U.S. Raps Bangladesh Over Worker Safety

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Rescuers pull out a female survivor, Reshma, alive on the 17th day after the Rana Plaza building collapsed, in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013. Television footage showed troops removing the survivor, identified as Reshma Begum, from the rubble and taking her to an ambulance.

The United States announced today it is suspending Bangladesh from a program that provides tax breaks to developing countries in what is seen as a powerful warning shot to the South Asian nation about the need to improve safety conditions for garment workers.

The White House announced the move today in response to the April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka that killed 1,129 people as well as a series of deadly fires at factories that make clothing bound for the U.S.

"I have determined that it is appropriate to suspend Bangladesh's designation … because it is not taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights to workers in the country," President Obama wrote in a message to Congress explaining the decision.

President Obama's decision relates to a program called the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which allows Bangladesh and other developing nations to export certain products duty-free to the U.S.

Clothing is not covered by the GSP, but other exports from Bangladesh such as tobacco will no longer receive the tax break. The planned announcement was first reported by The Associated Press.

"It's a symbolic message," said Brian Campbell, legal and policy director for the International Labor Rights Forum, a non-profit advocacy group. "It puts Bangladesh on notice that there will be challenges to our future trade relationship if this isn't taken seriously."

"Given the deteriorating conditions for worker rights in Bangladesh, President Obama's decision to suspend GSP trade benefits for Bangladesh is an appropriate and welcome step," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

"Bangladesh must assure acceptable conditions at work, by enforcing its building and fire safety codes," Miller said. "It must afford workers the right to refuse to work in unsafe buildings, threatened by fire or collapse, without fear of blacklisting or loss of a paycheck."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the decision sends an important message to foreign countries that manufacture goods for American consumers.

"The decision to suspend trade benefits sends an important message to our trading partners," Trumka said in a statement. " Countries that benefit from preferential trade programs must comply with their terms. Countries that tolerate dangerous – and even deadly -- working conditions and deny basic workers' rights, especially the right to freedom of association, will risk losing preferential access to the U.S. market."

Bangladesh officials did not want to comment on the trade status until a formal announcement has been made by the White House. But Swapan Kumar Saha, the press minister in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, said his country's government has been working hard to respond to the deadly building collapse.

"The government is trying its best," Saha said. "The government is doing its best to protect workers' rights and enhance facilities. This government is worker friendly."

The decision to take this step came at the urging of American labor unions and Democrats in congress, a push that escalated in recent months with the number of worker deaths.

Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothing to the U.S., only behind China, and is the source of products for some of the largest American retailers, including Walmart, Gap Inc., Target and Kohls.

For more than a year, ABC News has been reporting on the dangerous conditions in the country's garment factory, including broadcasts focusing on a series of deadly fires that have killed hundreds of workers. Those reports highlighted the lack of fire escapes, locked exits, and faulty electrical systems that had gone largely unaddressed.

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After a spree of deadly incidents, a number of retailers banded together to sign an agreement that commits them to improved safety conditions in the country. But those agreements did not include several of the country's largest garment industry clients, such as Walmart and Gap. Those companies have released statements saying they are developing their own programs aimed at improving factory safety.

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