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Lawmakers press for trade response to Bangladesh factory fire

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A dozen U.S. lawmakers pressed President Barack Obama's administration on Thursday to complete a long-running review that could lead to suspension of trade benefits for Bangladesh after a deadly factory blaze there last month.

"We are seriously concerned about the deterioration of working conditions and worker rights in Bangladesh," the congressional Democrats said in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

"The latest apparel industry fire, with over 100 workers killed, in the Tazreen garment factory is the latest in a series of events and practices constituting this decline," the lawmakers said.

A Bangladeshi panel investigating the November 24 fire at the Tazreen Fashion Factory that killed 112 workers concluded it was the result of both sabotage and negligence.

A U.S. trade official said Kirk's office had been concerned about the worker-rights situation in Bangladesh for some time and had conveyed those concerns to the Bangladeshi government on numerous occasions.

The Tazreen fire had "intensified our concerns," the official said.

"USTR takes the rights and conditions of workers very seriously and we are carefully reviewing this situation to determine next steps, including with respect to an ongoing review of worker rights in Bangladesh under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program," the official said.

The Tazreen tragedy put a spotlight on global retailers that source clothes from Bangladesh, where labor costs are as little as $37 a month for some workers. Human rights groups have called on big-brand firms to sign up a fire-safety program.

The largest U.S. labor organization, the AFL-CIO federation, has raised concerns for years about working conditions in Bangladesh and filed a petition in 2007 asking for a review of trade benefits for the country under the GSP program, which waives U.S. import duties for poor countries on thousands of goods.

GSP rules require a country to demonstrate that it is "taking steps to afford internationally recognized human rights," the U.S. lawmakers said. "We believe it is vital that your office complete your assessment of Bangladesh's compliance with these requirements."

(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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