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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Associate Deputy Undersecretary (Acting) (ILAB), Eric R. Biel

Oral Statement of Eric R. Biel
Associate Deputy Undersecretary (Acting)
Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Hearing on Human Rights in Bangladesh
Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Commission.  Good afternoon.  I am Eric Biel, Acting Associate Deputy Undersecretary in the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB), and I am pleased to represent the Bureau and the Department before the Commission this afternoon. 

Thank you for holding this important hearing to focus on the human rights situation in Bangladesh.  I am honored to join Assistant Secretary of State Blake on this panel, and understand that you will also be hearing from officials representing labor and civil society organizations on a second panel.

ILAB Overview

Before turning to the focus of this afternoon’s hearing, I thought it might be useful to share some brief background information on the Bureau of International Labor Affairs.  ILAB’s central mission is to ensure that workers around the world are treated fairly and can share in the benefits of the global economy.  To that end, our team utilizes a range of approaches designed to improve labor conditions, protect workers’ ability to exercise their rights, and prevent the exploitation of children and other vulnerable populations in the workplace.  This includes detailed monitoring and reporting on labor conditions around the world, helping to enforce labor provisions in U.S. trade agreements and trade preference programs, and providing technical assistance to those countries identified as having the greatest needs and ability to benefit from such assistance and exhibiting a commitment to undertake the steps needed to achieve greater compliance with international labor standards.

My testimony this afternoon will reflect the varied means by which we have worked to try to advance these objectives in Bangladesh through our projects, reports, analyses, and interaction with the Government and other stakeholders – focusing in particular on the Commission’s concerns related to violations of freedom of association, child labor practices, and failure to enforce the minimum wage.

Chief Concerns in Bangladesh

ILAB has engaged extensively in monitoring labor conditions and working to advance labor rights in Bangladesh – directly through our own initiatives, as well as through the interagency process working with colleagues at the Department of State, Office of the United States Trade Representative, and other agencies, and in coordination with experts at the International Labor Organization (ILO). 

The concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh are indeed significant and cut across key sectors of the economy.  They include violations of freedom of association and unsafe working conditions in the rapidly-growing garment sector, as well as child labor in the “informal” garment sector, which I will describe in more detail shortly; the same kinds of violations in the shrimp farming and processing sectors; and widespread violations of freedom of association in the country’s Export Processing Zones (EPZs), which are governed by a separate set of labor laws.  Monitoring and reporting on these concerns, and working with the ILO and other partners on projects to address them, are important parts of our mission at ILAB. 

But before highlighting that work, I want to focus on what arguably is our most important responsibility:  engaging directly with the people in Bangladesh who are in the forefront of efforts to improve the protection of workers’ rights.  Many of them put their lives at risk every day in order to advance that goal. 

Supporting Workers’ Representatives

ILAB works closely with the U.S.-based Solidarity Center’s office in Dhaka and with other labor rights non-governmental organizations on a range of labor rights issues. In particular, ILAB focuses on ways to strengthen protection of freedom of association in law and practice. 

One of the most important and credible local partners has been the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), led by Executive Director Kalpona Akter.  As you are aware, the organization’s advocacy for workers has made it the target of government hostility.  For example, the Government has deregistered BCWS and, in 2010, filed criminal charges against its leaders.   Those charges have yet to be dismissed, despite an absence of any clear evidence to support them.  The treatment of the BCWS and its leadership was a particular focus of an ILAB staff trip to Bangladesh last year.

Then in early April 2012, a BCWS labor organizer, Aminul Islam, was found tortured and murdered after having been engaged in efforts to help factory workers form a union.  I know that his killing will be a focal point for other witnesses at today’s hearing, including those from labor and civil society organizations who have worked closely with BCWS.

In the immediate aftermath of the Islam killing, we worked closely with our Embassy in Dhaka, Assistant Secretary Blake’s team, others at the Department of State including in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and representatives of civil society and business to convey our concerns and expectations for a thorough and impartial investigation to the Government of Bangladesh at the highest levels.  We also hosted Ms. Akter at the Department of Labor when she visited Washington just weeks after the killing. At that meeting and in correspondence afterwards, we reaffirmed our continued support for her courageous work and that of her colleagues at the BCWS.

We join the Department of State in our commitment to continue to closely monitor the ongoing investigation of the Aminul Islam killing in order to ensure transparency, accountability, and justice for his family, his colleagues at the BCWS, and others engaged in the effort to advocate for workers in Bangladesh and improve working conditions and their overall quality of life.  We will continue to press senior Bangladesh Government officials for a resolution that will enable the BCWS to continue its important work.

