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Is There Hope for Bangladeshi Workers?

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2014_Rana_Plaza_Presser_1

Above: Survivors and Families of the Rana Plaza Collapse Protest in Bangladesh, November 2013

Maybe.

In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, the European apparel companies (not the major U.S. ones like Gap, Target, or Walmart of course) decided it was in their interests to take a small measure of responsibility for their contractors. This led to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, creating a team of inspectors that would identify and pressure contractors to fix safety problems in the sweatshops. Since there is some apparel company effort to see changes, changes are seen.

The Accord is the first legally binding agreement between apparel brands and unions where companies are obligated to pay for contractor factory upgrades. It potentially covers over 1,600 factories employing over 2 million workers. Elements of the Accord include an independent factory inspection program which involves workers and unions, public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports and Corrective Action Plans (CAP), a commitment by signatory brands to provide funds for remediation and to maintain sourcing relationships, democratically-elected health and safety committees in all factories, and worker training programs, complaints mechanisms and the right to refuse unsafe work.

How has the Accord turned out? The current Accord Progress Overview shows that as of December 2015, 1,358 factory Corrective Action Plans have been published, and 1,600 out of 1,660 factories have been inspected so far. Nearly 100,000 electrical, fire and structural violations have been identified and about 20,000 have been fixed. However, most of the factory CAPs are behind schedule. Still there is some progress here.

But workers and movement allies know that it’s not enough for the Accord to fix up factories. A recent ILRF report on interviews with dozens of Bangladeshi garment workers, Our Voices, Our Safety: Bangladeshi Garment Workers Speak Out, found that while workers view the factory repairs as important, the ability of workers to organize is crucial. The report states:

Workers report they will not be safe without a voice at work. Fire, electrical, and structural safety in garment factories is essential and will save lives. But these renovations and repairs must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety.

So there are minor improvements. That’s good. On the other hand, until Bangladeshi workers have real voices on the job, i.e., unions, they won’t really be safe. That’s going to take international pressure since it will probably require more action from the apparel companies. The best way this can happen, as the linked article suggests, is that you and I get involved in finding ways to support these workers, raise awareness, and spread information about the plight of these workers, demanding specific changes. That is what we need, pressure at home working with the workers overseas. This is why boycotts outside of those demanded by workers or buying your clothes at thrift stores to say you aren’t responsible for these conditions is not a useful way to act. We have to build solidarity with workers and act in order to improve their lives, not make ourselves feel righteous. Bangladeshi workers are making real demands. We need to support them since we are the ones wearing their clothes.

My question to readers and commenters who constantly defend the current system of globalization is to ask what you are doing to respond to the concerns of workers in Bangladesh and India and Vietnam and Cambodia. What would you tell them if they were in front of you? That their lives are so much better than they used to be so they shouldn’t complain so much?

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  • BiloSagdiyev

    A wheelchair? Luggshury! In my day, we hobbled with a stick!

  • sapient

    readers and commenters who constantly defend the current system of globalization

    I don’t think that very many people constantly defend the current system of globalization without qualification. What some of us defend is the fact that international trade has on the whole, without question, improved living standards in many developing countries. I certainly favor improving worker conditions, and that includes consumer boycotts and other actions such as those cited in the article to pressure companies to abide by higher standards. But mostly it is the job of government to enforce humane working conditions and environmental standards. Our government isn’t interested in doing so because we have a republican Congress.

    The most important job of “readers and commenters” who care about workers is to elect Democrats who will pass legislation to regulate businesses no matter where their manufacturing facilities are located, and who will fund the agencies that will enforce those regulations.

    • That’s a major cop-out. You can’t just say “elect Democrats.” How many Democrats even have a stated position on these issues? I obviously support that legislative goal as I say in Out of Sight, but to hold this up as a sole solution–that if we just elect more Democrats this problem comes closer to being solved–is not even close to sufficient, not when we don’t demand articulated solutions from the Democrats we do elect, not when Obama reclassifies Malaysia’s human rights record in the face of obvious human trafficking evidence so we can include it in the TPP.

      • Lee Rudolph

        That’s a major cop-out. You can’t just say “elect Democrats.”

