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Western Governments and Global Labor Standards

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Rana Plaza building in Dhaka.

Robert Ross has an excellent article on Bangladeshi labor reforms two years after Rana Plaza. In short, the international outrage has led to some relatively minor but not meaningless changes to building safety and union voices on the job. But very little to none of the money corporations have given to compensate the survivors have made it to the workers, employer resistance is still massive and that includes firing unionists, 10 percent of the Bangladeshi parliament is made up of apparel factory owners, and while the European companies Accord on Fire and Building Safety has helped workers, the American companies’ toothless version has done nothing but protect Walmart and Gap from responsibility for workers’ rights. Ultimately, Ross sees two key points out of this that I discuss in Out of Sight. First, that western governments have the power to make a difference in Bangladesh:

If labor rights and protective government policy (unions, laws, and law enforcement) form the main crucible of decent conditions for workers, alliances with international NGOs and labor unions are the enablers. Policy levers also exist—but Western governments have to be willing to use them. For example, the EU has what is called a Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) written into its trade laws. (The U.S.’s GSP provisions expired in 2013, but are likely to be reauthorized.) These allow duty-free entry of certain goods from low-income nations into the economies of their higher-income trading partners. They are bilateral terms, conditioned, ostensibly, on trade partners observing internationally recognized labor rights.

For example, after the Rana Plaza collapse, the U.S. suspended Bangladesh’s GSP privileges because of its fundamental disrespect for labor rights. But apparel imports are excluded from the GSP. This past year, through April 2015, Bangladesh apparel exports to the U.S. were valued at $4.95 billion. In 2012, Bangladesh imports covered by the GSP provisions were worth $34.7 million. The GSP suspension was symbolic.

However, apparel imports to the multination EU are covered by a single GSP provision. In 2014, they were worth almost $14 billion. At the Second Anniversary Forum sponsored by the ILO at a swank downtown Dhaka hotel, the EU representative to Bangladesh made a clear threat to suspend GSP privileges unless Bangladesh followed through on commitments to protect worker safety and guarantee core labor rights, a duplication in intent of an ILO forum in Brussels two days before. This is a target for European campaigners, particularly the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign. Whether they are willing to use the threat—which is dire—remains to be seen.

There are other levers for U.S. allies. The federal government is a large buyer of garments, including the post exchange (PX) retail stores where armed forces families buy goods on military bases around the world. They could be required to buy only from Accord members when they source from Bangladesh. They now report on whether they are using Accord factories, and the Marine Corps requires licensees using their logos to source from Accord firms or from factories that meet its requirements.

Yet for the most part, the American government refuses to do anything. That includes congressional Republicans getting angry at the military for not sourcing their clothing cheaply enough. It has certainly not been a priority for Obama, as the Trans-Pacific Partnership demonstrates. Global labor rights needs to be a political issue in this country for this system to meaningfully change. But this gets to Ross’ other point–that conditions for American workers are also getting worse:

American workers don’t face conditions as grim as those in Bangladesh, but some are not so different. As American workers lose union protection because of hostile laws, courts, and media, so do they lose their ability to defend safe conditions. At Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia in 2010, 29 miners died: non-union. In the 1991 Hamlet, North Carolina, poultry plant fire where 25 died and the back doors were locked: non-union. On paper, American workers have all the rights they need to organize and join unions. In practice, they risk getting fired.

In Bangladesh, one of the gaps is a decade-long, as yet unsuccessful, attempt to create a workers’ compensation insurance system. Workers’ comp offers a no-fault system—a grand bargain created a century ago, state by state, in the U.S.: Workers don’t sue; employers pay insurance premiums to cover medical costs and long-term income replacement for disability. Oops: Workers’ comp is under attack in the U.S. in state after state, as caps on payments, limits on payment duration, and other restrictions erode yet another part of the social safety net. We learn about what we need by examining the deficits of others.

Right, and with the destruction of unions and a century of labor law the stated goal of Republicans today, the future of the already heavily eroded standards of American work are very much in doubt. Outsourcing and the global race to the bottom incentivizes American companies to launch attacks on American worker rights while at the same time moving production around the globe to ensure a global Gilded Age of extreme income inequality and severe worker suffering. That can’t get better if workers can’t form their own unions and the companies stick around long enough to deal with those unions. What Ross does not state is the globalized nature of apparel production and the very real fear among Bangladeshi worker activists that the companies could move once again at any time if they feel too much pressure to pay good wages or have safe workplaces in Bangladesh. Only by creating international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts that follow American companies no matter where they source their items will we begin to create a legal regime that gives workers a fair shake, both at home and abroad.

Speaking of such things, this is as good a place as any to remind our New York readers that I will be speaking with the labor journalist Sarah Jaffe at Local 61 in Brooklyn tonight at 7. There will be copies of Out of Sight available for purchase and I will be happy to sign yours. Also, CSPAN is filming it for BookTV and whenever it actually comes on, I’ll let everyone know.

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