The International Labour Organisation and World Bank have refused to let Bangladesh join a textile industry monitoring programme until the country overhauls its labour laws and conditions for unions improve, according to a top ILO official.
The strict stance by the ILO and World Bank, which jointly run the global Better Work programme, is part of an international drive that is gaining pace following a series of deadly industrial accidents in Bangladesh.
A group of visiting Bangladeshi officials continued meetings in Washington on Friday with Secretary of State John Kerry and others, hoping to convince the United States that they are serious about improving industrial conditions in the country.
The Obama administration is working with Bangladesh to improve its safety inspection systems, while also pressuring the country with a threatened cut-off of trade tax breaks granted for some of the country's exports.
Separately, lawmakers on Capitol Hill and religious and investment groups have been pressing US retailers to join an alliance of mostly European companies that have agreed to outside inspections of the factories they use to supply garments. The rise of manufacturing centres such as Bangladesh has kept the retail prices of clothes in check for 20 years, and advocacy groups argue that the vigilance of major Western brands is one of the surest ways to guarantee factory safety in the absence of an effective local government.
Bangladesh asked last year to join the Better Work programme, which involves unannounced, independent inspections of participating textile plants by outside experts and technical help from the World Bank for managers and plant owners. But officials said the country's labour laws are so weak, and the conditions for unions and workers so treacherous, that they have demanded major changes in advance of approving its participation.
"There were unacceptable risks of failure to starting a programme before these conditions are realised," said Dan Rees, director of the Better Work programme, which monitors textile factories in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere. "There is a lack of clarity in the law, and we cannot as a programme get involved in monitoring factories and being seen as resolving conflicts when in fact we are not empowered to do that."
An overhaul of the country's labour laws , also being pushed by the US and others, is slated to go before Bangladesh's parliament in June - evidence, advocates say, that outside pressure is starting to have an effect.
Talks between Bangladesh and the ILO demonstrate some of the difficulties outside groups face in dealing with textile industry conditions in Bangladesh.
On one hand, there is hesitancy to push too hard for fear of disrupting an industry that employs millions of workers, mostly women, in a secular Muslim democracy. On the other is the recognition that the industry is not closely regulated and often unsafe.