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The U.S. Military’s Assault on Overseas Labor Rights

6:06 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Patterns for clothing licensed by the U.S. Marine Corps, found at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh (Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity)

Originally published at In These Times

A six-foot gash in the wall; charred corpses strewn amid the rubble of a collapsed building; families mourning nameless civilian casualties. Such tragic scenes are historically associated with the aftermath of military aggression, but these days, they also reflect a different kind of military assault—on labor rights. In Bangladesh, Uncle Sam is making the world less secure for workers, one sweatshirt at a time.

The U.S. military is notorious for being an ethically challenged institution, tainted by corruption and innumerable human rights violations at home and abroad. Now, a watchdog group says the military’s clothing businesses are aiding and abetting massive labor exploitation overseas.

As we reported in January, major branches of the armed forces run an extensive apparel manufacturing network that contracts with U.S. firms and overseas factories through its procurement system—business deals with private companies to produce military-branded goods, such as Marines-logo sportswear. These patriotic-themed fashions are then sold through military-run retail outlets known as exchanges, which operate as mostly self-funded businesses and are therefore considered outside of the standard Defense Department budget (though, as a Pentagon operation, they are also taxpayer-supported).

These exchanges have established basic labor codes for contracted overseas producers, covering issues such as child labor, wages, hours, collective bargaining rights and safety. But as research by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) shows, the military has displayed malign neglect when it comes to enforcing those codes, particularly in the garment manufacturing hotbed of Bangladesh, where sweatshops are rife.

The report, which ILRF released in mid-February, documents an epidemic of safety threats at factories that have supplied apparel to military exchanges: missing fire extinguishers, combustible materials kept near hot machines, a massively cracked factory ceiling, underpayment of wages and forced labor conditions. Physical or verbal abuse is commonly heaped upon workers, many of whom are women who have migrated to urban areas from rural communities. Workweeks at one factory lasted up to 80 hours.

At Citadel—a known producer for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) that employs about 700 people in its factory near Dhaka— a “social compliance” audit conducted by a specialized industry auditing organization found that half of workers did not wear protective dust masks. About two-thirds did not even wear shoes. ILRF investigators found that although the exchanges claimed to have verified the labor code compliance of these factories, they repeatedly left issues like these unaddressed.

In some cases, according to the ILRF, the exchanges blatantly ignored third-party accounts of the conditions in their supplier factories. For instance, the report states, “in several cases in this report, the Marine Corps Exchange requires only a factory self-attestation that it is ‘in compliance with all applicable labor laws’ with no substantiating evidence to support this claim.” And even when the exchanges took the time to actually review third-party factory audits, the ILRF continues, the auditors themselves had often overlooked safety hazards and other workplace problems.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows the various scandals in the fashion industry over big-name brands that profit off of sweatshop labor. In the past, activist and media investigations have revealed that factories supplying Western fashion brands, both private and military, have repeatedly received passing audit grades despite clear evidence of substandard working conditions.

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The U.S. Government Uses Sweatshops, Too

10:48 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Sharat Chowdhury / Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh last April exposed the cruel link between abusive Global South factories and the Western brands they supply. But while consumers may have been shocked to learn of the Gap or Benetton‘s latest designs strewn amid the wreckage of “death trap” factories, they might have missed another bit of debris: the label of the U.S. government. In fact, much of the clothing churned out by overseas sweatshops is custom-made for Uncle Sam.

In an extensive investigative report, New York Times details how the federal government’s contracts with overseas factories to make uniforms and other apparel are connected to egregious human rights violations, including child labor and union suppression.

A recent audit by labor monitoring authorities found workers as young as 15 at a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that produces clothes to be sold by the Army and Air Force. Some workers spoke to the Times of having to work long shifts without breaks, forcing them to soil themselves while sewing. Read the rest of this entry →

Minimum-Wage Hike Won’t Appease Bangladeshi Workers

3:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Among other things, workers still want compensation for the families of those killed in the April 24, 2013 collapse of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza factory complex. (Sudipta Das/ Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Earlier this month, a group of workers at the Tuba Group garment factory in Bangladesh locked owner Delwar Hossain in his office and demanded that he pay the bonuses he’d promised them for the Eid al-Adha holiday, according to Reuters. Such extreme interventions are rare in Bangladesh, where the garment export industry is a main driver of the economy, but it was crazy enough to work: After 18 hours in captivity, the boss agreed to hand over the money. Such tactics have proven effective outside the factory walls, too, as workers in the streets resort to desperate measures to address desperate grievances.

After the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, which killed more than 1,100 people in Savar, Dhaka this April, massive worker strikes erupted all over Bangladesh. Thanks to subsequently intensifying local as well as international public outcry, government officials have finally agreed to raise the minimum wage by as much as 50 to 80 percent.

The fight isn’t over yet, however. Though the workers have demanded a minimum monthly wage of 8,000 taka, or about $100 (more than double the current minimum of $38, last raised in 2010), the pending raise would likely be much less than that—perhaps raising it only to about $60, according to Reuters. That proposed level would still be less than what comparable garment workers in Cambodia typically earn, and far below what experts say would keep up with the general cost of living in Bangladesh, Factory owners and their powerful official allies in government are continuing to resist any measures that would reduce their profits from the country’s massive, $22 billion garment export industry.

Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker and now a leading activist with the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, says that if the wage hike falls far short of workers’ demands, as seems likely, the strife in the streets will persist. “If the minimum wage comes in [at] half of the figure of what workers are asking, that will escalate the situation,” she told In These Times during a visit to New York this week. Though she is confident that grassroots action can help advance the workers’ cause, she worries that the political opposition may take advantage of these tensions by stoking further unrest to fuel the country’s fierce political rivalries.

Indeed, 24-year-old Dhaka factory worker Mosammat Jhumur, who joined a strike wave in September that impacted hundreds of plants, tells Reuters, “If [the minimum wage hike] is less than 8,000 taka, we have to press the government or the factory owners to increase… If we need to go on the road to demonstrate, then we will do that.” Read the rest of this entry →

Wage Wars: Bangladeshi Workers Reach a Boiling Point

9:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(International Labor Rights Forum / National Garment Workers’ Federation)

Originally published at In These Times

Workers in Bangladesh have been perishing in tragic, preventable factory accidents for years. Now, in mass uprisings that portend both more violent labor struggles on the horizon and a new dawn for a nascent labor movement, the workers are starting to strike at the factories themselves.

Tens of thousands of workers took to the streets earlier this week, turning some of their anger at the factories by hurling broken bricks at the authorities. About 300 factories were shuttered “to contain the violence,” according to Al Jazeeraand police cracked down on protesters with “tear gas and rubber bullets.” In lashing out at the physical workplaces, the workers were responding to symbols of a power structure that has done far greater violence to them: Just this spring, more than 1,100 people died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza industrial complex, and before that, scores of lives were claimed in a blaze at the Tazreen garment factory.

While the Rana disaster was a catalyst for the uprising, the workers’ primary demand appeared to be for higher wages.

After similar protests broke out a few years ago, the government was compelled to increase the minimum wage, roughly doubling it in 2010 to about $38 per month. Now workers are seeking to raise the monthly minimum wage to $100. That might be a large jump percentage-wise, but the big ask is a testament to the unconscionably low income levels of Bangladeshi garment workers compared to other garment-exporting countries. According to a recent study cited in a Bloomberg News report, “The annual total [compensation] for a Bangladesh worker amounted to $1,478, compared with $4,577 in neighboring India.”

The new unrest reflects the frustration that has mounted in the wake of the industrial tragedies. International labor advocates have been working for months with Bangladeshi activists to push for compensation for thousands of survivors and family members of those affected by the recent factory disasters. With the garment sector serving as a main engine of development in one of the region’s poorest countries, the Rana collapse wiped out a livelihood that allowed thousands to barely scrape by. Al Jazeera recently reported that many of the affected workers were women breadwinners:

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From Dhaka to Broadway, Protests Target Bangladesh Factory Death Traps

6:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Corporate Action Network

Originally posted at In These Times

The United States may lead the world in some measures of national wealth, but it is fiercely regressive when it comes to protecting the workers whose blood and sweat subsidize American lifestyles. Since the tragic factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 people, many Western apparel brands have been shamed into addressing labor conditions in Bangladesh’s booming garment sector. Yet two U.S. giants, the Gap and Wal-Mart, remain deaf to the public outcry.

On Saturday, activists will stage protests in cities around the world, from Osaka to Cincinnati, to demand that Gap and Wal-Mart sign onto a major agreement to improve safety and labor conditions in Bangladeshi factories. The actions mark a new phase in an ongoing struggle to raise consumer awareness. The protests also coincide with U.S. campaigns against the exploitation of Wal-Mart workers at the stores and warehouses that control a huge swath of the country’s low-wage labor force. Union groups, including the United Auto Workers and the SEIU’s Workers United, have thrown their weight behind the campaign as well.

Since the Rana tragedy (just one of many recent factory disasters in the region), Bangladesh’s garment sector has come under scathing international scrutiny: Thousands of the country’s production facilities are rife with safety violations and labor abuse, and multinational brands are directly responsible for keeping these factories in business. And there is no regulatory framework to hold companies accountable in this game of global capital arbitrage.

The proposed safety agreement, which would introduce a worker-led system of safety oversight, has about 50 signatories, including major European brands like H&M and Espirit. According to the End Death Traps campaign, the agreement would establish a “binding contract between the brands and worker representatives that make these commitments enforceable – so the brands have to follow through, even if it means increased costs or longer turnaround times on orders.”

The big holdouts are, not surprisingly, U.S. companies that have for years been beating back campaigns to improve worker safety. Back in 2010, for example, Gap rebuffed a proposed factory safety accord that has now become the basis for the current plan, and sought instead to its own voluntary safety plan. Wal-Mart too has beefed up its company-controlled “social responsibility” programs to placate demands for stronger factory oversight. Activists meanwhile decry such voluntary schemes as toothless at best, designed to preempt pro-worker initiatives to address safety standards.

In recent weeks, industry spokespeople have argued the legally binding safety program would invite excessive litigation. But activists and progressive legal scholars counter that the fear of lawsuits essentially reflects apprehensions about being held accountable for the human suffering that subsidizes their profits.

The latest wave of anti-corporate activism has deepened solidarity networks between regions by making a point of elevating the voices of workers in the Global South. Earlier this month, Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter, a former factory worker and a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, joined the demonstrations of striking Wal-mart workers at the company’s June shareholder meeting, to demand fair treatment and higher wages for garment workers. In her address, she reminded Wal-Mart Chairman Rob Walton, “I am sure you are aware that fixing these buildings would cost just a tiny fraction of your family’s wealth… You have the power to do this very easily.” Read the rest of this entry →

Anger Rising in Bangladesh, Putting Big Brands Under Pressure

8:07 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image via International Labor Rights Forum

Originally posted at In These Times

It’s been about a month since the Rana Plaza factory complex crumbled into a cement grave for more than 1,100 Bangladeshi workers. Now, the dust has settled, but the anger still burns as workers await compensation and accountability from a manufacturing system that runs on industrial “death traps.”

But last week, at a meeting of the International Labour Organization, dozens of major global clothing brands—none based in the United States—announced they had signed onto a broad safety accord designed to be more comprehensive than previous corporate codes of conduct. The initiative, led by labor rights groups and unions, is just the beginning of a long road to labor justice, but could move one of the world’s deadliest manufacturing sectors toward meaningful international accountability.

The linchpin of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which now has the support of 40 companies, such as H&M and Benettonrepresenting some 1000 factories, is a legally binding commitment to hold multinationals responsible for safety violations. Corporations must also proactively safeguard workers’ physical and economic security by assisting suppliers in financing and implementing safety upgrades. The plan also provides some job protections for workers affected by safety remediations, when, for instance, a factory must shut down for renovations. Workers and advocacy groups would also have a role in administering the inspection and renovation procedures.

UNI Global Union, a Geneva-based international labor coalition, announced last week, “The aim is to have safety inspectors on the ground as quickly as possible in order to begin to fix the most urgent problems.” With an unprecedented number of companies on board, UNI says that going forward, “workers everywhere will now seek to expand this historic accord to other countries and to other industrial sectors.”

But in a sector rife with unsafe, poorly regulated buildings, many of the most dangerous factories may remain out of reach because two major American brands, Gap and Wal-Mart, are holding out, apparently wary of the possibility of legal or financial liability for supply-chain safety problems. Wal-Mart has sought to preempt the pending safety accord by announcing its own safety plan, which activists dismiss as another toothless public-relations measure.

So-called “corporate social responsibility” initiatives have long been criticized by activists as corruption-prone smokescreens used by corporations to “voluntarily” police (and rubber stamp) conditions in their own supply chains, without real, legal accountability.

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As Death Toll in Bangladesh Collapse Climbs Past 1,000, Another Factory Fire Claims 8 Lives

9:00 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: IndustriAll Global Union)

Originally posted at In These Times

Bodies continue to pile up at Rana Plaza, once a powerhouse of Bangladesh’s garment industry, where more than 1,000 corpses have been unearthed since a factory collapse two weeks ago (and today, another survivor was discovered). Meanwhile, yet another disaster, a May 8 fire at the Tung Hai Sweater Factory in Dhaka’s Mirpur district, claimed eight additional lives. In total, the death toll since 2005 from fires and other preventable incidents at factories in Bangladesh now exceeds 1,500, according to garment-industry watchdogs—including more than 110 killed by a fire at the Wal-Mart-affiliated Tazreen factory in November.

