Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘bangladesh’

Over 100 Years Ago, 123 Young Women Working in a Factory Never Came Home. It Changed Our Country

Friday, March 25th, 2016

Photo courtesy the Kheel Center on Flickr

This post originally appeared at Upworthy.

Watch the video Brandon references.

I have a hard time watching this and not getting terribly angry. Those 123 young women and 23 men who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, deserve to be remembered. But we’re watching it happen all over again in developing countries that supply Walmart, Gap, and other marketing and retail giants. Sorry/not sorry, I’m mad as hell, and I wish we could live in a world where we didn’t have to take this anymore. Warning: some violent images.

At 2:00, you’ll see the cascading effects that the fire had on workers’ rights and eliminating sweatshops in the United States. But watching it happen all over again in other parts of the world at 3:00 is heartbreaking. It was the same, exact circumstances as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, word for word. At 4:24, how do they calculate the “value” of a human life? And the images at 6:40—really? All for a $26 pair of pants?

Even as recently as 2013, there was the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,123 garment workers.

It has to end. Right now.

This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on March 25, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Brandon Weber writes for AFL-CIO on labor and union history.

One Year After Rana Plaza, Safety Issues in Walmart Supply Chain Persist

Monday, April 28th, 2014

Yana KunichoffOn the one-year anniversary of the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory in Bangladesh—one small component of the multi-billion dollar global garment industry—labor groups around the world are taking to the streets, chanting “never again.” In Bangladesh, family members of the over 1,100 garment workers killed joined former workers and protesters outside the site of the collapse, while activists in London formed a human chain on the city’s busiest shopping street to urge local retailers to be more transparent about working conditions in their supply chains.

In the year since the collapse, advocates say they have successfully shifted the conversation about responsibility for factory production conditions to the multinational corporations themselves—such as Benetton and Nordstrom, both of which had tags found in the Rana Plaza wreckage. The groups have also begun to facilitate a dialogue around the ways in which corporations profit from low wages and corner-cutting on safety for the production of the cheap, fashionable clothes they peddle.

But while the media may recognize that the responsibility for garment workers belongs to the multinational companies that outsource to them, few corporations have taken part in the concrete steps championed by advocacy groups to help victims. For example, a compensation fund for victims was set up to enable retailers to donate to the impacted workers, but only $15 million—one-third of the $40 million goal—has been raised by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which chairs the fund.

The corporate community’s inaction has left survivors scrambling to make a living without adequate healthcare or wages, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Another round of interviews conducted by ActionAid, a global NGO, interviewed 1,436 survivors and 786 family members of workers who died in the Rana collapse. The study found that two-thirds of them had trouble buying food, and half found it difficult to make rent. Almost three in four hadn’t been able to work, and 76 percent were still receiving medical treatment.

Rabeya Begum was one of the 2,500 workers rescued from the rubble. In December, Begum lost both of her legs due to injuries she sustained in the collapse. But because her legs were removed months after the incident, Begum missed out on the government compensation program meant to provide a guaranteed income to workers who had lost limbs in Rana Plaza. Without a guaranteed income, she has been relying on donations to survive, but says that money will soon be gone as well. “ I have four children and my husband can no longer work because he needs to look after me,” she told Human Rights Watch.

The ILO’s Convention 121 dictates the compensation due to an injured worker based on their loss of future earnings, as well as pain and suffering. After the Bangladeshi disaster, ILO proposed $40 million in compensation for survivors.

But according to Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications for the forum, there are no legal mechanisms compelling retailers to pay into the compensation fund. That loophole made attempts to compel multinationals to pay damages for an earlier disaster—a 2012 factory fire in Bangladesh which left over 100 dead—all but futile.

For Rana Plaza workers, the first installment of fund payouts as it stands will be $645 per worker.

(In 2012, the year before the walls of Rana Plaza crumbled, Walmart, one of the largest multinationals that allegedly outsourced to Rana Plaza—a claim the company denied—made $17 billion in profits.)

