WASHINGTON Nine U.S. senators on Tuesday urged President Barack Obama to suspend trade benefits for Bangladesh until the country where 1,129 people died in an April garment factory collapse improved its working conditions.
"We urge that the administration suspend Bangladesh's eligibility for GSP (Generalized System of Preferences), and establish a roadmap and timeline for reinstatement based upon tangible improvements in worker safety and related labor law reforms," the group of Democratic senators said.
Obama is expected to decide by the end of June whether to suspend Bangladesh from the GSP program, which waives U.S. import duties on thousands of goods from poor countries to spur economic development.
Suspending Bangladesh from the program would be mostly symbolic since the Asian nation's main export, clothing, is not eligible for GSP tariff cuts, in deference to the U.S. textile and apparel industry.
But it would be another blow to the country's reputation in the wake of the collapse in April of the Rana Plaza commercial building, which housed a number of garment factories, and the Tazreen factory fire in November that killed 112 people.
Last year, the GSP program spared Bangladesh about $2 million in duties on $35 million worth of tents, golf equipment, plates and other items it exported to the United States, said Ed Gresser, a trade analyst with the GlobalWorks Foundation.
Bangladesh paid $732 million in duties on $4.9 billion worth of clothing exports to the United States, he said.
The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, first filed a petition to suspend Bangladesh from the GSP in 2007.
The U.S. government has put off that decision for six years, hoping the threat would be enough to encourage Bangladesh to make labor reforms.
U.S. trade officials emphasized that suspending trade benefits was seen as "the last resort" while expressing frustration that Bangladesh had made little progress addressing longstanding U.S. concerns over its labor conditions.
"President Obama must do everything in his power to prevent tragedies like the Bangladesh factory collapse from happening again," Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat said in a statement with the other senators.
Earlier this month, an AFL-CIO official said she expected Obama would decide to suspend the benefits.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao)