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Thursday, May 30, 2013

How Bangladesh Garment Industry Traded Workplace Safety For Jobs


Like millions of other young women in Bangladesh, Sumi Abedin forged her place in the modern economy at a sewing machine inside an urban garment factory.

The ready-made garment industry now accounts for a whopping 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports, making the country the third largest exporter of garments in the world. The explosive growth in business over the past two decades has helped create more than 3.5 million garment jobs in the country, particularly for women like Abedin, who, just a generation ago, may have had no formal position in Bangladesh's workforce.

Until recently, Abedin, 24, worked sewing pockets onto pants in the factory known as Tazreen Fashions, outside Dhaka. She earned meager wages by global standards -- roughly $55 a month, comparable to what other garment workers in her country make. This cash was critical for the survival of her family. Her father works as a rickshaw puller, and his earnings alone did not cover food and other basic necessities. Their combined income was just enough to support themselves and Abedin's mother.

But such opportunity comes with steep costs. Abedin knows people who paid for it with their lives.

Abedin no longer has a job. Last November, her factory burned to the ground, killing 112 people. She leaped from the third floor, breaking her right leg and left hand in the process. The young man who landed beside her died.

As proponents of expanded global trade are quick to highlight, Bangladesh's stratospheric rise in the apparel world has helped alleviate the country's grinding poverty. But in Abedin's case, the boom has taken more than it's given. After losing her job, she said, she was left with a payment of $150 from her employer, to cover back pay and severance, and another $1,200, from a fund supported by Li and Fung Ltd., a retail giant that contracted to have its clothes made inside the doomed factory. Medical bills have already swallowed about three-quarters of that money, and her doctor has told her she needs a year to recover before she can hope to work again.

Along with other hardships, she carries the knowledge that more factory disasters have happened since her own and that even more will almost certainly happen in the future.

"We want a safe workplace," Abedin recently told HuffPost, speaking Bengali. Even before the fire, "the working conditions were poor in my factory. We were verbally and physically abused."

Last month, Bangladesh suffered what has been called the world’s most deadly garment industry disaster -- the collapse of a factory complex inside the Rana Plaza building in a suburb of Dhaka. The tragedy, which took the lives of more than 1,100 workers, focused global attention on a reality that Abedin and other workers said they already knew too well: The garment trade in Bangladesh is a dangerous enterprise rife with factory fires and other deadly calamities. The industry has grown so rapidly that it has outpaced the government’s ability to monitor and enforce workplace safety standards. Indeed, the growth appears fueled in part by the government’s willingness to look the other way.

The substandard working conditions that Abedin and other garment workers have confronted are the byproduct of a globalization success story. Bangladesh has transformed itself into one of the world's leading exporters of clothing, generating millions of jobs that have financed housing, basic nutrition and education for some of the poorest people on earth. But this refashioning has been engineered through means that labor advocates portray as fundamentally exploitative, by courting foreign investors with some of the globe’s cheapest, most disenfranchised workers.

Bangladesh has proven irresistible to international clothing brands and retailers, who have found a refuge from the higher costs associated with stricter enforcement of health, safety and labor laws. Indeed, until the recent of string of industrial accidents big enough to capture headlines in the United States and Europe, Bangladesh factories had seen little regulation.

"Bangladesh made it possible mainly because of its cheap labor force," said Mohammad Giasuddin, whose father launched one of the first modern export of garments in Bangladesh. "And our laborers are industrious and good at it."

When Giasuddin's father, Mohammad Reazuddin, sent his first shipment to France in 1977, his effort was lampooned in a newspaper cartoon that suggested fashion-forward Paris would return the clothes to their sender. Leading Bangladesh businessmen mocked the very idea of the country producing garments primarily for Westerners. But Reazuddin and a small group of factory owners had the benefit of cheap labor -- the wage of a factory floor worker was about $2 a month then, Giasuddin recalled -- as well as the backing of the Bangladesh government.

Plenty of other countries in Asia and Latin America have abundant workers willing to work for little money. But hardly any countries have wage floors quite as low as Bangladesh's, and few have courted and fostered the garment industry with such strategic coherence.
In the 1980s, the government put a new emphasis on economic growth through exports and direct foreign investment, particularly with the establishment of export processing zones, like the ones that are now home to the country's thousands of garment factories. The government also allowed for the duty-free import of machinery and raw garment materials.

"The government and industry leaders made a judgment that they could compete globally in the garment industry," said Michael Posner, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President Barack Obama. "The infrastructure is weak. The government's enforcement of both labor laws and safety laws is weak -- or non-existent in many places. And the sourcing model for big companies has encouraged them to go to places where they can produce things as cheaply as possible."