The GSP Process

One of our primary approaches for engagement with the Government of Bangladesh on internationally-recognized workers’ rights has been through the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, through which the United States provides unilateral trade preferences to developing countries.  Among other criteria for preferential treatment, the GSP statute mandates that beneficiaries be taking steps to afford such internationally-recognized workers’ rights in order to maintain their eligibility. 

The U.S. Government has been engaged in a formal review of Bangladesh’s compliance with the GSP eligibility criteria since 2007, when the AFL-CIO filed a petition alleging serious violations of labor rights in the country.  That review continues.  In January the U.S. Government held a hearing, chaired by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, at which both the petitioner and Government of Bangladesh testified, and the Government of Bangladesh has provided detailed responses to follow-up questions from the U.S. Government.

It is fair to say that, among the many concerns raised in the 2007 petition and the subsequent investigation, conditions in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector have received the greatest attention –because of the size and very rapid growth of that industry, as well as the severity of the violations documented.  Today, there are an estimated 3.5 million workers in the RMG sector.  The recent growth in the sector has come with a high cost in terms of worker injuries and even deaths due to factory fires and other unsafe working conditions.

The GSP process has been a key mechanism for bilateral dialogue on internationally-recognized worker rights, regular exchanges of information, and sustained pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to address practices ranging from unsafe factory conditions – which have led to fatal fires taking the lives of workers who remained locked inside their buildings – to unpaid and excessive overtime, to a failure to enforce minimum wage laws. 

ILAB has been actively engaged in the interagency committee – chaired by USTR – that coordinates the GSP program.  ILAB has provided legal and policy expertise, research, and analysis.  Since the AFL-CIO filed its petition, ILAB staff have traveled to Bangladesh regularly to meet with senior Government officials, labor leaders, local organizations such as the BCWS and other labor rights groups, factory inspectors and auditors, academic experts, and others on the issues that are the focus of the GSP review. 

Engaging With Buyers

While engagement with the Government of Bangladesh is obviously critical, it is not enough.  To that end, we also are committed to engaging with the private sector, specifically those who are directly involved in the garment sector supply chain – from the factories that produce the goods to the buyers who purchase and sell them in this country and elsewhere.

Last year, for example, we convened a roundtable on Promoting Labor Compliance in Bangladesh.  This program set the stage for an expanded dialogue with buyers and other parties on labor rights compliance and high-priority workplace concerns such as fire safety.

We are encouraged that many of the leading brands that source from Bangladesh have recently spoken out about labor violence, unsafe working conditions, and other labor rights concerns.  For example, working with colleagues at the State Department we reached out to leading companies within days of the Aminul Islam murder.  Trade associations representing major apparel, retail, footwear, and licensing industries doing business in Bangladesh wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed on April 18 expressing deep concern about the killing and calling for a comprehensive, impartial, and prompt investigation followed by accountability for the perpetrators.

Most recently, on June 21 a large group of major buyers of apparel and textile products from Bangladesh again wrote to the Prime Minister, highlighting in particular that the Government of Bangladesh had not established any mechanism to adjust the minimum wage upward in order to keep pace with inflation and “help address the basic needs of the workers.”  We welcome this kind of direct communication between buyers and the Government of Bangladesh to promote workers’ rights.  We also have seen progress through the engagement by certain buyers with civil society organizations to address fire and other building safety hazards at supplier factories in Bangladesh.

At the same time, it is important that a wider cross-section of buyers, particularly in the ready-made garment sector, do more to leverage their market power to help improve labor conditions in Bangladesh.  This includes cases in which excessive hours and other poor working conditions appear linked to the pressure factories may face to fill orders and meet other conditions established by their supply chain partners.  To be effective, words evoking a commitment to responsible sourcing and licensing practices by the private sector must be accompanied by consistent, meaningful action.

Factory-Level Activities

ILAB also continues to work to strengthen mechanisms for addressing labor rights and working conditions at the factory level in the garment sector. 

Most notably, we are currently providing approximately $1.5 million in funding for an ILO project, Promoting Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (FPRW) in Bangladesh.  FPRW’s objective is to address specific challenges faced by workers’ and employers’ organizations by building local capacity to promote freedom of association and collective bargaining.  This FPRW project, working with the Government (in particular the Ministry of Labour and the Export Processing Zone Authority), and with workers’ and employers’ groups, also aims to improve labor law and practices and bring them into compliance with international standards, including the ILO conventions on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Another means for engaging at the factory level is through the Better Work program, jointly administered by the ILO and International Finance Corporation (IFC).  We have provided support for, and exercised oversight of, Better Work Program initiatives in other important garment exporting countries, including Cambodia, Haiti, and Lesotho.  Better Work combines training for managers, workers, and relevant government officials and other forms of technical assistance with factory-level monitoring and detailed public reporting on labor conditions.