Aside from material relief, one of the concrete gains that came out of the post-collapse outcry was the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement overseen by the ILO and several workers rights groups. The accord sets safety standards and mandates public reporting of independent safety inspections. Along with union signatories, over 150 apparel corporations have signed on to the accord, though major U.S. companies like Gap and Walmart are conspicuous absences.

Though Walmart denies being an “authorized” supplier to Rana, news reports found that one of the factories listed Walmart as a client. The corporation has long been a target of labor groups in the U.S., that call on the company to improve working hours and benefits for associates in its stores, as well as for improved safety conditions in its warehouses.

Wal-mart hit abroad, and at home, with labor unrest

Thirty-some protesters picketed outside of a Walmart Express on Chicago’s North Side yesterday, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, stressing that the differences in Walmart’s treatment of its workers in the supply chain are only of severity.

David Fields, 44, was among the group of Chicago-area protestors. Fields says he was fired from his job this month—as a forklift driver at a warehouse that supplies Walmart, half an hour south of the city in Hammond, Ind.— because he spoke out about the need for an adequate fire alarm system in the building. And that safety concern was only the tip of the iceberg, said Fields, who had been working at the warehouse since September. “At some point we all started feeling like modern day slaves,” he said, describing his days working in sub-zero temperatures during the icy polar vortex that hit Chicagoland this past winter. “They didn’t care that people were getting frost-bitten.”

Fields’ complaints carry echoes of those commonly made by workers in supply-chain factories overseas, especially the pressure to always speed up production and continue working in severe climate conditions. Najneen Akter Nazma, a factory worker who survived the Rana disaster—though her husband was killed—said she and her husband had been told about a crack running across the floor near his workstation, but knew they couldn’t take a day off work because it would cost them their monthly salary. And for Fields, a slippery floor in the warehouse, wet after a day of rain—which for his supervisors is no excuse to slow down work—carries with it the constant fear of being injured by the heavy loads he used to work with.

For his part, Fields was able to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after he was fired. Garment workers in Bangladesh—who have long labored in unregulated industries—are offered few labor protections.

Feeling the heat, but is it enough?

Foxvog has said it’s clear the garment industry has felt the public pressure to take responsibility for its contract workers overseas, will it be enough to compel corporations to change production practices? A handful of North American industry leaders—including Walmart—created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety in response to the disaster, which they say will release regular reports and maintain standards in Bangladesh factories, much in the same way the third-party Bangladesh Accord is intended to. Despite the promises of adequate oversight, only one of the 26 companies in the alliance—Fruit of the Loom—has signed onto the Bangladesh Accord, which has the backing of U.N. groups, unions and advocates.

In a statement on the Rana Plaza tragedy, Walmart stressed that “the safety of workers in our supply chain is very important” to the company. It went on to note that Walmart had made a $3 million contribution to a Bangladeshi humanitarian fund, while also touting its role in the alliance. Advocates want Walmart to instead pay into the ILO-led compensation fund, and sign on to the safety accord, which they argue has more impartial oversight.

Walmart has repeatedly denied its connection safety and workplace issues in its warehouses, and has used plausible deniability in the past to distance itself from its Bangladeshi suppliers. Still, thanks to international pressure—and despite its initial denials of responsibility—Walmart has been forced to publicly address the conditions in Bangladesh, and make minor concessions.

But that strategy hasn’t carried over to the company’s stateside operations. Walmart has claimed it is not responsible for the conditions in the Chicago-area distribution warehouse as workers were employed through a “third party service provider,” essentially proxies the company uses to contract with the warehouses. Only time will tell if the burgeoning movements against Walmart’s labor practices in the U.S. will eventually win comparable victories.

To keep a tragedy like the Rana Plaza collapse from occurring again, workers groups are calling for a fair-trade, unionized workforce as the only way to keep companies accountable, both at home and overseas.

