With the overall attack on unions in the United States, the ability of the AFL-CIO to engage in international solidarity actions gets harder and harder, as does its ability to lead the way on working-class issues at home. This is of course the point of anti-union laws. But if we are to tame the horrors of the supply chain, with American companies moving jobs overseas to increase profit and undermine work at home, the American labor movement has to build solidarity with those workers overseas and figure out ways to tame the global exploitation of corporations. Of course for a long time the labor movement worked closely with the government to undermine international solidarity in the AFL-CIA days and it’s a sad irony that the labor movement has finally moved toward helping build social democracy in other nations at the same time it is losing its ability to do so at home.
Nearly five years after the torture and assassination of Bangladeshi labor leader Aminul Islam, the country’s garment-sector employers and the government continue to persecute workers who try to exercise basic rights. In the three weeks since a December strike to protest the paltry $68 per month minimum wage, garment employers and the government have again shown their hostility toward workers and their rights. At that wage, workers in Dhaka would need to spend 60% of their income solely to rent substandard housing in a slum, leaving little to live on in a city about as expensive as Montreal (where the minimum wage is more than ten times higher).
Initially, employers and the government responded to the strike by closing 60 factories on Dec. 20 and deploying hundreds of police to the area. After the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) ordered owners to reopen factories on Dec. 26, employers fired and suspended more than 1,600 workers for their alleged involvement in the unrest. Labor leaders and activists in Bangladesh and abroad demanded the reinstatement of all workers.
Instead, both employers and government responded with increased repression. Since Dec. 21, at least 15 union leaders and workers’ rights advocates have been detained or arrested and 11 individuals remain in police custody. At least two of these have been beaten, and at least one was threatened with death. Clearly, the BGMEA and the government have the power to end these abuses immediately. Instead, garment employers and their association, exercise their considerable political power (at least 25 members of parliament are garment employers!) to demand that the government repress any worker or labor activist attempting to organize or represent workers’ interests. And the government delivers quickly on this request.
American companies may not be pulling the strings on the repression of the Bangladeshi labor movement. But they are very happy about it and it’s happening with their clear consent. Here is the call to action:
The AFL-CIO calls on the following to act:
The U.S. government must maintain its current suspension of GSP benefits to Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government must stop using national security/anti-terrorism laws to criminalize trade union activity and release arrested trade union activists.
The Bangladesh government must enforce its own laws with regard to registering unions.
The Bangladesh government must convene the minimum wage board and union federations with real representation in the garment industry and must negotiate on behalf of the workers.
The BGMEA and all garment manufacturers must actually negotiate collective agreements with the unions and workers in their workplaces to address wage and other issues.
Finally, the AFL-CIO urges the European Union to seriously review its current GSP program with Bangladesh since its market is the largest for garments from Bangladesh.
This is fine but it doesn’t go far enough. The AFL-CIO also needs to call for American law to restrain American corporate behavior in their supply chains, holding companies accountable for what happens in the production of their products and the creation of trade agreements and international law that allows workers access to courts to fight for their human rights.