The garment industry would bring needed jobs to the country, putting wages into the pockets of Bangladeshis struggling to survive through agriculture. Farms had been split into ever-smaller parcels, while farmers themselves felt increasingly squeezed by the rising costs of power and fertilizer. Garment jobs were seen as a crucial source of earnings for the poor.

The factory owners' greatest asset was a largely untapped pool of labor -- rural women. For decades, women in predominantly Muslim areas outside of cities had been relegated to informal, indoor agricultural work that added modestly to their husbands’ monthly incomes. The new garment factories presented the opportunity for formal work that was religiously permissible for these women -- a marginalized and underprivileged class that happened to carry a long tradition of stitching and weaving. (It's likely that muslin, long a coveted fabric in European countries, originated in Dhaka centuries ago.)

With no labor organizations to contend with, the men who owned the factories could pay their workers very little, with only small concern for strikes or protests over working conditions. Even today, most supervisory roles in the factories are held by men. Women now make up the overwhelming majority of line workers.

"It was a classic situation of having all this surplus labor in rural areas," said Martha Chen, an expert on Bangladesh at the Harvard Kennedy School. "You had this huge pool of women who'd never done paid work, so they were willing to work for nada. There was an extraordinary setup for it."

Even with such an abundance of low-wage labor, the furious growth of apparel-making in Bangladesh over the past decade would not have been possible without another element: The scrapping of a complex system of trade quotas that effectively limited how much clothing any one developing country could export to the wealthy world.

Exports of garments to the United States and other Western countries used to be governed by something known as the Multi Fibre Arrangement. Enforced by the World Trade Organization, the agreement specified the number of polo shirts, blue jeans, blazers and other garments that each developing country could send to the U.S. and Europe.

The agreement was meant to function as a kind of aid, extending profits from the worldwide clothing trade to poor countries like Bangladesh. But it also set production caps at a time when developed countries feared the lower production costs of countries like Singapore and South Korea, according to Mark Anner, director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University.

The poorest countries, including Bangladesh, benefited from the arrangement. International companies manufacturing elsewhere in the region, pressured by quota restrictions in their own countries, gravitated toward nations like Bangladesh because of the availability of cheaper labor. Bangladesh was also able to export to the European Union duty-free and quota-free due to an exemption from the World Trade Organization.

But that arrangement came to an end in 2004. Many observers assumed that the change would hurt Bangladesh, considered less competitive than other developing players at the time. By such accounts, investment would exit nearly every country and rush into China, which presented its own low wages along with the largest workforce on the planet and formidable infrastructure for trade, from modern ports, to highways and rail. As the thinking went, poor countries like Bangladesh would lose millions of jobs and wind up even poorer.

China was under very tight constraints up until the beginning of 2005,” said Pietra Rivoli, a professor of finance and international business at Georgetown University, and author of the book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. “Everyone was wondering if you take the constraints off of China, who's going to lose?“

But the end of the global quota system wound up proving a great boon for Bangladesh.
Once the quota system was phased out, "it allowed for tremendous concentration in the industry," said Anner. "It just allowed companies to pick winners and losers."

China’s apparel industry took off, with the production of many clothing categories multiplying as much as 1,000 percent above previous levels, according to Rivoli. Production dipped in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong and other higher-wage countries formerly protected by the quotas.

But, over time, other winners emerged as well -- low-wage nations, such as India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Production in the apparel industry tends to flow toward lower-wage countries because labor is such a large part of the process, and each worker requires only a low level of skill. It also requires basic infrastructure from reliable power supplies to transport facilities. While the fundamental industrial structure in Bangladesh isn’t very efficient, it’s better than many of the other countries capable of providing comparably low wages, said Rivoli.
China's labor costs rose as Bangladesh's remained near rock-bottom, reinforcing its appeal for global apparel brands.

Back in 1994, Bangladeshi workers had gained a hard-won minimum wage of roughly $11 per month, but that level remained in place for more than a decade. In 2006, workers took to the streets to demand an increase. Police mounted a bloody crackdown, arresting, beating and even killing workers. The result was a doubling of the official minimum wage to $22 per month. Against a backdrop of double-digit inflation, that increase did not go far. Three years ago, Bangladesh again lifted the minimum wage, this time to about $37 a month. That’s where it remains today, constituting one of the lowest minimum wages in the world.

"Talk to people in China or India, and their perspective is that the pay rates in Bangladesh are abysmally low," said Alice Tepper Marlin, the head of Social Accountability International, a non-profit that helps monitor overseas factories in the garment industry.

"Desperately poor people are willing to work for wages that are way below the prevalent in neighboring countries.

"But without the apparel industry," Tepper Marlin added, "things would be worse."

