Lawmaker Says U.S. May Need to Revoke Bangladesh Trade Status

President Barack Obama should revoke Bangladesh’s beneficial trade status if the country doesn’t comply with U.S. benchmarks to improve labor and safety standards, a House lawmaker said.

Concerns over labor standards had prompted the U.S. to consider taking steps to raise tariffs on some Bangladeshi goods even before a garment factory collapsed in the Asian nation on April 24, killing more than 1,000 people.

U.S. officials “should now use their leverage to get those changes and get those changes right away,” Representative George Miller, who recently returned from a trip to Bangladesh, said today on a call with reporters. Miller, of California, is the top Democrat on the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, which oversees labor issues.

In a Jan. 8 notice in the Federal Register, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said that “the lack of progress by the government of Bangladesh in addressing worker rights issues in the country warrants consideration of possible withdrawal, suspension or limitation Bangladesh’s trade benefits.”

Bangladesh participates in a U.S. program known as the Generalized System of Preferences, which allows zero or reduced tariffs on some products imported from developing countries.

The USTR in June is scheduled to consider the next steps in its review. Miller said Bangladesh should be given a few months to comply with benchmarks to improve labor conditions.

‘No Choice’

If Bangladesh doesn’t improve worker conditions, “we have no choice” but to revoke the country’s preferred trade status, he said. Miller said he will wait for the results of the Obama administration’s review before considering legislation.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on labor conditions in Bangladesh on June 6.

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and San Francisco-based Gap Inc. are meeting with retailers, industry associations and the Bipartisan Policy Center to develop a plan to improve fire and safety regulation in Bangladesh factories.

The discussions are part of the previously announced Safer Factories Initiative organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit policy and advocacy think tank, the center said yesterday in a statement. The talks are co-chaired by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe.

Wal-Mart and Gap are among U.S. retailers that have faced criticism for not joining at least 24 other garment-sellers in a legally binding agreement to improve safety at Bangladesh factories that has won support from labor-monitoring groups. The Safer Factories Initiative held its first discussion May 29 in New York and said it will release a plan by early July.

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