For Foxvog, that means that “victims need compensation,” but also that workers must be afforded the “the right to refuse dangerous work” when they fear the foundations of their building won’t stand, a right denied the workers of Rana Plaza, and with deadly consequences.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 26, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based journalist covering immigration, labor, housing and social movements. Her work has appeared in the Chicago ReporterTruthout and the American Independent, among others.

Two Wins for Bangladesh Garment Workers, But The Fight Isn’t Over

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

David MobergWith a death toll of 1,127, the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh has earned the shameful distinction of being the sixth-worst worst industrial disaster in history.

There’s plenty of shame to go around—and not just for the building owner and factory operators who ignored clear warnings of danger. High on the dishonor roll are the multinational apparel companies who subcontract work to thousands of local Bangladeshi factories crammed into similar deathtraps. The government of Bangladesh, dominated by representatives of the nation’s largest industry, textiles, shares blame for its fecklessness and corruption.

U.S. government officials and members of Congress are also at fault. They have failed to insist on safe standards for production of goods in Bangladesh (four-fifths of whose garment output goes to the U.S. and the European Union) and continued to grant it trade preferences.

But in a glimmer of hope, the outcry over the scale of the carnage in Rana Plaza has begun to spur some long-overdue reforms.

After relentless international media coverage and protests and strikes in and around Dhaka, the Bangladeshi government announced yesterday that it was convening a panel to raise the minimum wage in the garment industry, currently the lowest in the world (around $38 a month).

And today, the government said it would make unionization less difficult in the garment sector. Currently, for a union to be certified, it must win support from 30 percent of workers, and the government gives the list of workers who sign up to the employer for verification. At that point, employers often intimidate or fire supporters to reduce union support. Bangladesh’s minister of textiles says that in the future, bosses will not see the list of signatories.

But the truth is that even government action and unionization are likely to be inadequate on their own. Pressure for cheaper production from the multinational corporations can overwhelm or corrupt governments and unions. That’s why another development spurred by the factory collapse is perhaps the most promising. Seven companies have acceded to calls by Bangladeshi garment-worker associations for a binding and enforceable fire and safety agreement.

Two initial signatories to the safety plan, PVH—parent of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands—and the German clothing company Tchibo, were joined today by five more big-brand companies: H&M, the Swedish firm that is the largest buyer of Bangladesh apparel; Inditex, parent of the Spain-based international retailer Zara; Primark, a UK firm that sourced products from one of the five Rana Plaza factories; the big British super-store chain Tesco; and the Dutch clothing company C&A. Now that it has passed the required four-signature threshold, the plan will likely go into effect.

The global union federations UNI and IndustriALL played a major role in bringing the primarily European companies on board. Workers at most of these companies in their home countries are unionized, and by taking advantage of relationships with such employees’ unions, the global federations have more clout than they do with typically non-union U.S. companies. GAP, Wal-Mart, Sears and JC Penney, for instance, have resisted signing the fire safety agreement, claiming it would be too expensive and would expose them to lawsuits.

This means that pressure on U.S. corporations from both citizens and consumers remains critical.

And for those who doubt that such pressure can be effective, a recent victory in Indonesia shows that U.S. crusades for worker justice in poor countries do work.

Just a day before the Rana Plaza collapse, United Students Against Sweatshops announced victory in a two-year campaign to force sportswear giant Adidas to pay legally mandated severance compensation to 2,700 Indonesian workers. The workers lost their jobs in 2010 when the Korean owner of PT Kizone, a contractor in Indonesia manufacturing shoes for Adidas, fled the country and abandoned his employees.

Labeling the brand “Badidas” for its refusal to pay the severance owed, USAS built the largest collegiate boycott of a major sportswear company in the organization’s 15-year history. By the time negotiators reached a settlement of the dispute that satisfied the workers, 17 colleges and universities had ended their contracts for producing college logo products with Adidas, and the University of Wisconsin was pursuing legal action against Adidas for allegedly breaking its anti-sweatshop contract with the university.