Indeed, the rise of the garment industry has made many lives in Bangladesh less miserable than they were previously, and not just in the growing urban industrial hubs. Rural areas, too, have benefited from the growth in jobs, particularly through the remittance of wages from the factories back to the country, leading to what Chen described as "a revolution of a kind in the villages.”

The export boom has given rise to a new uber-wealthy class of Bangladesh garment industry businessmen estimated at about 2,000, who collectively now wield enormous influence over the national economy, policymaking and the media.

A prime example is Sohel Rana, the owner of the building that crumbled. Before his arrest, he was a local ruling-party political figure who loomed like a local mafia don, as The New York Times reported. Despite the obvious structural cracks, Rana had claimed his building would stand "for a century."

Most businessmen-turned-politicians in the Bangladesh parliament hail from the garment industry, partly explaining the government's laissez-faire regulation of factories. Their coziness with the country's newspaper owners also means that worker discontent in garment plants goes largely unreported. The Rana Plaza collapse and its attendant protests were ultimately too large to ignore. Yet even as the death toll rose to unprecedented numbers, accounts were buried deeper and deeper inside domestic newspapers.

The industry's fast rise has led to widespread corruption, evident in scandals like the Hallmark loan scam. In that case, the owner of the garment-producing Hallmark Group siphoned more than $300 million from the state-owned Sonali Bank. By the time the scandal became public, Hallmark had already been formally honored by government officials for outstanding service to the country.

These industry captains' connections with government often shield them from consequences in deadly disasters. After 54 workers were burned alive at a factory overseen by garment company KTS in 2006, company managers were acquitted of charges of culpable homicide, even though they admitted in court that they'd locked the factory gates from the outside after the fire had started to prevent worker theft.

No one was held to account after the Spectrum Sweaters factory collapsed in 2005, killing more than 60 workers, even though the company was in violation of its building permit.
"There's a lot of collusion between the government and the factory owners and the building owners," said Chen. "There are lots of layers of really cynical exploitation of these women."

Chen generally ascribed to the Nicholas Kristof school of thought on sweatshops -- that they're mostly a good thing, offering what Kristof described in a controversial column as "an escalator out of poverty."

"They aren't really desirable, but it's better than what they had," Chen said. "I can say 'two cheers' for everything but the lack of safety. That's just egregious."

Many of the workers themselves, however, have a hard time recognizing the garment boom as a great fortune, especially when they risk their lives extracting poverty wages from it.

"The garment business is profitable only for the owners," said Abu Bakar, a laborer who works in the dye department of a factory in the industrial zone of Gazipur. "You cannot imagine how we maintain a life on these earnings. We get nothing in comparison to what the [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] or the buyers or the owners get. We toil over eight hours, six days a week, only to make ends meet."

The recent disasters, combined with paltry wages and substandard working conditions, have crystallized deep resentment among Bangladeshi laborers, threatening social stability. Angry workers have filled the streets, calling for the deaths of both negligent factory owners and their political allies.

American and European apparel labels are weighing their options, cognizant that their brands are increasingly vulnerable to public relations debacles when their goods turn up inside factories that prove to be deadly workplaces.

This represents a new development in the relationship between the global companies and the factories that produce their wares in Bangladesh, said Daniel Diermeier, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University, and author of Reputation Rules: Strategies for Building Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset. When retailers first established supplier relationships inside the country, he said, they were chiefly concerned with finding factories that could make what they needed on time and at the lowest prices.

“The whole issue of human labor practices and justice issues were not part of the decision process.” Diermeier said. “It wasn't on the radar.”

At first, retailers treated deadly events in Bangladesh as isolated incidents, Diermeier said. But that has changed in recent years, as their customers have gained awareness about the provenance of their products.

When public opinion turned on Nike in the 1990s after revelations of adolescents working in sweatshops, much of the industry instituted checks for child labor. New requirements for building standards never made it into those codes.

Now, in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, global apparel labels are devoting substantial energy to protecting their reputations. A group of major European brands has pledged to abide by a legally binding package of factory standards aimed at improving workplace safety in Bangladesh. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has declined to participate in that effort while announcing its own program to boost worker safety.

But labor rights groups have questioned the efficacy of these efforts. If American and European retailers come to view the “Made in Bangladesh” label as emblem of exploitation, that may prompt global brands to pursue a simpler course: They may leave the country altogether, shifting their orders to factories in other low-wage countries that -- at least for now -- lack the taint of headline-capturing industrial catastrophes.

“It’s easy to move,” explained Rivoli. “All you really need is sewing machines. It's not as if you're building an auto factory.”

If the industry does uproot, that would be a significant setback for Bangladesh, said Rivoli. In the traditional pattern of industrial development, the textile industry tends to be first, followed by the expansion into other industries. Once the industry booms and the nation advances to more complex endeavors, such as electronics and automobiles, the apparel industry shrinks, as it did in China. Bangladesh hasn’t reached that point yet.