        Sapient didn’t just say that, she/he said “elect Democrats who will pass legislation to regulate businesses no matter where their manufacturing facilities are located, and who will fund the agencies that will enforce those regulations.” If there’d been a comma after “Democrats”, a possible reading would indeed be that we “just” have to elect any Democrats, because any Democrats we elect (in sufficient numbers) will pass such legislation. But without the comma, the only reasonable reading—and I’m sure the reading sapient intended—is that we must elect only Democrats who are committed to such legislation. And I’m sure you’re right that there aren’t many who made any such commitment (or pretense of such a commitment) clear by having a stated (correct) position. It then follows immediately from sapient’s comment that we must begin by getting such commitments, which is what you call for. In other words, I think you two are in agreement.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        OK then, are there liberal Republicans we can vote for on these issues nowadays? It’s shorthand. First, we have to stop the GOP. Our main problem is that 28% holds America hostage.

        Of course neolib DLC-types aren’t useful on these issues. We’re working on the “better Democrats” issue lately, too, not just “more.”

  • Nick Conway

    What action truly could be taken? As you say, boycotts not planned with Bangladeshi workers may not do anything but make ourselves feel good. When I look at the most prominent anti-sweatshop organizations, they mostly urge letter-writing campaigns and buying fair trade, the second of which as you note does little. For example this website below urges action but most of the actions do not seem very helpful:
    http://www.greenamerica.org/programs/sweatshops/whatyoucando/index.cfm

    This is the problem of globalization, if, for example, students wanted to make change by putting pressure on the garment industries, how could they possibly coordinate with bangladeshi workers actually being effected? Given the language/culture barrier, and the fact that most garment workers likely (?) lack access to an internet connection.

    Maybe the best would be an organization led by or started by recent Bangladeshi immigrants who still have connections back home but could connect with people in America? I keep thinking of the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s as a model, putting pressure on corporations to reform their supply chains through an alliance between the workers effected and student/activist groups. But even they started in the late 90s, it’s taken 20 years of hard work to achieve (very real) improvements in the Florida tomato industry and begin moving their model to other states/crops. But maybe now is the time to start building a movement based on this model of boycotts and worker coordination? What do you think Erik, could this work?

    BTW Erik, you might be interested in the Workers Voice Tour, which is a Coalition of Immokalee Workers campaign that is going to put additional pressure on Wendy’s to reform their supply chain happening early in March where workers/activists will travel to New York, Columbus, and Palm Beach for events. They just launched the tour’s website, if you wanted to talk about it a little on the blog in the next month maybe some readers would be interested in attending one or more of the events:
    http://ciw-online.org/workersvoice/

    • This is the problem of globalization, if, for example, students wanted to make change by putting pressure on the garment industries, how could they possibly coordinate with bangladeshi workers actually being effected? Given the language/culture barrier, and the fact that most garment workers likely (?) lack access to an internet connection.

      The linked article is by an activist involved in solidarity actions with Bangladeshi workers. It is not that hard. USAS did a ton of this work in the 90s, when the internet was an infant.

      And thanks for the CIW info, I didn’t know that.

      • Nick Conway

        Oops, I guess I should have read the article first. So the problem isn’t the difficulty of coordinating but rather just a lack of interest among lefty activists. That’s a lot more depressing, but also might be more easily fixable.

        • We could all go protest in front of our local Gap until we got arrested. Of course, I’m not doing that either.

          • BiloSagdiyev

            We could sew our own clothes… also not going to happen.

            We could buy fewer clothes, many of us.

            • We could sew our own clothes… also not going to happen.

              We could buy fewer clothes, many of us.

              None of this would help Bangladeshi workers in any way.

          • cpinva

            “We could all go protest in front of our local Gap until we got arrested.”

            there hasn’t been a Gap in this town for many years. when it was here, it was located inside an enclosed mall, private property. so protesting in front of (a non-existent) it is kind of out for me.

            as well, while yes, the improvements made/planned in the Bangladeshi factories are great, eventually they will (by necessity) price themselves out of the volume garment market. the money spent must be recovered, and it will be passed through to the customer. won’t this have the negative effect of causing those customers to go elsewhere? they aren’t trapped, so they’ll move on.

            • The additional cost to clothing to create decent lives for workers is pennies. Almost nothing from a $50 pair of jeans is finding its way into a worker’s pocket or to workplace safety. These are false choices you are providing here that just reinforce the current system of global labor exploitation.

  • Jhoosier

    Speaking of which, I came across this last semester. I have 32 slaves working for me, which is fewer than my students. http://slaveryfootprint.org

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