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Let’s Meet Some of the Women Making Your Clothing

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Five years after Rana Plaza, basically nothing has changed for south and southeast Asian sweatshop workers. American consumers effectively don’t care. The left doesn’t actually take trade policy seriously except for knee-jerk rejections of trade agreements. I oppose most of those agreements too, but to reform this system, the left has to have actual, concrete proposals on trade. Right now, they mostly don’t. Certainly groups like United Students Against Sweatshops do what they can to move this process forward. But it’s simply not a high priority for the American left. Even from a foreign policy perspective, not only is Disney and McDonald’s as real of foreign policy issues as bombings and militarism, these probably affect more people globally. So does trade. Yet the left and liberals too often don’t see any of these issues as foreign policy per se. Not that the left takes classical foreign policy issues seriously enough either.

Anyway, now that Myanmar has been more or less normalized on the world scene and Aung San Suu Kyi has moved out of the realm of idealized hero for global white liberals into someone totally cool with genocide, the workers of Burma are now making clothing for the world’s population and suffering the same terrible conditions and lives that their neighbors do. That includes sexual harassment, forced pregnancy tests, and other forms of degrading harassment of women’s bodies. And still, we pay no attention.

Alongside this harassment, female garment workers report routine pregnancy testing and discrimination from factory management.

Their claims are confirmed in a soon-to-be-released gender equality assessment of 16 foreign-owned garment factories in Yangon.

“A significant proportion of women interviewed seemed to have been asked to go through a pregnancy test before securing employment in the factories,” International Labour Organisation representative Catherine Vaillancourt-Laflamme says.

Factory owners do not want to pay workers’ 98 day-maternity leave entitlement and are worried their production line will be broken.

The law is silent on medical exams and pregnancy tests during recruitment, adds Ms Vaillancourt-Laflamme.

Factory representatives rejected the report’s findings, suggesting respondents may have confused pregnancy testing with general questions about their health.

Pregnancy testing is a problem in the region and one of the poor labour practices that foreign-owned factories have imported into Myanmar, according to Jacob Clere from garment sustainability organisation SMART Myanmar.

Brands dodge the blame

Therein Aung from Action Labour Rights says he regularly receives reports of pregnancy discrimination and harassment of workers but does not know how to escalate their complaints.

“If I go to the labour office they say this is not their responsibility, and they suggest going to the police, but practically speaking women don’t feel comfortable going to the police as they don’t know how to handle these complaints.”

As factories scramble to find the cheapest wages in Asia, some are moving to rural areas in Myanmar and enjoying a seven-year tax holiday.

While this is creating more jobs, workers are having to travel long distances between their homes in town and rural factories, often at night without lighting along the roads.

Wai Wai says she feels very unsafe travelling home.

“The responsibility question [around safe travel to work] is an interesting one,” says Mr Clere.

“I understand some factories will directly own buses, so technically I guess the company that is contracting is legally responsible.”

Consumer-facing brands often escape responsibility with blame falling to suppliers.

But Ms Vaillancourt-Laflamme is optimistic, saying “there is a growing recognition of the responsibilities of all actors of the global supply chains.”

I guess Vaillancourt-Laflamme has to say that, because there’s no enforcement mechanism to stop any of this from happening so keeping global brands feeling good about themselves is important to gain buy-in. This is of course the problem. The global brands basically don’t care. Some claim to. But they have set up a system of outsourcing and on-time orders/delivery that intentionally obfuscates what is happening in these factories. That actually creates a system where it’s true enough that when a company does try to take this semi-seriously, as Nike did after exposure about its Indonesian sweatshops in the 90s, that it’s actually hard for them to do too much about it without roiling the system far more than they are willing to do.

Now, the global brands pay a TON of attention to cost and quality control. If those things go bad, then they are going to change suppliers. But labor issues? Sexual and medical exploitation of women? Please. That keeps the costs low! And before we get into “Different Nations Have Different Standards of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace and That’s OK” territory, an easy set of talking points for certain liberals who want to defend globalization without dealing with any of the tricky issues on the ground, there is no reason that you can’t have a globalized production regime that also, oh I don’t know, doesn’t force workers to take pregnancy tests.

Now is the time for the left to do what it is doing with so many other issues–the minimum wage, criminal justice reform, the cost of college–and put a real trade agenda on the table for Democrats who want to be president to advance. I assure you that the lawyers and neoliberal economists and corporate hacks are doing that very thing. So long as we don’t counter that by offering a different regime–one that respects globalism and avoids old-school protectionism while also offering the kind of international regulatory framework and enforcement mechanisms that allow workers making our consumer goods to live dignified lives–the most exploitative parts of free trade will not be reformed. I tried to lay some of that out here and I continue to advocate for a Corporate Accountability Act that would hold American companies legally responsible for the actions that take place through their supply chains. That could be enforced in American courts. I also advocate for the negotiation of trade agreements that give citizens the rights for redress in the same international courts that corporations use to advance their agenda. Both of these items I believe are central to beginning to rein in the worse of globalization’s exploitation.

Maybe we should begin pushing our politicians on this.

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