Posner said he believes leaving the country is a mistake for retailers as well. If companies search the globe for comparably cheap labor, they'll end up in regions where human rights records or government safety enforcement are just as dubious, such as Burma. He said he'd prefer that large apparel players remain in Bangladesh while committing themselves to making the factories safe and the wages liveable.

"They're kind of running out of road," Posner said of the Western brands. "But I can guarantee you, someone is looking right now."

Many people in Bangladesh now fear the exit of Western brands, from factory owners down to line workers. Though the conditions may be oppressive, for many laborers the garment business provides their only hope of a nominal wage. They would rather see the industry stay and raise its standards.

Bakar, the dye worker, understands this trade-off all too well. After several years toiling in the garment industry without a raise, he quit his job in 2008 in quiet protest.

But after six hopeless months of looking for work, he was back inside a garment factory in order to survive. He may feel exploited by the system, but he prefers it to the alternative.

"Without the garment business,” Bakar said, “thousands and thousands of poor people would be jobless."

First appeared in The Huffington Post, May 23, 2013

Dave Jamieson,
Emran Hossain,
Kim Bhasin,

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Slave Labor, Wal-Mart and Wahhabism: Bangladesh in turbulence


The Bangladeshi elite are facing tough decisions in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory to curb the rampant abuse of the work force. Support for the government has been weakening and there has been a disturbing rise in radical Islam.

The streets of Dhaka have been awash with protests, violence, and killing in recent times as the Bangladeshi public expresses its resentment to the exploitation of garment workers in the aftermath of the country’s worst industrial disaster in its history, and the rising tide of Islamists demanding an end to the nation’s secular identity. The public relations departments of major retail transnationals like HnM, Gap, Wal-Mart, and Benetton have been in full defensive mode following the late-April collapse of Rana Plaza, a shoddily constructed building where sweatshop laborers toiled producing all the latest western fashions for export. The collapse took the lives of a shocking 1,127 workers, and still, Wal-Mart and Gap remain opposed to introducing broad agreements that would improve fire and safety regulations in factories, in fear of becoming entangled in legal liabilities; some corporations have refused to pay direct compensation to family members of the victims. Cost-benefit analysis yielded few benefits for the dead, unsurprisingly.

Tens of thousands of protesting Bangladeshi garment workers attempted to make their voices heard in the Ashulia industrial belt on the outskirts of the capital; worker demands for a fairer wage and safe working conditions were met with rubber bullets, stoking opposition and resentment against the ruling Awami League party, which is increasingly seen as a kleptocratic purveyor of the ‘Poverty Industrial Complex’ that promotes retail multinationals setting up shop in the dusty slums of Dhaka. Most garment workers make a miserable $38 per month, hourly wages between 17 and 26 cents. Anyone who has browsed the hangers of H&M or Benetton knows that a single piece of merchandise can pay the monthly wage of a Bangladeshi worker two or three times over. Behind the slick marketing campaigns of these retail giants, and the well-oiled cleavage and abdomens on their billboards, it is impoverished people that bear the burden of vapid consumerism and globalization.

Injustice is stitched into every fiber of the shirts on our backs, and the consumer looking to offset this abuse is faced with few choices. Three million workers are employed in Bangladesh’s garment industry, constituting about 80 percent of the country’s exports. In the face of massive boycotts or retail giants closing their operations, workers would lose their jobs; if they come to work, they are exploited as 21st century slave labor. For the Bangladeshi worker and the Third World man, it is a lose-lose situation. As multinationals rush to damage control after every disaster that interrupts their miserable production lines half-a-world away, it is the retail giants themselves that perpetuate extreme low-wage systems that brutally suppress the collective action of workers aiming to improve their conditions. Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein, Tesco, and their like operate by seeking out the cheapest possible means of production available, often with no safety standards or regulatory oversight, made possible through the politics-business nexus agreeable to the Bangladeshi ruling class.

The Bangladeshi elite found themselves in several ‘Let them eat cake’ moments following the Rana incident; Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith remarked that the disaster wasn’t “really serious”. Sohel Rana, the owner of the Rana Plaza illegally extended the five-storey building to a total of eight storeys without proper consent from the authorities concerned, an act ignored due to Rana’s alleged political connections to the ruling Awami League. The public is now calling for Rana’s execution as reports surface that he ignored the warnings of engineers who examined the building and concluded that it was unsafe.

Following the Rana Plaza incident, and the deadly fire at the Tazreen Fashions complex in November 2012, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can’t help but look severely out of touch, as she claims that Bangladesh has good conditions for investment. The conditions she is referring to are only ‘good’ for investors and shareholders, reflecting a development orthodoxy that incentivizes global retailers to take advantage of lax safety standards and other sweatshop conditions.

