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‘The Economy Runs on Our Toil’: Record Protests Sweep Bangladesh September 22, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Bangladesh, Human Rights, Labor.
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Roger’s note: the myth is that we are living in a post-industrial society (as if somehow the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, etc. somehow are magically made).  In reality exploited industrial labor has been shifted for the U.S. and Europe to the third world, mostly Asia.  Just about anything we buy, from running shoes, to screw drivers, to pillow cases, is manufactured by some exploited worker, quite possible a child working 12 hours a day for slave wages, in Bangladesh or the Philippines.  It is an iron law of  capitalist production to continually search out sources of cheap labor.  Capital accumulation originated on the backs of indigenous miners in Peru and African slaves.  Today, while it is mainly low paid services industry workers who are subjected to exploitation in the former industrial nations, the beat goes on for dark skinned factory workers in the third world.

Over 50,000 demand ‘dignity’ in garment industry where majority-female worke-force faces dangerous conditions and some of lowest wages in world

 

– Sarah Lazare, staff writer

Garment workers rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh Saturday, September 21 (Photo: Reuters / Andrew Biraj)

50,000 garment workers demanding higher pay flooded the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh Saturday, and 20,000 shut down dozens of factories by walking off the job, in the largest demonstrations to ever sweep the notoriously dangerous and low-wage Bangladesh garment industry.

The protests continued on Sunday, with workers and their supporters blocking traffic, marching along a key highway, and clashing with police who shot rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds of thousands, the AFP reports.

“Our backs are against the wall, so we don’t have any alternative unless we raise our voice strongly,” Nazma Akter, president of the United Garments Workers’ Federation, which groups 52 garment worker’s groups, told Saturday’s protest, Reuters reports. “We will not hesitate to do anything to realize our demand.”

Bangladesh’s garment industry is the second largest in the world, accounting for 80 percent of the country’s annual exports. Its estimated 4 million workers, 80 percent of whom are women from rural areas, earn a paltry $38 U.S. dollars a month, making them some of the lowest-paid garment workers in the world.

Unions have demanded a wage increase that would bring them to a monthly wage of $100 dollars to lift workers out of deep poverty, but factory owners rejected the demand, offering a paltry 20 percent raise.

“We are not the object of mercy, the economy moves with our toil,” Akter declared addressing Saturday’s rally.

Bangladesh’s garment industry has been swept with protests since the collapse of a factory in April killed more than 1,200 workers and injured over 2,500, with most victims women—one of many tragedies to sweep the country’s dangerous garment industry. While the catastrophe captured global headlines, little has been done to improve the bleak conditions of an industry that sells to numerous U.S.-based corporations, including Walmart, Gap, Sears, Disney, and Benetton.

“[W]e want these jobs with dignity,” Akter declared previously, “with safe working conditions, decent wages, and a voice in the workplace, and a unionized work place.”

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Critics Blast US Retailers’ Corporate-Dominated Factory Safety “Sham” July 11, 2013

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Labor Rights Groups: ‘This confirms what we have long predicted: that Wal-Mart, Gap and companies like them do not want to make any promises they actually have to keep.’

– Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Names of killed Bangladesh workers are strung outside a GAP shareholders meeting in May 2013. (Photo: Anirvan/cc/flickr)

In what is being blasted as a “sham” and an “expensive PR stunt” by workers’ rights groups, 17 North American retailers—including the Gap and Wal-Mart—launched a Bangladesh worker safety plan Wednesday as a means of sidestepping a legally binding international agreement.

The plan, called the “Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety” was devised as an alternative to the Bangladesh Safety Accord—a union-led and legally binding agreement signed by over 70 international brands and retailers.

“Gap and Wal-Mart’s safety plan is a sham which won’t make factories safe and only serves to undermine the Bangladesh Safety Accord,” said Murray Worthy, sweatshops campaigner at the human rights watchdog group War on Want.

Both agreements were spurred by the enormous international outcry following the Rana Plaza disaster in April when over 1,100 workers were killed in the collapse of a substandard Bangladesh factory. Previous to the collapse, a series of devastating garment factory fires highlighted the dangerous working conditions in the country and the enormous risk posed to millions of workers paid as little as $40 a month.

