At least seven people were killed in the blaze at Bangladeshs Aswad Composite Mills last year

At least seven people were killed in the blaze at Bangladesh's Aswad Composite Mills last year

The Bangladesh Government has used the first meeting of the Forum on Trade and Investment with the US to announce plans to eliminate tariffs and other charges on fire safety equipment.

The decision comes after North American apparel retailers and importers last month expressed their concerns that efforts to improve safety in Bangladeshi garment factories are being hampered by high tariffs of up to 61% of the purchase price on imports of essential building and fire safety equipment  - such as sprinklers and fire doors.

While no timeframe has been put on the move, it should make the costs of building remediation less expensive for factories and encourage critical investment into these products.

Former US Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, independent chair of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, said the decision "eliminates a significant hurdle in the effort to overhaul safety across the entire garment sector, and will ultimately speed efforts to ensure the safety of factory workers."

The meeting also reviewed Bangladesh's efforts to date to address the worker rights and worker safety issues - which the US last week said needed "much more work" before the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) benefits can be reinstated.

Other issues discussed by the two countries included investment rules, intellectual property protection, tariffs on fire safety and prevention equipment, fumigation requirements for cotton imports into Bangladesh, and economic development and cooperation in the South and Southeast Asia region. 

The United States-Bangladesh Forum on Trade and Investment (Forum) was set up as a result of the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (TICFA) signed last November and came into force in January of this year.

It gives the two governments a mechanism under which to discuss trade and investment issues, as well as areas of co-operation. It is also seen as a key measure in helping to restore preferential tariffs for exports from the Asian country.

The agreement was introduced after President Obama suspended Bangladesh's eligibility for tariff benefits under the GSP programme last June, blaming insufficient progress by the country on worker rights.

This was followed a month later by an action plan from the USTR on worker rights and safety which, if implemented, could lead to a GSP reinstatement.

Apparel and textiles are not part of the GSP scheme, which largely cover imports of tobacco, sports equipment, porcelain and plastic products. But efforts to improve worker safety in the sector were seen as key to restoring the programme.  

The two sides have agreed that the next Forum meeting will take place in Washington in 2015.