Rising tides of Islamism
The opposition coalition, the Bangladesh National Party, has tightened alliances with hardcore Islamist groups, Jamaat-e-Islami, and its radical offshoot, Hefajat-e-Islam, presenting a notable challenge to the ruling Awami League in elections expected to be held by Janurary 2014. When Bangladesh isn’t making international headlines over industrial disasters, it is attracting worldwide attention for its controversial war crimes tribunal, which has charged leading members of the Jamaat-e-Islami with committing atrocities during the 1971 war for independence, and subsequent civil war. Activists who support the Jamaat-e-Islami party hurled stones and handmade bombs at security forces after verdicts condemning top party leaders to death by hanging were announced.

Opposition supporters call this a politically motivated trial, and it’s easy to see why, several of the individuals charged on a list drafted by the Awami League were between 4 and 8 years old during the war in 1971, severely weakening the credibility of the charges against them. 

Although the opposition may have legitimate grievances, they represent a backwards program that would roll back the equal standing of women, make Islamic education mandatory, ban women from mixing with men, and essentially redress Bangladesh in the clothing of Wahhabism, a reactionary and medieval interpretation of Islam championed by Saudi Arabian missionaries throughout the developing world. In 2013, Jamaat demanded that the government pass a 13-point charter that would fundamentally dismantle the secular system promoted by the Awami League, met with pro-secular counter-protests calling the war crimes tribunal too lenient, and a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami party. The Awami League is facing political pressure from opposing directions in a politically fragmented country, as one group of protesters call for a clamping down on fundamentalist groups, and the other accuses the government of manipulating the tribunal to ensure convictions of prominent opposition leaders.

The Islamists no doubt enjoy notable public support, as tens of thousands take part in mass rallies in support of their causes, putting Dhaka in regular deadlock. Hifazat-e-Islam, considered even more radical, is headquartered in Chittagong, a port city home to hundreds of madrassas that promote the Wahhabi worldview espoused by many of the militants and foreign jihadists active in Syria. The group calls for the introduction of a new blasphemy law that will execute ‘atheist’ bloggers whom they accuse of having insulted the Prophet Mohammed. The Bangladesh National Party’s coalition also includes an Islamist party, the Islamiya Okiyya Jote, which allegedly has connections to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the current climate of deepening religious and political polarization, the ruling party is carefully attempting to put across its pro-Islam credentials, which has resulted in the arrests of four atheist bloggers, but their efforts are ultimately seen as cosmetic to those pro-sharia Islamists who parrot painfully unoriginal political programs better suited to 14th century Arabia. The Awami League’s crackdown on dissent has alienated both secularists and Islamists, especially in the impoverished working classes.

Bangladesh’s slow morphing into a Caliphate promises uncertainty for the Hindu minority, who have been victimized by radicals that have burned down temples and destroyed deities, as well as the non-Islamist segments of the population who advocate greater modernity. Unfortunately for Bangladesh, both the ruling and opposition political forces fail to offer platforms that would significantly contribute to the furtherance of progressive measures to protect workers’ rights and advance the nation’s economic standing. In the run-up to the general elections, louder and angrier protests are on the cards, especially if Jamaat-e-Islami leaders are executed. The hawks of global retail have shed their crocodile tears and paid lip service to safety standards and pledges to enact across-the-board improvements as they did after the Tazreen fires, only to witness Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster in the space of less than a year. Fortunately for global retailers, most people tend to forget these disasters in days, and little, if any, dent is made in their profit margins. It’s no surprise that garment workers continue their protests despite heavy-handed police suppression, they have nothing to lose but their chains.

First published in, May 26, 2013

Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Monday, May 27, 2013

After Bangladesh, labor unions can save lives


The factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers should be a pivot point for the global apparel industry, moving consumers to demand more accountability from brand-name companies that subcontract production to supply-chain factories around the world. Sadly, the history of workplace tragedies in so many of these factories suggests that after consumers in rich countries express horror and call for reforms, the demands for better worker protections die down and the marketplace for cheap apparel abides. But this cycle can finally be broken if demands for change start to focus on workers’ right to form trade unions.

In the wake of labor abuses and workplace tragedies exposed in the 1990s, many apparel brands created in-house social compliance functions and joined “multi-stakeholder groups” with detailed monitoring and certification programs. But the one-day visits and checklist-style monitoring routine in such efforts have not worked.

This is where workers’ organizing comes in. Social compliance monitors might visit once a year. Government inspectors might come once in 10 years from understaffed and underfunded labor ministries common to most developing countries. But a real trade union can provide the vigilance and voice that workers need for sustained decency at their place of employment, including a workplace that is not a death trap.

