entitlements for millions of garment workers, while export-oriented industrial parks were exempt.

The government also set up a panel to raise the minimum wage for garment workers and has shut down about two dozen factories for poor safety conditions.

The US trade privileges had been accorded to Bangladesh under a programme known as the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), which eliminates tariffs on imports from 127 countries to aid their development.

Although the GSP programme does not cover the garment industry, the move was an embarrassment for the Bangladeshi government which is desperate to convince foreign firms that it is serious about improving safety.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130703/bangladesh-plans-stronger-labour-reforms-after-us-move