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Editorial: Hoping that a prod brings change in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi relatives of garment worker Mohammed Abdullah cry

Bangladeshi relatives of garment worker Mohammed Abdullah cry as they pass others looking for missing relatives while to going to collect his body at a makeshift morgue in a schoolyard near a building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, Bangladesh. (April 27, 2013) Credit: AP

Every little bit helps when pushing to improve worker safety in Bangladesh, where 1,129 people died in April when their factory collapsed. And that's what last week's suspension of trade privileges that allowed Bangladesh to export products to the United States duty-free amounts to: a little bit of economic muscle flexing for a worthy cause.

Efforts over the years to persuade Bangladesh to meet basic standards for worker safety -- for instance, by enforcing fire and building standards -- clearly haven't worked. More than 1,800 workers have died in preventable factory fires and building collapses in the Bangladesh garment industry since 2005, according to the AFL-CIO. It's time to tighten the screws. But Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest nations. It should be nudged to do the right thing, not bludgeoned into economic submission. So chipping away at its duty-free status is an appropriately calibrated effort to prod officials there to act.

Bangladesh exported $4.9 billion in goods to the United States in 2012, 90 percent of it apparel and other textile products. But only $34.7 million of those goods came in duty-free, because organized labor in the United States made sure apparel didn't get preferential treatment. Garment workers were the ones who died when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, and withdrawing Bangladesh's duty-free privileges won't directly effect that industry. But that doesn't make it inconsequential.

Losing a trade preference given to 126 other developing nations could deter private investment in Bangladesh. And this nation's action could persuade the European Union to suspend Bangladesh's duty-free privileges, too, which would have a greater economic impact because it includes apparel and textiles. The United States, its allies and apparel companies doing business in Bangladesh should steadily ratchet up the pressure until they get results.