In recent years, stakeholders have expressed considerable interest in seeing a Better Work program established in the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh.  Last year, with our support, the ILO and IFC carried out a feasibility study, which found a reasonable likelihood of achieving a positive impact through such a program.  At the same time, the study noted significant operational risks in light of broader economic, political, and governance concerns in the country. 

In response, Better Work launched a Design Phase in January 2012 to develop a model for a program in Bangladesh, while at the same time assessing whether there is a sufficient demonstrated commitment by the Government and other parties to bring about the labor improvements needed to make such a program successful and sustainable.  This includes a detailed look at the types of labor law reforms that are needed, coupled with the governance and administrative challenges that also must be overcome if sustainable improvements are to be realized. 

ILAB expects the ILO and IFC to make a final decision on whether to establish a Better Work Program in Bangladesh in September, and our ILAB team will remain in close contact with ILO and IFC officials in the run-up to that decision.

Reporting and Monitoring

ILAB is also deeply engaged in monitoring and reporting on child labor and forced labor in Bangladesh, primarily through the three reports that Congress mandated on these issues: (1) the Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, produced annually since 2002 under the mandate of the Trade and Development Act (TDA); (2) the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, published since 2009 as required by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA); and (3) the List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor mandated by Executive Order 13126.  ILAB is in the process of finalizing the latest versions of all three reports, with publication due in late September. 

The TDA Report provides a detailed narrative of the prevalence and distribution of the worst forms of child labor in Bangladesh, as well as nearly 150 other countries.  It also details government policies, enforcement, institutional mechanisms, and social programs to address the problems.  Past reports have detailed child labor in agriculture and fishing, domestic services, and several other sectors in Bangladesh. 

The TVPRA List covers goods made with child or forced labor in violation of international standards.  The Executive Order List covers goods made with forced or indentured child labor, and is designed to help ensure that U.S. Government agencies do not procure such goods, as required by law.  The most recent TVPRA List includes fourteen sectors in Bangladesh in its country listings.

In addition to our regular reports, ILAB funded a detailed report on child labor in the “informal” garment production sector in Bangladesh, following a Congressional request in 2010 which came in the wake of news reports of forced and child labor in key export sectors. 

This report, expected to be finalized in the next 1-2 months, provides a thorough analysis of conditions in the informal garment industry, which encompasses unregistered workshops as well as households that fall outside the membership of the leading manufacturing and exporting associations.  It will provide not only the Department of Labor but also the ILO and other stakeholders a greater awareness of both the problems and the many challenges involved in trying to remedy them.  This will build upon the Government of Bangladesh’s National Child Labor Elimination Policy.

A second pending ILAB-funded study, also being finalized in the next 1-2 months, addresses indicators of forced labor in Bangladesh’s shrimp sector supply chain.  A range of serious labor rights violations in this important sector have been highlighted during the GSP review process.  This study will help identify the key factors that have increased workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.  As a result of the new information, government officials and other interested parties should be better able to focus on mechanisms to address the longstanding labor problems in this sector.

Final Points

The above reflects the range of ILAB activities concerning labor rights and working conditions in Bangladesh.  These reflect our Bureau’s overall mission and mandate, as set out at the outset of my remarks. 

We believe that these activities, from our dialogue with the Government and engagement with civil society groups and business to our work through the interagency GSP process and our regular reporting and monitoring, contribute to a much greater understanding of working conditions in Bangladesh, the scope of labor rights violations, and the challenges involved in efforts to address them. 

At the same time, we must also acknowledge that the record of advancing labor rights in Bangladesh remains largely incomplete.  The GSP review launched five years ago remains open.  And as our own reports have documented, violations in key sectors like ready-made garments and shrimp remain widespread, and the still-unresolved killing of Aminul Islam raises new concerns that those advocating on the front lines for the interests of Bangladeshi workers may remain targets of powerful interests opposed to such reforms.

In short, this is very much a work in progress.  At ILAB, we will continue to publicize our concerns with violations of labor rights in Bangladesh, even as we seek to promote greater respect through a combination of dialogue, engagement, and support for promising initiatives on the ground.