The victory was not only important as one of the largest global “wage theft” restorations, presumably—since the exact terms remain secret—providing close to the $3.4 million owed to 2,700 workers from all the major contracting firms (Adidas, Nike and the Dallas Cowboys).

More important, this campaign took a giant step towards establishing that multinationals must pay the price when their contractors evade legal obligations.

That precedent was first set in 2010, when USAS pressured Nike to assume responsibility for severance pay owed to 1,400 Honduran workers at a contractor that closed shop and abandoned them. Nike eventually paid a share of the severance obligations to the Indonesian workers, even as the number two company in sportswear, Adidas, fought on against USAS.

Now that Adidas, too, has taken responsibility, “we see this victory as building on the Nike precedent in the industry and setting a new norm in student apparel,” says Garrett Strain, USAS campaign coordinator.

If that norm—of deep-pocketed major corporations accepting responsibility for the rights and well-being of workers at their overseas contractors—wins out, the anti-sweatshop campaign will have established a moral principle internationally that is rarely followed or enforced in the United States.

There are sound reasons why companies like Adidas and Nike should pay up in a case like this. Although no one knows for sure why the Korean owner fled, he may have been pressured by the big brands to produce at such a low price that he would lose money, so he decided to take what he could and get out, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. WRC is an independent investigative operation set up by universities who signed on to the USAS-backed code against sweatshop production of collegiate gear.

The big brands “are directly responsible,” Nova said. “A responsible company would set aside a fund for severance pay, but not doing so takes something out of labor costs. The brands and retailers know the cost of making a garment, but they’re happy to accept the lowest price. They know what they’re paying.”

Nova sees the big Indonesian victory as part of a “strategic moment that creates openings for much broader change, but at the same time we know this is an enormously powerful and ruthless industry. No one should have any illusions that the work is getting easier.”

Thousands of Bangladeshi workers—the injured, families of the dead, workers in their own dangerous sweatshops—have no such illusions. While it will not console them in their grief, the victory wrought by U.S. students in pinning responsibility on America’s big-brand companies could help pave the way to better protections for them as well.

This article was originally posted on Working in These Times on May 13, 2013.  Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times and has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

What Wal-Mart and Lance Armstrong Have in Common

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Leo GerardOddly, the top international cyclist—Lance Armstrong—and the top international retailer—Wal-Mart—revealed last week that they have much in common.

No, not doping. 

It’s their dopey concept of the atonement process.

Armstrong, already punished for misdeeds he’d denied, took to television on Thursday to finally confess. But he didn’t apologize. He didn’t follow the redemption steps: admission and regret; a pledge to reform and a plea for forgiveness, then penance. Wal-Mart didn’t follow those steps either. Its CEO made national news last week when he announced the retail giant would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and buy $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10. But Wal-Mart has never admitted wrongdoing or expressed remorse.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But, like Armstrong’s admission, Wal-Mart’s announcement was met with skepticism because the retailer skipped atonement steps. Meaningless to the economy, The Atlantic wrote of the Wal-Mart promise. “A public relations stunt,” Time wrote.

Wal-Mart has much for which to atone. There is, for example, its leadership in blocking an effort to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh, where 112 workers would later die in a fire; its serial bribing of Mexican officials to circumvent regulations, and its snubbing of American warehouse laborers who are seeking better working conditions.

Let’s start in Bangladesh. There, Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion in garments each year. The lure is the lowest garment factory wages in the world—$37 a month. But that’s not enough. Wal-Mart and other garment purchasers demand such low prices from Bangladesh factories that managers cut costs in ways that endanger workers.

After two Bangladesh factory fires in 2010 killed 50 workers, labor leaders, manufacturers, government officials and retailers like Wal-Mart met in the Bangladesh capital. A New York Times investigation found that Wal-Mart was instrumental in blocking a plan proposed at that April 2011 meeting for Western retailers to finance fire safety improvements.

Just a little over 18 months later, 112 garment workers died in a horrific fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where inspections repeatedly had revealed serious fire hazards. The New York Times found that during those 18 months, six Wal-Mart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory. In fact, in the two months before the fire, the Times found that 55 percent of Tazreen factory production was devoted to Wal-Mart suppliers.