In Bangladesh and many other countries, the challenge is getting real unions. Factory managers routinely fire and blacklist workers thought to be union sympathizers. And sometimes worse: In April 2012, apparel union organizer Aminul Islam was found tortured and killed after meeting with workers near a garment manufacturing center outside Dhaka. The crime remains unsolved.

In China and Vietnam, the official labor movement is a branch of government. Unions exist, but the plant personnel director is often the union president, and the unions’ role is to boost production, not to defend workers. Widespread phony unions in Mexico insulate factory owners against the few authentic unions that manage to survive. In many countries, owners often shut down newly organized factories to warn workers away from unions.

Despite these challenges, apparel unions have a toehold in Central America and in other regions and countries, including Bangladesh. But a toehold is not enough to shift the balance of power. Without effective unions, trying to tackle fire safety, living wages, child labor and other problems is a Sisyphean job.

To change the balance of power, consumer pressure, government policies, international labor solidarity, new management policies and other support mechanisms must focus on workers’ organizing and bargaining rights.

One model is taking shape in Honduras. In 2009, responding to U.S. student protests of the closure of newly organized plant, allegedly for anti-union reasons, Fruit of the Loom’s top management committed to honoring workers’ organizing rights. The Kentucky-based company reopened the factory where the union dispute arose, rehired all employees, recognized the union and entered into good-faith bargaining. Now the renamed “New Day” facility has a collective bargaining agreement with higher wages, better conditions, and a strong health and safety committee. Workers have maintained high productivity levels, and the company has added employees.

Fruit of the Loom management told workers in other Honduran factories that they too have a right to organize and that the company will respect their choices. An innovative nonprofit oversight committee coordinated by the nonprofit Global Works Foundation — which asked me to join as ombudsman — is helping nurture positive labor relations in plants. The committee, whose members are chosen by management and the union, provides training programs on freedom of association and collective bargaining. It also helps mediate workplace grievances.

Since the oversight committee established its program, workers have formed genuine unions with the General Confederation of Labour — known as CGT — in other Fruit of the Loom factories with almost 5,000 employees overall. It is the world’s first sustained, companywide independent union organizing in the apparel manufacturing sector.

A stereotype holds that young workers desperate for jobs at any salary will never turn to unions. Some also peddle the “sweatshops are good” argument, saying that they are better than any alternative and that unions would only make factories uncompetitive. But workers belie such typecasting. In China and Vietnam, shop-floor leaders organize strikes and other actions by going around clueless official unions. Given a fair chance, independent unions in Mexico supplant “protection unions” previously chosen by management. The CGT’s success in Fruit of the Loom plants has led to a coordinating group of unions throughout Central America aiming to persuade more firms to respect their organizing rights.

Another stereotype — in many cases all too accurate — has apparel factory owners and managers demonizing unions and taking unbridled reprisals when workers try to organize. The Fruit of the Loom-CGT model in Honduras sends a strong signal to apparel brands and factory owners that companies and real unions can not just coexist but thrive in a globally competitive environment. More important, in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh, real unions defending employees inside the workplace can save lives.

First appeared in The Washington Post, May 27, 2013

Lance Compa teaches international labor law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bangladesh - Amnesty International Report 2013: The State of the World Human Rights


Photo: Elite anti-crime team RAB. Rights groups blame RAB for extrajudicial executions and other violation of human rights, but government argues that such incidents have been reduced (but not stopped)

Some 30 extrajudicial executions were reported. State security forces were implicated in torture and other ill-treatment and at least 10 enforced disappearances. Political violence resulted in the death of at least four men. Women continued to be subjected to various forms of violence. The government failed to protect Indigenous communities from attack by Bengali settlers. At least 111 workers died in a factory fire, some allegedly because officials refused to let them leave the premises. More than 20 Buddhist temples and monasteries, one Hindu temple and scores of Buddhist homes and shops were set on fire during a communal attack. One person was executed and at least 45 people were sentenced to death.

In January, the Prime Minister stated that no human rights violations had been committed in the country.

Political violence escalated in December, when opposition parties tried to impose day-long general strikes. At least four people died and dozens of strikers and police sustained injuries. Jamaat-e-Islami demanded the release of their leaders currently being tried on war crimes charges. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) demanded that the forthcoming general elections be held under a caretaker government. Members of a group affiliated with the governing party attacked opposition members, beating and stabbing one bystander to death.

National and international concern about allegedly high levels of corruption were echoed in June when the World Bank cancelled US$1.2 billion credit for the construction of Padma bridge in central Bangladesh, due to the government’s insufficient response to allegations of corruption. An inquiry by the Anti Corruption Commission remained open.

The authorities continued to raise concerns with India over killings of Bangladeshis by Indian border control forces. More than a dozen Bangladeshis were killed by Indian forces while crossing the border into India.

Extrajudicial executions
At least 30 people were victims of alleged extrajudicial executions. Police claimed they had been killed in gun battles with security forces. Families said they had been killed after being arrested by people in plain clothes identifying themselves as Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel or other police. No one was brought to justice for these killings. 

RAB personnel allegedly shot dead Mohammad Atear Rahman (also known as Tofa Molla), a farmer, in Kushtia district on 12 September. RAB said he was killed in “crossfire”, although Atear Rahman’s family and other witnesses said RAB had arrested him at his home the previous evening. His body reportedly bore three gunshot wounds, two in the back.

Torture and other ill-treatment
Torture and other ill-treatment were widespread, committed with virtual impunity by the police, RAB, the army and intelligence agencies. Methods included beating, kicking, suspension from the ceiling, food and sleep deprivation, and electric shocks. Most detainees were allegedly tortured until they “confessed” to having committed a crime. Police and RAB allegedly distorted records to cover up the torture, including by misrepresenting arrest dates.

Enforced disappearances
At least 10 people went missing throughout the year. In most cases the victims were never traced. Those bodies that were recovered bore injuries, some caused by beatings.

Ilias Ali, Sylhet division secretary of the opposition BNP, disappeared together with his driver Ansar Ali on 17 April. The government promised to investigate the case but provided no information by the end of the year.

Violence against women and girls
Women continued to be subjected to various forms of violence. These included acid attacks, murder for failing to pay the requested dowry, flogging for religious offences by illegal arbitration committees, domestic violence, and sexual violence.

Aleya Begum and her daughter were arrested without a warrant on 9 September and were allegedly tortured at Khoksa police station in Kushtia district. After two days they were transferred to Kushtia city police station and kept in a dark room. The daughter, a college student, was separated from her mother at night and sexually abused by police officers. The two women were released on 18 September, after appearing in court. Aleya Begum and her daughter shared their story with the media, and were arrested and jailed again on 26 September.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights
As in previous years, the authorities failed to settle Indigenous Peoples’ claims to land that had been seized from them during the internal armed conflict (1975-1997), or recently occupied by increasing numbers of Bengali settlers. Tension between the two communities and the failure of the security forces to protect local Indigenous people against attacks by Bengali settlers led to several clashes and injuries on both sides.

At least 20 people were injured in a clash between Indigenous people and Bengali settlers in Rangamati on 22 September. Local people said security forces came to the scene but failed to stop the violence.

Workers’ rights
Trade union leaders supporting garment factory workers’ rallies against low pay and poor working conditions were harassed and intimidated. One man was killed. 

Trade union leader Aminul Islam went missing on 4 April. He was found dead a day later in Ghatail town, north of Dhaka. His family saw evidence of torture on his body and believed he had been abducted by security forces. He had previously been arrested and beaten by members of the National Security Intelligence for his trade union activities.

At least 111 workers died from burns and other injuries, some allegedly because factory officials refused to open the gates to let them escape a fire that broke out at Tazreen Fashion in Savar town, north of the capital Dhaka, in November.

Communal violence
Attacks against members of minority communities took a new turn in late September. Thousands of people protesting against an image posted on Facebook of the Qur’an, which they considered derogatory, set fire to more than 20 Buddhist temples and monasteries, one Hindu temple and scores of homes and shops in the southern cities of Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong.

Death penalty
At least 45 people were sentenced to death. One man was executed in April.

Amnesty International Report 2013: 
The State of the World Human Rights

Bangladesh's garment industry still offers women best work opportunity

Women at work in a Bangladeshi garment factory. Photograph: Jonathan Saruk/Getty Images

A revised minimum wage could help women working in harsh conditions who have few other places to go, but employers say they are also suffering as a result of disrupted production


The bulldozers have moved on and the eight-storey Rana Plaza building,in which more than 1,120 workers died when it collapsed on 24 April, is nothing more than a gaping hole in the ground.

For workers hurrying to their shifts at the scores of garment factories that dot the neighbourhood of Savar, 15km north of Dhaka, it is a grim reminder of the hazardous conditions that prevail in Bangladesh's $20bn apparel industry.

Walking past the fenced-off building site every day, Bangladeshi seamstress Selina Begum, 23, relives the moment the roof crashed down on top of her. She was pulled out by rescue workers after roughly six hours, and she knows she had a narrow escape.

But Begum, who worked at a factory on the Rana Plaza's sixth floor, says she is already scouring the area for work – in a garment factory. "We're poor. I have to work to survive. Unless I go to work at the factory, who will feed me?" she says.

