When officials of ministries concerned were waiting for guidance on how to react to the recently announced US memorandum on labour rights, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen today said there would be no problem if the US imposed sanctions on Bangladesh.
"It is their [US] internal issue. They are a country of sanctions, they may impose sanctions, and they are rich. We will determine our steps as per our reality," the minister told the media.
During the unveiling of the memorandum, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday raised the labour rights situation in different countries, including Bangladesh. He also mentioned the security issue of Bangladeshi labour leader Kalpana Akhter.
Garment industry owners find the reference to Bangladesh concerning, as the US accounts for 17.46% of Bangladesh's total export income, fearing the sector's fate similar to Bangladesh's jute industry.
Amid the tension, key officials of the ministries of commerce and labour were absent today, according to sources.
They said the ministers were absent on Sunday, with Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi reportedly going to collect his nomination form.
However, secretaries from various ministries, including commerce, labour, and law, held an inter-ministerial meeting on outsourcing manpower in government offices today.
During the meeting, the secretaries of commerce and labour consulted the law secretary on the US-announced policy.
Top officials of the two ministries told The Business Standard that they will hold a meeting regarding the issue after receiving instructions from foreign minister, law minister, and prime minister's private sector adviser.
Senior commerce secretary
Senior Commerce Secretary Tapan Kanti Ghosh told TBS that the ministry has no relevance to the statement made by Blinken.
"Ministries of foreign and labour can take action in this regard, However, the commerce ministry will look into the matter if there is any hindrance in trade," he added.
He said future amendments will further lower the threshold for workers to register a trade union.
When asked about the European Union's report on Bangladesh, to be published on 30 November, the commerce secretary said, "After receiving the report, we will understand where there are opportunities for further improvement."
Labour Secretary Md Ehsan-E-Elahi told TBS that a decision on whether Bangladesh will give a statement on Blinken's statement will be taken in consultation with the foreign minister, law minister and prime minister's private sector advisor.
"Sanctioning on the basis of our labour situation isn't warranted. Over the past decade, worker wages tripled, and garment sector trade unions increased from 300 to over 1,200 since the Rana Plaza collapse. The amended Labor Act is now in effect, with ongoing implementation," he stated.
The labour secretary highlighted collaborations on workers' rights, including the EU's National Action Plan, ILO's roadmap, and a Labor Working Group with the US. Over the past two and a half years, substantial progress has been made, resolving all identified issues.
Regarding labour leader Kalpana Akhter, he said she never sought any kind of help or security or complained to the government.
The labour secretary provided an update on recent developments, mentioning recent meetings with the ILO Governing Board, TICFA and the EU.
Progress in Bangladesh's labour situation, showcasing significant advancements since 2013, was communicated to all concerned parties in the meetings, he said.
"Notably, six out of seven pending issues from the EU Action Plan are in progress, with satisfactory outcomes. Concerns raised by the US Embassy's labour attaché have been addressed," he mentioned.
Mentioning that several cases regarding labour deaths and murders are progressing, the secretary emphasised that the government's commitment to labour rights. "It actively protects the rights of workers in the best interest of the country."
Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, expressed concerns about tension between the government and the US, suggesting that the labour issue is being used to exert pressure on Bangladesh.
He acknowledged the pressure on industry owners following the US announcement and emphasised that the government needs to handle this government-to-government matter, as industry stakeholders have no say in the resolution.
Meanwhile, a commerce ministry official mentioned that the PM can raise the minimum wage for garment workers from Tk12,500 within 14 days of issuing the gazette.
Responding to international organisations, there's an opportunity to consider a modest wage increase, they said.
Shams Mahmud, Chairman of the Standing Committee for Foreign Mission Cell in BGMEA, emphasised the strong business partnership between Bangladesh and the US, particularly in energy and RMG sectors.
"Significant investments have been made in the RMG sector to ensure transparent, safe, and green factories, meeting international regulations and fostering competitiveness," he said.
Mahmud expressed the hope that the US, as a leading global power, will avoid actions that jeopardise long standing business partnerships, potentially impacting employment, women empowerment, and other achievements in Bangladesh over the past decades.
Center for Policy Dialogue Research Director Khondaker Golam Moazzem told TBS that the government should take immediate action to re-evaluate workers' wages, release arrested workers, and take action on cases filed in the name of workers.
He noted that the government is in a transitional period, and the significance of the US announcement extends to both the current and future administrations.
Advising secretaries to coordinate through the embassy, Moazzem emphasised the need for long-term initiatives to yield tangible results, considering the importance placed on improving labour conditions not only by the US and the EU but also within the country.