Lesson of Bangladesh: Pressure Clothing Companies
The bad news from Bangladesh is almost relentless, with the death toll from last month’s factory collapse now surpassing 1,000, the worst industrial accident since Bhopal.
The disaster was utterly avoidable.
“The day before, when workers saw a huge crack in the building, they left the factory,” labor activist Kalpona Akter told Democracy Now. “But the next day, they were forced to go inside the factory, and someone with a hand mic said, ‘One crack doesn’t matter.’ ”
“They were forced to keep working,” Akter added. “After this announcement, within 30 minutes the building collapsed.”
This reveals the huge power imbalance between workers and management in Bangladesh. Unions—which could lessen this imbalance—are virtually absent from the garment industry.
“Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, workers could have refused to enter the building the day it collapsed,” Human Rights Watch’s Brad Adams said in a statement. “This tragedy shows that the right to organize a union in Bangladesh is not just a matter of getting fair wages –—it’s a matter of saving lives.”
But the entire global supply chain is set up to be free of those pesky unions so that the exploitation can be at a maximum.
“These fashion companies and the entire American economy have formed a corrosive and now deadly reliance on cheap consumer goods,” Elizabeth Cline, who has observed the Bangladeshi garment industry from close up, writes for The Nation. “And this paradigm has hollowed out the middle class and led to the exploitation of both people and planet.”
One way to remedy this would be international support for the Bangladeshi workers’ right to unionize.
“What is needed is robust support for the workers as they try to build their own organizations at the point of production,” writes Professor Vijay Prashad in The Guardian. “The Bangladeshis are capable of doing their own labor organizing; what they need is political backing to do so.”
And they need all the support they can get. As Prashad points out, for a country founded by a left-leaning movement (helmed by the current prime minister’s father), the nation is incredibly hostile to unions. The head of an organization backed by U.S. unions was killed last year. The U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh himself warned garment bigwigs last summer that their anti-labor approach was harming the industry’s image.
We should also urge Western clothing retailers to have comprehensive safety measures put into place. It would cost them, literally, loose change.
Providing safe workplaces in Bangladesh would tack “10 cents on to each of the roughly 7 billion garments exported from the country each year,” says the Center for American Progress.
We have to keep insisting on these changes even after the tragedy fades from the headlines. We don’t need more bad news from Bangladesh down the road.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of the recent book “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).
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