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Union Busting in Bangladesh

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Please read this Human Rights Watch report on union busting in Bangladesh’s garment industry. Two years after Rana Plaza, conditions have changed slightly for the better because of pressure from western activists, but workers demanding the power to fight for themselves are brutalized. I want to present you two quotes from the report’s summary.

I was beaten with metal curtain rods in February when I was pregnant. I was called to the chairman’s room, and taken to the 3rd floor management room which is used by the management and directors — and there I was beaten by the local goons… There were other women who were called at other times, and they were beaten the same way as well. They wanted to force me to sign on a blank piece of paper, and when I refused, that was when they started beating me. They were threatening me saying ‘You need to stop doing the union activities in the factory, why did you try and form the union. You need to sign this paper.’

This is what happens when workers try to organize to ensure they have a safe place to work. The companies order them beaten. The western contractors like Walmart, Gap, Target, and other exploitative companies can completely wash their hands of this kind of behavior because of the contracting system. Yet they are in fact indirectly responsible. A garment factory owner told Human Rights Watch

Factory owners want to maximize profits, so they will cut corners on safety issues, on ventilation, on sanitation. They will not pay overtime or offer assistance in case of injuries. They push workers hard because they don’t want to miss deadlines and end up paying for air shipment which can destroy the viability of the operations. Workers have no unions, so they can’t dictate their rights…. Some of this can also be blamed on the branded retailers who place bulk orders and say ‘Scale up production lines because it is a big order, and improve your margins.’ Even 2-3 cents can make the difference, but these companies don’t want to factor in [labor rights and safety] compliance into costing.

This is why the Bangladeshi workers’ struggle must be our struggle. We must demand that corporations are held accountable for violence against organizers, terrible working conditions, pollution, and other unacceptable behaviors.

And yet the Bangladeshi workers are scared that they will lose their jobs from all this bad attention on their industry as the apparel companies move production to Cambodia, Indonesia, or some other new country that has not received negative attention in the West. Then they can start this exploitative process all over again. That cannot happen and that’s why we must create international standards for working conditions and union rights if companies want to sell products in the United States. If they are American companies or if American companies are contracting with suppliers, they need to be held legally responsible in American or European courts. And that will only happen if workers have the power to initiate these struggles. Otherwise, companies will move and move again in the global race to the bottom, leaving the world’s poor just as poor as they were before.

In short, we need to adapt the ideas of the Trans Pacific Partnership to create international courts that would protect corporate rights and make them protect the rights of workers and citizens to basic dignity.

In related news, I am speaking tomorrow night at the Workers Unite Film Festival in New York. Come on out if you are around. I will be signing books as well. And remember to preorder Out of Sight if you have not. It comes out for real on June 2.

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  • joe from Lowell

    In short, we need to adapt the ideas of the Trans Pacific Partnership to create international courts that would protect corporate rights and make them protect the rights of workers and citizens to basic dignity.

    I’ve been thinking along these same lines.

    If unions can bring cases before some sort of modified investor state resolution board, would they be subject to having suits brought against them?

    I guess that would be an improvement from beatings with metal rods.

    • Gregor Sansa

      The question then becomes: how could you get such a treaty passed? It would almost certainly end up being some compromise between good guys, out for better international worker protection and ability to sue employers, and bad guys, out for broadened intellectual property or anti-nationalization protection or worse.

      Right now, the bad guys have no reason to even talk to the good guys. After all, they have Obama doing their dirty work; why should they even pretend to make concessions of that kind?

      So step one is, torpedo the TPP. And not with rhetoric of “it could be a good idea, but the execution was flawed.” If we’re going to beat the TPP, it’s not by being mealy-mouthed.

      But it’s also worthwhile thinking about what kind of deal you’d ask for, what lines in the sand you’d draw, and which of those lines are actually unbudgeable.

      If the goal is worker protection, then climate has to be one of those hard lines. In the end, as much as I hate the dukes and counts of IP, I think they are probably the least bad allies to look to.

      • joe from Lowell

        I continue to hew to my old-fashioned habit of not forming an opinion of a deal until I know what’s in it.

        I am a conscientious objector in the Overton Window gamesmanship being played right now. I’m not going to decide it must be a bad bill on the grounds that Barack Obama is behind it.

    • Brett

      If the ISDS arbitration panels were expanded so that they also handled arbitration on suits related to actionable standards on environmental and labor rules, then I don’t see why they couldn’t function that way. Keep in mind you wouldn’t be suing corporations or businesses doing the offenses within those countries – you’d be suing their parent governments for not fulfilling the treaty language.

      For example, Bangladesh is overly dominated by textile barons. Under this kind of modified ISDS, you could sue the Bangladeshi government for not enforcing the labor rules in the treaty. Or you could sue the US government for not making their corporations comply with the treaty.

  • DrDick

    This really highlights what outsourcing is really all about. It is not just about cheap labor, but, more importantly, about plausible deniability. While they are clearly well aware of these kinds of abuses, multinational corporations can claim that they were ignorant and escape legal culpability. It is pretty clear this is what they wish they could do everywhere.

    While I like your idea of writing labor protections into trade agreements with international bodies to adjudicate infractions , it will never happen. International trade deals exist to facilitate multinational corporations’ evading regulation. I would also like to see similar protections for environmental damage.

    • joe from Lowell

      It is not just about cheap labor, but, more importantly, about plausible deniability.

      Right. Labor in Bangladesh is pretty damn cheap even without beating people.

      It’s about cheaper labor, about squeezing a little competitive advantage over other companies, not just the absolute cost.

      • DrDick

        I do not think it is even for competitive advantage so much as squeezing a little extra rents out of the company.

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