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.