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Monday 12 April notes from meeting at the USA Embassy.

By Jonathan Christiansen

On Monday 12 April Amirul Amin and myself met with outgoing Political Officer /Human Rights Officer) David Arulanantham, and his incoming replacement, Forrest Graham.

The meeting began with introductions. We then discussed the human rights mission of the office and further discussed the 2009 Bangladesh human rights report that the office had recently released. David told us it could be found on the website.

Amin explained that he had met with the previous officer Mr. Gupta on several occasions. He explained that many of the past struggles in the EPZS involved the NGWF including the YEOWMON (?) (Korean owned garment Factory) struggle. He further explained that the US has a major influence on the Bangladesh government. He stated that the Bangladesh min. Wage is 1,662 taka per month, which is appallingly low (about US $24 a month).

Amin then went on to explain problems with current labor law in BD and problems with enforcement. Including:

  • despite the fact that Bangladesh ratified the ILO convention in 1987 and ’98, without any reason employers can fire workers, even organizers and union leaders once a union is formed.
  • Factories can move without any notice or repercussions.
  • He explained that workers often have little recourse in the law because they are working without papers (under the table).
  • many women aren’t getting maternity leave.
  • Many factories that claim to have child care centers are inadequate or non-existent leaving women workers with no options for childcare.

Amin then went on to explain that working conditions are unsafe and that according to their own statistics since 1990 472 workers have died in factory fires and that several fires have occurred without casualties (In Februaray of this year 21 workers died in a fire).

After the rundown on labor law, enforcement and work safety problems Amin pointed out that in 2007 the US cut off trade preferences for Bangladesh. This means that Bangladeshi imports are being more heavily taxed than they were before so business has fallen in the Bangladesh garment industry leading to closed factories and more worker hardship. Forrest was aware of this (by this point David had gone to a prior engagement) and seemed somewhat concerned. He mentioned that several congresspersons (Including my rep. from Mass.) recently visited BD and that was the main concern they heard from all quarters. Forrest did not say anything about this policy being changed, but he did seem aware.

After this Amin pointed out that 29 members of the Bangladesh parliament are garment factory owners and another 70 have interests related to the garment industry so this is a powerful interest group in BD. As a result of this the NGWF is constantly under harassment. They are continually receiving threats from political parties, and security forces.

After this discussion Forrest asked what we expected of him. We explained that The US government has a lot of power and influence in Bangladesh and can make recommendations to change labor laws and make sure they are being enforced. Amin also pointed out that they can intervene or speak out when there are crises.

Forrest then pointed out to us that the US department of Labor is encouraging Bangladesh to pass a “Better Work Agreement,” which, he said, would update labor laws ( I think these have been implemented elsewhere in Southeast Asia). He asked Amin if he thought the BD government would sign and Amin replied that ‘they should.’

Forrest then asked if the NGWF works with any other US organizations besides the IWW specifically whether or not they work with the Solidarity Center.

Amin explained that they no longer have an official relationship because they had a falling out because the SC recommended that BD be dropped from trade preferences without consulting the NGWF. Although they do not have an official relationship Amin regularly talks with their lawyer especially. Amin also explained that the NGWF receives support from ILRF, WRC, and UNITE-HERE. After questioning about their relationship with the ILO Amin explained that they (ILO) tend to work with multi-sector international unions.

I asked Forrest what his office could do/does and if we needed the office to speak out when we find human rights abuses whether or not he would and how.

He explained that they do not have much power, but that they can apply pressure through different ministries and discuss and highlight certain things – as he put it “name and shame” mostly with their reports. They can also make recommendations to the labor dept., congress, trade rep., etc.

The meeting ended with Amin giving reports that the NGWF had compiled over the last three years to Forrest as well as some NGWF campaign posters. Forrest thanked him and pointed out that they love receiving reports like this because that is usually how they compile their own information for their reports. He asked that we would share any other Human rights related reports with him. He also asked that we help share info about the State Depts. human rights reports.