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Global Struggles

Restoring Labor Rights in Bangladesh

Blogging Our Great Divide
July 23, 2015

by Robert Ross

Two years after the April 24, 2013, collapse of the Rana Plaza building, Bangladesh has become a laboratory to test whether pressure from worldwide labor unions and NGOs in support of local unions and labor activists can improve life in the world’s sweatshops. The Rana Plaza disaster capped a series of fires and other fatal collapses in Bangladesh garment factories. Its death toll was at least 1,130. Another 2,500 workers or more were injured, many crippled for life and deeply traumatized. The survivors’ terrible stories include on-site amputations and workers being trapped underground for days. Some can no longer enter tall buildings without uncontrollable trembling and crying. One woman described attempting to go to work on 19 occasions but failing each time to overcome her anxiety. Thousands of livelihoods have been crushed.

Implicated in these deaths and injuries were 31 Western fashion brands, buyers of products from the local factory owners renting space in Rana Plaza. These included Benetton, Bonmarché, Carrefour, El Corte Inglés, Inditex, J.C. Penney, Loblaw, Mango, Primark, The Children’s Place, and Walmart. These firms all had voluntary codes of conduct pledging that they and their suppliers would provide safe and healthy working conditions.

The collapse produced worldwide headlines and brought shame and reputational damage upon these companies, which specify every detail of the garment but manage to duck responsibility for the workers who produce it. The global rag trade is organized to allow fashion brands to source production globally, seeking the lowest possible cost consistent with the quality that the brand demands. The brands don’t own the factories but rely on a supply chain of logistics companies, contractors, and subcontractors. With millions of people unemployed or underemployed and national governments such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and of course China viewing garment production as a rung on the manufacturing ladder, the effect is to batter down wages as well as disperse accountability.

Throughout Asia and the developing world, vast numbers of underemployed rural workers flock to cities and compose a reserve of labor whose very number drives down wages. The brands and retailers are attracted to factories that can access this low-wage workforce. World per-unit cost of garments dropped 40 percent between 2000 and 2014.

Bangladeshi workers endured a generation of escalating worker deaths and injuries from fires and collapses, but exports from Bangladesh doubled as a fraction of total world exports, from 2.5 percent to more than 5 percent. Bangladesh became an attractive production platform for all the reasons that together make its garment workers so vulnerable. Their wages are among the lowest in the world. They were at the very bottom before 2013, but to placate outraged workers and indignant Western governments, the minimum wage was substantially increased after the Rana Plaza collapse, from 3,000 taka a month ($38) to 5,300 taka ($68)—still grievously short of living wages.

In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, union organizers and anti-sweatshop activists persuaded the big European brands to sign an Accord to police safety conditions and allow access to trade unionists. The Accord, with company and union representatives on its board, and a representative of the International Labour Organization as board chair and tiebreaker, proved too much for most American fashion brands. Leading U.S. companies, led by Walmart and Gap, created a rival “Alliance,” entirely voluntary and with no enforceable commitments.

To read more, go to American Prospect where this piece originally appeared.

Clark University sociologist Robert Ross is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. He is the author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.
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