Confronting the garment industry “from both sides”
By Samantha Ponting
It has been just over a year since more than 1,100 workers died in Savar, Bangladesh, in the worst garment factory accident in history.
While the collapse brought international attention to the poorly regulated working conditions of the Bangladesh garment industry, the ongoing and violent repression of the country’s labour organizers is often excluded from major narratives describing the Rana Plaza disaster.
Our workers, when they try to organize, they are beaten, fired, falsely charged. Even sometimes, they are forced to leave the community
Where workers are not free to organize, violence unfurls from the streets and the jails into the workplace. This is the reality in Bangladesh, where the attack on labour organizers forms the foundation of unsafe factory conditions.
“Our workers, when they try to organize, they are beaten, fired, falsely charged. Even sometimes, they are forced to leave the community,” says Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, in an interview with RankandFile.ca.
“We need international solidarity”
In May, Akter spoke at the convention of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), as part of an international solidarity forum entitled, “Corporate Accountability in the Aftermath of the Bangladesh Factory Collapse.” RankandFile.ca had the honour of speaking with her following the forum.
Akter’s message is clear. “In this moment, we need international solidarity.”
“The brothers and sisters are in pain in Bangladesh, so the brothers and sisters in Canada with unions, they have a responsibility to relieve them from their pain.”
She says workers face intimidation and harassment from middle managers in the garment factories. “These workers are also beaten by the factory-hired goons outside of the factory.”
This violence is not merely undetected and ignored by government officials. It’s actively facilitated by police, legislators, and community authorities.
“The community leaders always support these factory owners because they have money and they can give start-up businesses to the community’s people. So they support them.”
“And the police always side with these factory owners because of money. Because of power. The power comes because over 10 per cent of factory owners are in parliament,” says Akter. “In other words, our legislators are our factory owners. So they can use the state police to harass these workers.”
Union organizers are criminals
A former garment worker, Akter has faced criminalization and repression as an organizer fighting for the rights of her fellow workers. She was in prison for months. For seven days she was held in an interrogation cell, where she was questioned for 18 consecutive hours. “It was mentally torture. It was horrifying,” she recounts.
“Many of my co-workers from other unions and other federations, they face the same charges,” she says, adding that one of her colleagues was brutally tortured and beaten to death because of organizing.
“This is what we face every day organizing our workers there.”
The Bangledesh Centre for Worker Solidarity had its legal registration revoked because of its members’ activities. “They said that we were doing anti-state work. Union organizing is anti-state work,” says Akter.
When such a picture of state repression is painted, it becomes clear that the current gains made in the realm of corporate social responsibility – increased factory inspections and improved building codes – are just a few threads of a much larger fabric. Yet the basic right to workplace safety remains a crucial concern for Bangladeshi garment workers.
According to Akter, we are in a crucial moment to make change in Bangladesh, and this change can happen through external pressure.
The Accord and International Solidarity
Released in May, 2013, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a groundbreaking document. It marks the first time in history that global and local unions, retailers and NGOs have worked together to sign a legally binding and enforceable document on factory inspection. Approximately 170 companies from 21 countries have signed the accord to date. Loblaws, implicated in the Rana Plaza collapse, is the only Canadian company currently listed as a signatory.
At the heart of the accord is its directive for building inspections independent from garment companies. It requires inspectors to consult workers and report back to them with their findings, which must include plans to address any detected problems. The accord dictates the terms for funding necessary repairs and renovations. It also gives workers the right to refuse dangerous work.
“If Rana workers had that, they would not have died in the hundreds in that death-trap building,” says Akter.
International solidarity can give us a safe workplace for our workers
At the Rana Plaza, cracks appeared along the walls’ surfaces the day before the collapse. Some retail managers reportedly threatened to withhold a month’s pay from workers who refused to return to work, even after the cracks had appeared.
Akter says the CLC and its affiliates need to put pressure on brands in Western nations to sign the accord. “International solidarity can give us a safe workplace for our workers,” she says.
Solidarity also has the potential to breach the backwardness of Canada’s trade agreements. It can make them more humane. While Akter disapproves of boycotts, she sees trade sanctions as a viable tactic. She highlights that Canada’s trade agreement with Bangladesh contains no conditions pertaining to human rights. “It talks about dollars and payments. It doesn’t talk about how you treat your workers.”
In contrast, the United States has suspended Bangladesh’s tax-free trading privilege, referred to as GSP, or Generalized System of Preference, based on its human rights record. But Bangladesh still has the opportunity to regain its free trade status with the US.
As a result, Akter says the Bangladeshi government is in a hurry to improve workers’ rights, and a window of opportunity has opened for workers seeking union recognition. She says that in one year, Bangladesh has registered 140 new unions.
“It happened because of pressure from trade.”
What Canadians can do
Westerners have two powers, says Akter. One is the power of solidarity, and the other is their leverage as consumers.
Canadians “are at the top of the supply chain while our workers are at the bottom of the supply chain. So if the bottom of the supply chain and the top of the supply chain, if we can work together, we can push these factory owners and these companies from both sides and bound them to make changes for a safe workplace, decent wages and union rights.”
Akter does not hesitate to remind Canadians of our role in fighting the violence faced by the workers of Bangladesh. “Be responsible union brothers and sisters. Support us,” she says.
“If one is injured, it injures all. That is why we believe in the union.”