 A month after the fatal fire, a Wal-Mart executive promised the company would not buy garments from unsafe factories, but the giant retailer hasn’t offered any solution for improving conditions in Bangladesh factory fire traps, and a Wal-Mart executive has admitted the industry’s safety monitoring system is seriously flawed.

Now, let’s go to Mexico. There, Wal-Mart executives routinely bribed government officials to get what the retailer wanted—mostly permits to locate Wal-Mart stores, according to a massive New York Times investigation that involved gathering tens of thousands of documents regarding Wal-Mart permits. Times reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab wrote last December:

“Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance …It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.”

After being informed of the bribes by someone involved, Wal-Mart briefly investigated but then squelched that inquiry. Now Wal-Mart is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Here in the United States, workers at warehouses contracted by Wal-Mart in Southern California and Joliet, Ill., walked off the job last year protesting low pay, lack of benefits, unsafe working conditions and faulty equipment. Wal-Mart indicated it might discuss solutions with the workers, but last week, the retail giant rebuffed them.

Wal-Mart’s promise of 100,000 jobs for veterans is a good thing. Even if some of those jobs will be part-time. Even if the average Wal-Mart wage is $8.81 an hour —$15,576 a year—hardly enough for a veteran, or anyone else, to live on. Even if Wal-Mart will pay less than half those wages because the federal government will give companies that hire veterans tax credits of up to $9,600 a year for each veteran they employ.

Wal-Mart’s promise to buy an additional $5 billion a year in American-made products is a good thing. Even if $5 billion is a tiny number to Wal-Mart, which sold $444 billion worth of stuff last year. Even if Wal-Mart’s demand for ever decreasing prices from suppliers is the reason many say they moved factories overseas where laborers are overworked, underpaid and endangered and where environmental are fire safety laws are ignored. Even if Wal-Mart is buying more American not out of patriotism but because it makes sense financially with both foreign wages and transportation costs rising.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But Wal-Mart and Armstrong shouldn’t be surprised if their schemes don’t win them reconciliation with the American people. Armstrong’s failure to apologize reinforced the sense that he fessed up now only to secure the reprieve he wants from his punishment, from his banishment from certain sports. And Wal-Mart’s failure to even acknowledge that it has not been a perfect yellow smiley face of a corporation only evokes cynicism about its motives. No remorse, no redemption.

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.

This article was originally published by Working In These Times on January 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

The Bangladeshi Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

When I first read about the horrendous fire in Bangladesh, I immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911 — more than 100 years ago. In many ways, nothing has changed. In some ways, some things have changed.

Today:

A Bangladeshi garment factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney,  and other major Western companies had lost its fire safety certification in June, five months before a blaze in the facility killed 112 workers, a fire official told the Associated Press.

Separately, the owner of the Tazreen factory told AP that he had only received permission to build a three-story facility but had expanded it illegally to eight stories and was adding a ninth at the time of the blaze…

The factory didn’t have any fire exits for its 1,400 workers, many of whom became trapped by the blaze. Investigators have said the death toll would have been far lower if there had been even a single emergency exit. Fire extinguishers in the building were left unused, either because they didn’t work or workers didn’t know how to use them.

100 years ago:

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.

The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.

Nothing has changed in 100 years — workers’ lives are thought of as expendable, corners are cut in the name of profit, whether the name is Triangle Waist Company or Wal-Mart.

What did change a bit in the wake of the 1911 fire was a renewed drive to unionize and strengthen health and safety laws. Out of the tragedy, workers mobilized.

Whether that will happen in Bangladesh is to be seen. It would be a great testament to those who died is, out of the ashes of the fire, workers organized to stop the survivors and others from being future victims of the greed of Wal-Mart and its global corporate ilk.

This post was originally posted on Working Life on December 7, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981). He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors. He has also written four books, including the Audacity of Greed.

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