opinionBy Adele M. Stan
Retailers look away as the Bangladeshi government stalks, batters and kills seamstresses and labor activists.
A day after Walmart workers and their allies staged protests and rallies outside the company's stores across the U.S., a fire erupted in a factory across the globe in Bangladesh, killing 112 workers who were trapped inside, where they sewed jeans and other apparel for the retail giant's Faded Glory brand. Another 200 were injured in the fire. On Monday, the streets of Dhaka, the capital city, were filled with thousands of garment workers, who demanded justice.
The main doors of the factory were reportedly padlocked, according to the Christian Science Monitor, and many workers jumped to their deaths rather than be burned alive, according to the Associated Press, which also reported survivors saying that they were sent back to their sewing machines after the fire alarm went off. Others said the fire extinguishers didn't work. A retired fire official told the New York Times that fire trucks were slow to arrive on the scene because there wasn't a proper road for approaching the factory.
Your Job or Your Life
What do Walmart store "associates," as the company likes to call its retail clerks, and Bangladeshi garment workers have in common? Both work in environments so hostile to labor unions that to undertake the work of organizing is a danger to one's livelihood -- or in Bangladesh, one's life.
As AlterNet reported last week, Walmart employees who got involved with OUR Walmart, a union-allied group that advocates for fair pay and working conditions, reportedly suffered retaliation. And for his groundbreaking documentary, Walmart: The High Price of Low Cost, filmmaker Robert Greenwald talked to a former Walmart manager (video) who told of how the company rigged a union election in an Annapolis, Md., store by temporarily transferring in workers from Arkansas who would vote against allowing the union to represent them.
In the apparel factories that supply Walmart and other U.S. retailers, an attempt to organize workers can land an employee in jail -- or even cost an organizer his life.
Responding to the Bangladesh fire, Walmart executives claimed that the supplier of its Faded Glory products, Tazreen Fashions, was not authorized to manufacture for Walmart, but that a contractor that enjoyed the Walmart seal of approval subcontracted with Tazreen. But for labor activists, that's hardly an excuse. A statement issued this week by the International Labor Rights Federation and Workers Rights Consortium reads, in part:
Regardless of whether Walmart acknowledges Tazreen as an approved supplier, Walmart is responsible for the safety of the workers making its clothing and should not abandon Tazreen and its employees following this disaster.
Elsewhere in the statement, leaders of the two groups blame Walmart's "constant downward price pressure" for inciting factory owners to cut corners in worker safety. But that's not quite the whole story.
The Factory Police State
In truth, Walmart is just the biggest, most obvious player in a bad lot, which includes many U.S. and European retailers and clothing brands. In the case of Bangladesh, for which apparel exports is an $18 billion business, the Western companies essentially sponsor a factory police state that exists to satisfy the insatiable appetite of Western consumers for new stuff at a low price. And with the U.S. economy now wholly dependent on consumer spending, a vicious cycle has emerged to trap the workers of the developing world in the same sort of exploitive, deadly conditions that characterized American factories at the turn of the 20th century.
A hundred and one years ago, when the bodies of the 146 women killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan -- under similar conditions to those killed last weekend in Bangladesh -- were laid on the sidewalk, hundreds of New Yorkers filed solemnly past to take in the horror. The tragedy helped spur the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. But in Bangladesh, union organizing brings the scrutiny of the security state, and can land an organizer in jail -- or worse.
In April, the body of Aminul Islam, a labor organizer who endured all manner of state surveillance, was found on the side of a road outside Dhakar, showing signs of torture. He had bled to death, apparently from a beating after he mysteriously disappeared. Associates believe that he was lured into captivity by a couple who came to him seeking his help to get married. (Islam was known as a devoutly religious man.)
At the Rosita Knitwear factory in the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone just outside Dhaka, workers last March were beaten and even shot by paramilitary forces for calling "an impromptu sit-down strike," according to the New York Times' Jim Yardley. Rosita makes sweaters for H&M, the fashion-conscious, low-price European chain that has taken the U.S. market by storm.
Bangladeshi garment workers typically earn around $50 per month on average; the minimum wage is $37 per month. Most are women, who comprise 80 percent of the garment-sector workforce. Apparel exports accounted for 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports in 2009, the latest figures available, and it is now the second-largest exporter of clothing in the world, just behind China.
Factories such as Rosita are located in special enterprise zones, which, according to the Times' Yardley, have laws and police forces that are separate from those of the rest of the country. He tells of one worker, Mohammad Helal Uddin, who, after being elected to lead a committee formed by workers seeking redress for a sexual demand made of a woman worker by her boss, was jailed when workers staged a protest. After his release, when he tried to return to work, Yardley reports, Uddin was abducted by members of a special police force, the Rapid Action Batallion, jailed, beaten and made to sign a statement of resignation.
Labor Organizer Murdered
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly raised the issue of the unsolved murder of labor activist Aminul Islam during her visit to Bangladesh in May, but the secretary's stated concerns appear to have done nothing to change conditions for the country's garment workers, despite the fact that Bangladesh is a U.S. ally.
According to Yardley, whose New York Times report was published in August, the nation's political power structure is dominated by factory owners:
[Primer Minister Shiekh] Hasina's government has resisted expanding labor rights in a country where the owners of about 5,000 garment factories wield enormous influence. Factory owners are major political donors and have moved into news media, buying newspapers and television stations. In Parliament, roughly two-thirds of the members belong to the country's three biggest business associations. At least 30 factory owners or their family members hold seats in Parliament, about 10 percent of the total.
"Politics and business is so enmeshed that one is kin to the other," said Iftekharuzzaman, director of Transparency International Bangladesh."There is a coalition between the sector and people in positions of power. The negotiating position of the workers is very, very limited."
In fact, when representatives from 12 Western retailers formally expressed concern last July about growing labor unrest, the government brushed off requests from the companies to address the workers' wage demands, according to Yardley:
"No reason to be worried," Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, the minister, told reporters, noting that brands were not canceling orders.
With the system so rigged against workers, there's no reason to believe the retailers and apparel brands who subcontract their manufacturing to factories in developing countries will adequately police themselves. That sort of self-policing scheme resulted in an even worse factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan, two months ago, when 300 workers at Ali Enterprises, another denim apparel manufacturer, died.
According to the International News, a Pakistani paper, the owners of Ali Enterprises "obtained a fake certificate from an audit company to satisfy the companies abroad that his factory met the required safety standards."
The statement from the International Labor Rights Forum calls on Walmart to "join the comprehensive fire and building safety program with unions and labor rights groups that PVH (owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) and German retailer Tchibo have already signed onto." It continues:
The program includes independent inspections, public reporting, mandatory repairs and renovations, a central role for workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, supplier contracts with sufficient financing and adequate pricing, and a binding contract to make these commitments enforceable.
Given the current structure of the global economy, it's difficult to see where that would be enough. To make this sort of compliance voluntary may be preferable to no compliance at all, but it's hard to see how, without an international enforcement mechanism, greedy companies will find an incentive to stop exploiting the peoples of an oligarchic state such as Bangladesh.
Already, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Hasina is blaming the Tazreen fire on arsonists, calling it an act of sabotage, but declining to name a suspect or a motive. Bangladesh's garment workers are already rightly fearful of false accusations, and this latest development does not bode well.