The unsolved April murder of Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi labor leader, along with a host of other unsavory issues within the garment manufacturing sector, has US companies worried about using Bangladeshi labor, said the US ambassador to Bangladesh on Wednesday.
“US companies want to buy products from Bangladesh but they are very concerned about the labour issues, safety at workplace and freedom of association in Bangladesh,” said Ambassador Dan Mozena at a press conference, according to the Dhaka newspaper The Daily Star.
Bangladesh has one of the cheapest production systems in the world, and exports to companies like Walmart, JC Penney and Sears. The factories contribute a huge percentage of the country's GDP, and directly or indirectly employ 24 million people. But conditions for workers are awful and include "rock-bottom wages, tight labor rights restrictions, and poorly enforced health and safety standards," says a 2010 report by the Sweatfree Communities Network [PDF.] There have also been concerns about corruption in the manufacturing sector.
Union organizing has helped curb the problems at some factories, but labor leaders have allegedly been viciously targeted by the government, and reports of harassment, false criminal charges, and assassinations continue. GlobalPost reported that "an estimated 200 people — politicians, journalists, and activists — have ‘disappeared’ under suspicious circumstances" since 2009.
More from GlobalPost: HRW: Bangladesh should investigate missing activists
Islam, a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), was found on a street in Dhaka and showed signs of torture and abuse. His murder remains an open case, but many believe the government was behind his death.
“[Islam’s murder] was a long time coming,” said Zia Ahad, an industry veteran who has worked for Reebok and GAP, told GlobalPost's Maher Sattar in May. “He was already targeted, he was a marked man since 2010.”
Factory fires are a lingering problem in Bangladesh and scores of people die every year from being locked inside factories as they burn down.
A fire at the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory on February 26, 2010 killed 21 people. It was the second large fire in six months, and again, workers could not escape because factory owners had locked the doors and windows, allegedly to prevent theft. There have been at least ten such incidents since 1990, The Daily Star reported.
And Maher reported in GlobalPost's Special Report, "Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights" that between 250 and 300 people have perished in "work-related incidents," including fires, since 2005.
"In our experience these sorts of issues will continue to arise, as long as brands in the US and in Europe are able to go around the world and do business on the basis of a race to the bottom," said Barbara Briggs, the assistant director of the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights in Maher's Special Report. "Over and over again we see companies have made lovely codes of conducts, but are workers’ rights being respected? No."
More from GlobalPost: Bangladesh's garment workers brave deadly fires to make luxury American clothing
A recent spat of labor riots caused more than 300 factories to be shut down in Ashulia, Bangladesh in June, and although those factories are back up and running now, US and European importers are running scared.
“Bangladeshi activists who monitor labor in the RMG sector tell me that workers are becoming increasingly restive,” Mozena said in June to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association, the Solidarity Center reported, “due mainly to the growing failure of wages to keep up with the rising cost of living and the increasing vulnerability labor leaders feel as a result of the murder of Aminul Islam and harassment of other labor activists.”
Mozena added that buyers from major American brands had approached him — with one CEO calling in the middle of the night — to express "increasing concerns ... about what they see happening in Bangladesh, as conveyed to the American public through critical reporting in the media."
The ambassador also said the AFL-CIO had filed a petition with the US government, asking for the suspension of Generalised System of Preference (GSP) facilities in the country, which allow Bangladeshi products to be exported at lower taxes. Mozena said this action could be "detrimental to trade and investment."
The factories may get away without making major changes, however. While the US and Europe back away from Bangladesh, India and China are beginning to take interest in the country, which has even less expensive labor than they do.
Bangladesh's finance minister said last month that his country would export up to $1 billion in goods to India next year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, Chinese companies have invested in Bangladeshi factories, and although the market is still small, Bangladesh is looking to sell its products back to China.
For more of GlobalPost's coverage of Bangladesh and labor rights around the world, check out our Special Report, "Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights."