Bangladesh: Union organisation is key to preventing future tragedies

Western brands must contribute to freedom of association in the garment industry and stop government and employer resistance to union organisation.

The tragedy in the Bangladesh garment industry at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, which has claimed the lives of over 1,000 workers when a building that housed eight factories collapsed, has lead to outrage across the world.

Condemnation has come from all quarters. Governments, NGOs and customers who have been wringing their hands saying “we must put a stop to this – but how do we do it?”.

Those persons condemned include the building’s owner, (who went on the run and now faces with calls from workers for his execution); the owners of the factories; the builders themselves (now all under arrest); but also the Western customers, such as Primark, Mango and others who allegedly ignore abuses of millions workers in the garment industry in order to produce cheap clothing for sale in the West.

The Rana Plaza tragedy follows on from the deadly fire which killed over a hundred workers at Tazreen Fashions in late 2012. And this week eight more workers were killed in a fire at a clothing factory.

Mass industrial manslaughter

The global manufacturing union federation IndustriALL has correctly described the Rana Plaza tragedy as “mass industrial manslaughter”.

Seeing large cracks appear in the building, workers at Rana Plaza evacuated the building – only to be forced back to work by the factory owners.

At Tazreen escape and entry doors and windows were locked shut and workers could not escape the blaze.

IndustriALL has been running a long-term campaign to support workers in the Bangladesh garment industry. There are around 100,000 Bangladesh companies associated with the garment industry, employing up to four million workers who feed the West’s insatiable appetite for cheap clothes. The industry itself is worth 20 billion US dollars .

According to BRAC, one of the leading NGOs in Bangladesh, the country has an safety inspection force of just 18 people.

IndustriALL reports that there are 39 unions in the national garment industry, and too many times they have failed to co-operate with each other.

Freedom to organise

Trade union membership is low and those who do try to organize workers and campaign for safety have faced attacks by the police and security forces. Union officials and organisers face harassment, violence and even death.

In 2010 thousands of garment workers, most of them young women went on strike to achieve higher pay and safer working conditions. Strikers were routinely attacked by security forces. Unite and the United Steel workers in the USA, (through our global union Workers Uniting) who were in Bangladesh working with the Institute Of Global Labour and Human Rights in the ship breaking industry, met government officials and placed adverts in leading newspapers warning the government and employers to stop the attacks on strikers and settle the dispute. Eventually a pay settlement was reached.

This week Workers Uniting have issued a further statement setting out what needs to be done following the recent tragedies. The TUC has said that by adding just two pence to the cost of a T-Shirt would double workers wages. And the Bangladesh government appears to be in full flight – now setting up a special panel to look at raising the minimum wage for textile workers.

Following the intervention of IndustriALL in the Rana Plaza tragedy, IndustriALL and its NGO partners, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the ILO and Workers’ Rights Consortium met in Eschborn, Germany, with a group of international brands and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh to outline an agreement on fire and building safety in Bangladesh. The parties agreed on a deadline of tomorrow (May 15) to finalise the text and commitments.

The meeting was hosted by the German Agency for Development Cooperation (GIZ). The agreement supports the national action plan that was confirmed on March 24 by the Bangladeshi government, employers and unions.

Living wages

IndustriALL general secretary Jyrki Raina stated that brands and retailers had to develop mechanisms for paying more to their suppliers to guarantee living wages and enable technical upgrades and he demanded the participants to renegotiate their supplier contracts so that they would include a requirement for raising wages considerably from the 3000 taka (38 USD) minimum wage.

Bangladeshi garment producers’ association BGMEA agreed to cooperate with IndustriALL on the sustainability issues including safety and living wages.

Importantly, IndustriALL has raised the key issue of trade union membership and the right to organise. It has demanded that the western brands must contribute to freedom of association in the garment industry and stop government and employer resistance to union organisation.

This was supported by BRAC who said: “Organised power of workers is the only thing that can stand up to the otherwise unaccountable nexus of business owners and politicians, who are often one and the same”.

BRAC argue that rather than support boycott’s (as some organisations have called for) western consumers who are shocked by the working conditions recognise “that a  playing field where the price tag is the only standard for a purchase is not a level one when workers’ lives are at stake”, and adding pointedly that they were dealing “an unholy web of employers and politicians colluding to avoid responsibility for criminal negligence”.

We will have to wait and see if the international brands, government and employers sign up to the agreement proposed by unions and recognise that unions should be free to organize in Bangladesh to stop these terrible events happening again.

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