A group of US apparel and footwear makers and importers is urging the Bangladesh government to step in to resolve the on-going wage issue in the country’s ready-made garment industry, amid worries that the dispute may damage their reputations.

They have also expressed concern over reports of police and government repression of workers in various factories.

In a letter to Mr Akramul Qader, the Bangladeshi ambassador in Washington, the American Apparel and Footwear Importers Association (AAFA) – whose members include Jones Apparel, VF Corporation, Kellwood, Cintas Corporation, Polo Ralph Lauren and Phillips-Van Heusen – called for the disputes to be settled through peaceful negotiations.

“We urge the government to constructively engage all stakeholders – workers, producers and buyers – in order to resolve the RMG wage issue as soon as possible,” wrote AAFA president and CEO Kevin Burke.

He also warned that AAFA member companies “want to ensure that the apparel and footwear they import were manufactured under lawful, humane and ethical conditions.”

“Our members’ main currency with consumers is the reputation of our brands,” the letter says.

Worker unrest in the Bangladesh apparel sector intensified after the minimum wage was raised to US$42 (BDT3000) per month at the end of July. Even though this is 80% higher than the previous monthly minimum of $24 (BDT1,662), workers say it still isn’t enough and are calling for a monthly salary of US$72 (BDT5000).

US importers are also worried by reports of arrests, intimidation, and harassment of protesting workers and the cancellation of registrations of some labour rights groups, such as the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). They also questioned the legality of the arrest of some BCWS staff.

The US is the second-largest customer of Bangladeshi garments and knitwear after the European Union (EU), buying items worth US$3.693bn in the year to June 2009. This is around 30% of Bangladesh’s total apparel exports, which net around $12.4bn a year.