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Senator: Bangladesh still lags on labor rights

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Bangladesh has yet to meet benchmarks set by the U.S. government for restoration of trade benefits suspended after a garment factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people, an influential Democratic senator said Friday.

A report released Friday by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said Bangladeshi authorities need to make further improvements in factory safety and labor rights.

The report, compiled by staff of the committee's Democratic majority, acknowledged some progress, but said the presence of labor unions is still nominal.

The U.S. government suspended duty-free benefits to Bangladesh in July, two months after global garment industry's worst disaster when the Rana Plaza collapsed outside Dhaka, the latest in a serious of deadly accidents in the South Asian nation's sweatshops. The U.S. outlined actions needed to improve standards for the nation's 4 million garment workers. A review of Bangladesh's eligibility for the trade benefits is expected in mid-2014.

The benefits don't cover the garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the impoverished nation's exports, but their suspension affects $40 million in other exports and could exact a reputational cost.

"The tragedies in Bangladesh present an important opportunity to improve labor rights and empower workers. No consumer will want to wear clothing if it's stained by the blood of innocent workers," Menendez said in a statement, urging the U.S. government to stick to its demands for labor reforms before reinstating duty-free access.

Still, the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh saw exports increase 24 percent year-on-year in the third quarter of 2013, in the aftermath of the factory collapse, according to the report. At least 27 garment workers have been killed and nearly 760 injured in factory fires in the past seven months.

Under a national action plan on factory safety adopted by Bangladesh in July, a labor inspection directorate was upgraded and committed to creating 800 positions, including 200 inspectors, by the year's end. But the report said as of late November, only four new labor inspectors had been hired in the past year, bringing the total to just 56.

The report credits the government for progress in registering new unions: 59 in the first 10 months of this year, compared with only two in the preceding two years. But it says many employers are actively suppressing unions in their factories, and some union organizers have been harassed or beaten.

Swapan Kumar Saha, spokesman at the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, defended the government's efforts, saying it has amended the labor laws and has increased the minimum wage — by 77 percent to the equivalent of $66 a month. Bangladesh is also collaborating with the U.N. International Labor Organization on improving working conditions, and American and European buyers have also launched separate safety initiatives, he said.

In Dhaka, the government announced Friday it will begin inspections of its export-oriented garment factories to assess the buildings and how safe they are from fire and electrical accidents.

The government inspections will cover 1,200 factories. European buyers plan to inspect 1,600 factories, while retailers belonging to the American alliance will inspect 600 factories from which they purchase garments.

In all, there are about 3,500 operating garment factories in the country.

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