The impact of the devastating fire at Tazreen Fashions that had claimed 112 lives in November last year has been far more than what was in the case of previous fires in the apparel units of the country. The worst-ever fire has created a big stir not only at home and but also in major destinations of Bangladesh apparel products on both sides of the Atlantic. All sections of people and the media have pointed their accusing fingers at the government and the owners for turning some of the apparel units into sheer death traps. This time around, just because of popular pressure, stakeholders concerned responded well than before to what many prefer to term as a crisis situation.
But the major buyers of Bangladesh apparels apparently want more from the government and the owners in matters of safety, security and rights of the workers. The United States administration, under intense pressure from the largest and most influential American trade union body-The American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO)-and some Congressmen, has threatened to withdraw the generalised system of preference (GSP) facility for Dhaka if the latter fails to ensure safety and security of workers and guarantee trade union rights to them and carry out proper investigation into the murder of Aminul Islam, a trade union leader. Disagreement between the two countries over the form of trade union rights has delayed the signing of the Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework (TICFA) agreement. The GSP withdrawal is unlikely to hurt Bangladesh's trade interests much as far as its exports to the USA are concerned because of a marginal coverage of its products by the facility. But a probable US action to this effect certainly has some other ramifications.
As the government is making preparations to defend Bangladesh case against the US threat of withdrawing the GSP facility, the European Parliament, the representative forum of the European Union member states that allow duty-free import of Bangladeshi apparels, frozen foods and many other products, has also taken up the Tazreen fire issue and adopted a resolution last Thursday. However, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in the resolution have not suggested any harsh measures. Rather they have appreciated Bangladesh's successful efforts to reduce child labour in the garment sector. But they have taken a stance almost identical to that of the USA on the issues of safety and security of garment workers, investigation into the murder of labour leader Islam and trade union rights of the apparel sector workers. The MEPs have also reminded the European and international retailers of their responsibilities in ensuring safety and security of workers of factories from where they source their merchandise.
The events that have been taking place since the Tazreen fire need to be understood by the government and the apparel unit owners in their true perspective. There is no scope to feel complacent towards the problems that are brewing at home and abroad. Bangladesh which is heavily dependent on EU and US markets for its export revenue cannot ignore issues raised by the latter, more importantly, when the same have wider acceptance. At the moment the government and the owners are not willing to grant the apparel sector workers unhindered right to trade unionism. But such unwillingness might exact a heavy toll on the owners' business and country's economy. The sooner it is understood the better.