Tragedy struck Bangladesh in April 2013. More than 1,200 garment workers perished in a building collapse in Rana Plaza. Workers, already being paid the world’s lowest wages for their type of work, were told to work in a building with structural safety problems. Without a voice — formally known as a right to organize — workers did not rise up against management who told them to continue working even when it was clear that the building was going down. The building owner, who had ties with the ruling political party, was held accountable. But, in the eyes of many, the international retailers who had commissioned the factory were just as complicit. Calls for reform and boycott followed. Some companies, like Disney, left Bangladesh.
In response, the State Department formulated a three point agenda for reform in Bangladesh — a right to organize, worker safety and structural safety. This agenda became critical as the State Department, along with other government agencies like the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Labor, worked with private companies to ensure that the tragedies of Rana Plaza would never happen again. Almost daily, the desk was working with the likes of lobbyists for large multinationals, European diplomats, academic experts on Bangladesh and government of Bangladesh officials. When multinationals pledged tens of millions of dollars for reform in Bangladesh, headlines were made. The work behind the scenes was not mentioned, as is the case for most State Department activities.
Throughout the summer, I worked on a host of other Bangladesh-related issues: economic integration with the broader region, diaspora engagement, a philanthropy portal intended to improve impact, and consultations for the visiting Ambassador to Bangladesh. What I found most striking about my time was not the issues I worked on but the people I worked with — people truly committed to U.S. foreign policy and the ideals of America. People who worked long hours with less pay than they could’ve made other places. People who always credited someone else and never took credit for themselves. This summer taught me that public servants deserve more recognition than we give them. We should thank them whenever we can.