“This is just more of the same corporate-dominated voluntary measures that were so clearly proven to have failed in the Rana Plaza disaster,” Worthy continued. “Gap, Wal-Mart and the other brands behind the Alliance must scrap this expensive PR stunt and join the rest of the clothing industry in signing the comprehensive, legally binding and life-saving Bangladesh Safety Accord.”

Other signers of the Alliance include Target, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, Sears, L.L. Bean and J.C.Penney.

The deal alleges to inspect all factories used by the signatories within a year and establish a common set of safety standards. Further, the retailers will reportedly pay up to $1m a year each to support mandatory training for factory staff and managers and to support “worker participation committees” in every factory to deal with complaints about working conditions, the Guardian reports.

However, according to a response by a half-dozen labor rights groups reported by IPS, “companies that decide to withdraw from the alliance are only penalized by being forced to pay their share of administrative costs. For large companies, this would work out to around five million dollars – while Wal-Mart alone brings in more than 400 billion dollars annually.”

“Companies that sign onto the alliance but fail to meet a commitment face no adverse consequences beyond expulsion from the scheme. Instead, workers will continue to pay,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told IPS.

Further, Trumka notes that the “so-called” Global Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was developed without consulting with workers or union representatives and other critics point out that the “worker participation committees” will likely undermine workers’ rights to join trade unions and organize freely.

“This confirms what labor rights advocates have long predicted: that Wal-Mart, Gap and companies like them simply do not want to make any promises they actually have to keep,” said the labor rights coalition. “What they want is to be able to make promises now, at a time of major public and media scrutiny, that they can walk away from whenever it suits them, at a token cost.”

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Even After One of Worst Worker Atrocities in Human History, Gap & Walmart Won’t Get Serious About Preventing Another July 4, 2013

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AlterNet             /               By Jake Blumgart           
<!–

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–>Should the government of Bangladesh or the companies that sell products manufactured in the country be held responsible for working conditions?

 

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Photo Credit: Fight for Philly

July 1, 2013 |

On Saturday, June 29, Center City Philadelphia hummed with activity as shoppers and gawkers surged across the sidewalks, enjoying the first sunny day all week. But outside of the Gap outlet on Walnut Street, the crowds pause to look at the dozen people lying on the sidewalk. Again and again people came up to those standing at the fringes of the recumbent group: “What’re they doing?”

Amy Offner was quick to engage passersby. She explained the garment industry’s troubled history in Bangladesh, culminating in the April 24 collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza. Almost 1,130 people were killed, most of them garment workers who were forced to return to work in the obviously structurally compromised building. Following the disaster, which was the deadliest in the history of the global garment industry, many European and a few American companies signed the “ Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh” (U.S. signatories include Sean John, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the company that runs Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.) The agreement is legally binding and would require independent inspection of all factories by an investigator “with fire and building safety expertise…who is independent of and not concurrently employed by companies, trade unions or factories.” When problems are found the companies must fix them and cover lost wages for the duration of the renovations.

But many prominent American companies, including Walmart and Gap, refused to sign. Hence the corpse-like bodies strewn on the sidewalk covered in signs reading “GAP: Death Traps” and “Workers Shouldn’t Die for Fashion.”

“People were really curious, and most people were surprised Gap even uses sweatshop labor,” says Offner. “They assumed sweatshops had been wiped out a hundred years ago, or at least by the actions in the 1990s. They were shocked to find out Gap uses sweatshops and is refusing to seriously try and improve the industry.”

The Philadelphia action coincided with similar protests in 35 other cities, representing a further escalation the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) campaign against Gap. The protests came two days after the Obama administration announced it would be severing Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. The move ends duty free privileges that were extended to some Bangladeshi products. It is explicitly meant to be a punishment for Rana Plaza and other recent industrial accidents. Although the dollar value of the sanction is only estimated to be $40 million annually and does not affect the garment industry, some Philly activists used the administration’s decision as a rallying cry, urging passersby to “support Obama’s executive order.”

“This is one of the stronger actions our government has taken—it sends a very strong message to the government of Bangladesh that our country takes seriously the egregious labor rights violations that have been going on,” says Cathy Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, which has been pushing such a punitive policy since at least 2007.“What is happening is a struggle to really figure out issues around global governance. The binding accord is really significant because it’s the first time we’ve seen corporations do something [besides] the traditional voluntary route. It will complement the political message coming from the U.S., because they are not just suspending GSP but engaging the Bangladeshi government so it can [improve] and get those benefits returned.”