Begum is typical of the 3.6 million women who work in Bangladesh's garment industry. In a country where the per capita annual income is only $850, the $60 per month she earns puts a roof over her head and food on the table – but only just. "It's difficult to get through the month," she says. "It's long hours. But I hope I will earn more as I gather experience."

The government last week announced an immediate review of the minimum wage for the garment sector. The textile ministry is to set up a wage board to fix a new minimum wage for garment workers, who have been agitating for better pay and working conditions in recent months.

"In view of the current circumstances, the government has decided to review the minimum wage, and a wage board has been constituted with representatives of the government, the workers and the garment owners," the jute and textile minister, Abdul Latif Siddiqui, said. "The board will fix the minimum wage, which will be applicable from 1 May."

Analysts say the government has been under severe pressure to improve conditions in the country's largest export industry. Foreign and domestic pressure has been growing since November, after a series of industrial accidents involving garment factories – in which about 1,300 people died people.

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, says it is a step towards ensuring a decent living wage in the industry. "The workers have been demanding better wages since inflation has been so high recently," she says. "These workers sew the clothes that earn the country foreign currency, so they deserve better."

However, garment manufacturers are unhappy about the timing of the review and the 1 May date for implementation. They suggest that since a minimum wage was fixed as recently as 2010, it should be reviewed at a later date.

"Garment owners are suffering because of missed shipments and disrupted production due to strikes," says Siddiqur Rahman, senior vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. "The government should take that into account and rethink the retrospective implementation of the new minimum wage."

Rozina Akter, 21, a sewing-machine operator who worked at the Phantom Apparels factory on the fourth floor of Rana Plaza, fractured her right foot in the accident. She says she has no alternative but to go back to work as soon as doctors will allow.

Akter arrived in Dhaka three years ago with her family to join the workforce that sews clothes for some of the world's biggest retail brands. She has moved from factory to factory, working seven days a week, eight to 12 hours a day, doing night shifts and overtime. She started at the minimum monthly wage of 3,000 taka ($38.50) but gradually earned more as she gained experienced.

"It's a hard job," she says, but with her level of education – she dropped out of school in the seventh grade – she knows she will have a hard time finding better work. "At least I have a fan over my head and I can live in the city," she says. "I tried to open a tailoring shop back home, but I had to give it up."

Akter's older sister, who lives in the same two-room house with their parents, also works in a garment factory, down the road from Rana Plaza. The family comes from the district of Gaibandha in the north of Bangladesh – where meandering rivers constantly rewrite the geography and seasonal hunger haunts millions of people.

"The river took our home so we had to leave. We decided to come to Dhaka to make a living," says Salma Akter, Rozina's sister. "We pay the rent jointly. Much of what we earn we have to give to the landlord. But we hope we will gradually earn more."

Experts say that while the garment industry has benefited from the cheap labour offered by women – who tend to work for less than men – the industry has reduced the marginalisation of women who were excluded from formal sector jobs.

A World Bank study found in 2008 that compared with other countries, agriculture does not employ as many women in Bangladesh. World bank experts say this is because land-holding size and agricultural productivity have been historically low, leading to low demand for labour.

Studies show that the predominant role of agriculture in the labour market for poorer people has declined as more people head to cities to find work.

According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics data, agricultural employment as a percentage of the workforce declined from 52% in 2002 to 48% in 2010. In the same period, manufacturing employment increased from 10% to 12%.

A USAid-funded study showed that labour force participation for 20- to 24-year-old women more than doubled over the past 10 years – coinciding with the garment boom – but declined for men in the same age group.

"The truth is, there is no other industry that can absorb so many female workers with little schooling or skills," says Ahsan Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute, a Dhaka-based thinktank.

Rozina Akter admits that the Rana Plaza collapse has scarred her. "I didn't want to go to work that morning," she says. "But the supervisors said we'd be docked pay if we didn't go. Then the building owner turned up with some guys who threatened to beat us with sticks if we didn't start working … We went in and started working, but then the power went out and the whole building started to shake. I ran for the stairs. But after I ran down one flight, the roof crashed down around me. I fell and lost consciousness …"

Despite her fear, hunger seems to drive Akter on. "I'll go back to work as soon as I get better," she says with a little smile. "Not all buildings will collapse."
Bangladesh's minimum wageA minimum wage board was formed in the spring of 2010 and a new minimum wage, effective from November 2010, was set in August. The wage board raised the minimum monthly pay for garment workers to 3,000 taka from 1,662.50. Wages increased by 67-81%, depending on job category. The first minimum wage board, set up in 1994, fixed 940 taka as the minimum wage for garment workers. The second board, formed in 2006, raised the minimum to 1662.50.
First appeared in The Guardian, 23 May 2013

Syed Zain Al-Mahmood is an investigative reporter and editor based in Dhaka, Bangladesh