WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate report on Friday urged Walmart, Gap and other retailers to respect labor unions in Bangladesh, saying workers desperately needed greater rights after hundreds died in fires.
The staff report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Democratic Party majority came as Bangladesh's government and foreign retailers agreed to start safety inspections on the 3,500 factories in the world's largest garment maker after China.
Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the committee, vowed to help give workers "the tools they need to protect themselves "after a factory fire in April killed 1,135 people and a similar disaster in November 2012 left 111 workers dead.
"No consumer will want to wear clothing if it's stained by the blood of innocent workers," Menendez said.
Following the tragedies, more than 100 companies, mostly from Europe, entered an accord on fire safety that includes union representation.
Major U.S. companies including Gap and Walmart, which is known for its opposition to organized labor, set up a separate initiative that also covers safety standards but does not bring in unions.
The staff report urged U.S. companies to "launch long-term, well-resourced programs to educate their suppliers in Bangladesh of their expectation for compliance with laws allowing the right to organize unions and bargain collectively."
"They should also collectively develop and implement a policy of zero-tolerance for suppliers who consistently engage in anti-union activity," it said.
The report called on the United States to step up funding to support workers' rights in Bangladesh and to keep high standards as it considers lifting the South Asian country's suspension from duty-free access for many of its exports.
Bangladeshi authorities recently cracked down on unions that have led street protests against a new $68-a-month minimum wage, which represents a 76% hike but is still below salaries in other major garment exporters such as Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013