The White house has stated that there isn’t a timetable regarding the possible reinstatement of trade privileges. The AFL-CIO expected the Obama administration to release a road map of necessary reforms when it announced the suspension of benefits last Thursday, but so far no such document has been forthcoming. The AFL-CIO suggestions include assurances that the right to collectively bargain be respected. Currently there are very few formal worker organizations in the Bangladeshi garment sector and labor organizing is often met with brutal force. (In May a new law was passed allowing garment workers to unionize without the permission of factory owners.)

As Death Toll Rises, Report Shows Big Retail Brands Chose Profit over Safety in Bangladesh April 26, 2013

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Hundreds of thousands protest dangerous “sweatshop” conditions as police fire tear gas, rubber bullets

– Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

A Bangladeshi woman was lifted out of the rubble by rescuers at the site of a building that collapsed in Bangladesh. (Kevin Frayer/Associated Press)

As the death toll soared past 300 in the aftermath of Wednesday’s garment factory disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and over 1,000 remained unaccounted for on Friday, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of thousands of mourning protesters fed up with an international garment industry that continues to place profit over workers’ lives.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports Friday that in 2011 several major western retailers rejected a proposal made by a group of Bangladeshi and international unions that outlined a way to clean up Bangladesh’s garment factories. The plan would have established an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh “with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions.”

“The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers — including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M — but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly,” AP reports.

At the time, Wal-Mart’s representative told the meeting it was “not financially feasible … to make such investments,” according to minutes of the meeting obtained by AP.

‘Not Financially Feasible…’: Inspections would have been funded by contributions from the companies of merely $500,000 per year, compared to the $20 billion Western brands such as Walmart, the Gap and H&M make from the garment industry in Bangladesh per year.

The inspections would have been funded by contributions from the companies of merely $500,000 per year, compared to the $20 billion Western brands such as Walmart, the Gap and H&M make from the garment industry in Bangladesh per year. All told, garment manufacturing is a $1 trillion global industry.

Five garment factories were housed in the eight-story building that collapsed on Wednesday in Dhaka. The factories have been sub-contracted to supply clothing for Wal-Mart in the past, but Wal-Mart officials said that they are still investigating whether their products were being produced in the factory at the time of the disaster.

Among the factory owners in the building were Phantom Apparels Ltd., New Wave Style Ltd., New Wave Bottoms Ltd. and New Wave Brothers Ltd. garment factories, who at the time were making clothing for a number of brands including Benetton, Primark, Loblaws, The Children’s Place and Dress Barn.

On Friday, the New York Times reports, labor groups distributed photos showing that they had discovered garments with labels from J.C. Penney and El Corte Inglés, a Spanish retailer, at the site of the collapse.

The collapse is the latest in a series of factory disasters in Bangladesh tied to western brands including a massive blaze which broke out in the Tazreen factory in November, killing 112 workers. Clothes made for Disney, Wal-Mart and other western labels were found at that factory.

Factory owners from the building ignored a warning not to allow their workers into the building after a crack was detected in the building’s structure on Tuesday.

On Friday, hundreds of rescuers continued to dig through the masses of factory rubble for the third day in a row as “the cries of the trapped and the wails of workers’ relatives gathered outside the building,” AP reports.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of workers and relatives from the hundreds of garment factories continued to protest throughout the day Friday.

Bangladeshi media reported that two factories have been burned by protesters demanding the death penalty for the owner of collapsed building, said to have broken many building codes, as well as the owners of the factories inside the building.

However, as Dara O’Rourke, an expert on workplace monitoring at the University of California, Berkeley, reminded the New York Times, it is important to remember the source of labor exploitation in places such as Bangladesh: “Even in a situation of grave threat, when they saw cracks in the walls, factory managers thought it was too risky not to work because of the pressure on them from U.S. and European retailers to deliver their goods on time,” O’Rourke, said, adding that the prices Western companies pay “are so low that they are at the root of why these factories are cutting corners on fire safety and building safety.”

“Improvement is not happening,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, who said a total of 600 workers have died in factory accidents in the last decade. “The multinational companies claim a lot of things. They claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system,” Amin said. “But yet these things keep happening.”

Rescue workers, army personnel, police and members of media run after they heard someone shouting that a building next to Rana Plaza is collapsing during a rescue operation in Savar, 30 km (19 miles) outside Dhaka April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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