The Rana Plaza factory disaster should be a wake-up call for everyone involved in the apparel industry - and the catalyst for real, systematic change in Bangladesh - the US Senate was told during a special hearing yesterday (6 June).

The Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “Labour Issues in Bangladesh”, was the first special hearing of its type held since 2000 – reflecting the depth of feeling in the Senate following the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April, which killed more than 1,100 people, and numerous clothing factory fires in the country.

Senator Robert Menendez, committee chairman, opened the hearing by saying: “The tragedy at Rana Plaza – the deadliest accident of the global apparel industry – should be a wake-up call for all of us.”

The disaster, he added, should be “a turning point towards real, systematic change in Bangladesh”, but also had a resonance beyond the factories of Dhaka, helping to set the tone for the global apparel industry as a whole, and to prevent similar catastrophes elsewhere.

“The question is: are we seeing a global race to the bottom?” Menendez asked. “Bangladesh offers some of the cheapest labour in the world, with limited workers’ protection and rights.

“As a result, global retailers enjoy high profits, and global consumers delight in low costs, so how can we improve conditions without prices going up and manufacturers moving on to the next Bangladesh?”

Describing the scale of the factory safety problem in Bangladesh as “mind-boggling”, Menendez highlighted a recent engineers’ report which found that 60% of the country’s 3,000-5,000 clothing factories were vulnerable to collapse.

Unless they see significant changes to improve labour conditions and worker safety, Senators are calling on the Obama Administration to seriously consider suspending Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits to Bangladesh – the system under which it can export certain goods to the US duty-free.

Ironically, this would have little impact on apparel – the vast majority of products do not enjoy GSP relief – but politicans believe it would send a powerful signal to the Bangladeshi government and business leaders in the country.

The Obama Administration is due to make a decision on GSP relief by the end of the month.

Democrats in particular have also criticised US retailers for not committing to five-year, legally binding contracts which require them to help pay for fire safety and building improvements in Bangladesh.

So far, more than 40 mostly European companies have signed up to the scheme, but only three American businesses have done so: PVH, Sean John and Abercrombie & Fitch.

That perceived lack of action meant that international labour and employment expert Johan Lubbe got something of a rough ride when he gave evidence to the hearing – since he was representing a gaggle of industry organisations, including the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the US Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel (USAITA).

Those associations, along with the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), the Canadian Apparel Federation (CAF) and various North American retailers, brands, manufacturers and associations, are aiming to develop what they call a “single, unified plan of action” to improve safety for Bangladeshi garment workers.

Lubbe stressed the need for collective, rather than unilateral action, telling Senators: “It is important that everyone recognise the shared responsibility that is required for addressing the worker and factory safety issues.

“This responsibility lies with all stakeholders, including the Bangladeshi government, the US and other foreign governments, factory owners, employers’ organisations, workers, the buyers in North America and Europe, members of civil society, and organised labour.”

A statement which covered just about everyone, but which also could not distract Menendez from wanting to see a more concrete commitment from US companies, as he made clear when he told Lubbe: “Either get your act together and establish standards, or find yourself with standards you may not care for.

“And I hope that’s the message you take back to the industry today.”