In a strange twist, the casualties in the latest fire appear not to have been ordinary workers. According to a New York Times summary of Bangladesh news reports, “The victims included the police deputy inspector general, Z. M. Monzur Morshed, as well as the factory’s managing director, Mahbubur Rahman. Mr. Rahman was also a director of the country’s most powerful industry trade group, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.” The fact that prominent industrialists were meeting with a police official in the factory after hours exposes the tight nexus between commerce and the state that has drawn public scrutiny in the wake of Rana. The powerful businessman behind the huge factory complex, Sohel Rana, was notorious for exploiting cozy political connections to bolster his manufacturing empire.

Tragically, it took the scale of the carnage at Rana Plaza to shine light on a barely regulated industry known for treating its Global South workforce—which profits from vast numbers of rural migrant women workers with few other job options—as disposable tools. Lower-grade accidents that attract less media attention have also inflicted day-to-day harm. According to the International Business Timessince the Tazreen fire, “40 more factory incidents have led to the deaths of 10 people, with 650 workers injured.” In a country where low-wage workers often toil to support families on less than $40 per month, work-related injuries can prove financially fatal. Read the rest of this entry →

Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Shows Cracks in the System

2:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Corporate Action Network)

Originally posted at In These Times.

There are few ways to make a decent living in Bangladesh, but there are many ways to die trying. The cruel weight of that reality bore down on a Dhaka factory complex on Wednesday as it crashed to the ground and instantly extinguished hundreds of lives and livelihoods.

As of this writing, the body count at Rana Plaza is about 300 and rising, with hundreds more workers still unaccounted for, and the 72-hour emergency window for recovering trapped people alive almost gone.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of enraged workers in the area have gone on strike and rallied to demand justice for the victims.

While families struggle to identify the dead, activists have begun to investigate the aftermath and uncovered a slew of multinational labels associated with Rana: They include U.S.-based The Children’s Place and Cato Fashions, France’s Tex (Carrefour brand), Benetton, Spain’s Mango, and Canada’s Joe Fresh, Germany’s NKD and others. Walmart says it had no “authorized” supplier at Rana but one of the factories listed Walmart as a client, reports the Associated Press, and other companies have scrambled to distance themselves from the facility.

Some workers had reportedly noticed a crack in the building’s edifice shortly before the incident, but their warnings went ignored. Some were told to report to work anyway or risk losing a month’s wages. With minimum pay set below $40 per month (about the retail price of a typical sweater they might produce), workers could ill afford to be concerned about their safety, and so they followed orders and reported to what would be for many their last day of work. Kalpona Atker of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity told Democracy Now! on Thursday:

On Tuesday, when workers saw the crack in the building, they denied to work, so they left the factory in the afternoon. But on the Wednesday morning, they were forced to go inside the factory, and someone with a hand mic said, “One crack doesn’t matter. The factory will be—there will be nothing happen.” And they were forced to keep working. And after this announcement, within 30 minutes the building collapsed.

Family members scoured for any sign of loved ones amid the rubble, while rescue workers used a strip of fabric as a makeshift “slide” for bodies. The scene of carnage captured the peculiarly dehumanizing nature of the global manufacturing system: Workers and their communities are reduced to anonymous bodies while profit continues to flow smoothly to Benetton, The Children’s Place and Joe Fresh. Catastrophes like the building collapse or factory fires or the everyday, low-grade disasters of poverty and attacks on union leaders—all that suffering is welded to the profit structure, occasionally papered over with token “corporate social responsibility” and “ethical sourcing” programs.

The incident at Rana (a property reportedly owned by an influential local politician) was in a way, sadly predictable, coming five months after a horrible factory blaze that killed at least 112 workers who had supplied clothes for Walmart, Sears and other big brands. Yet, while the factory and building owners at Rana face charges of negligence, the Western companies that reap the profits face a mere public-relations embarrassment.

Liana Foxvog of International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) noted that the Tazreen fire was the deadliest garment factory disaster Bangladesh had seen—until this week:

Now the death toll in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factories has surpassed Tazreen. My hope is that all the media attention and expressions of concern and outrage by consumers will translate into factory owners, brands and government taking meaningful action to put an end to the killing of Bangladesh’s garment workers.

ILRF, the Worker Rights Consortium and other advocacy groups have campaigned for the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which would place participating brands in a legally binding program to address workplace hazards—more rigorous than current voluntary safety programs—and subject all contractors in the production chain to tighter independent oversight. So far, just two multinational brands, PVH and Tchibo, have signed on.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the building collapse is that the factory workers could have been heroes had they had the power to act on the warning signs they had spotted earlier on. If they had the support of a union, they might have collectively refused to report to work until the hazard was addressed. But since Bangladesh’s garment sector has virulently blockaded and squelched union organizing, Human Rights Watch explains, their vigilance could not protect against, but merely portend, their sealed fate: Read the rest of this entry →

Bangladeshi Activists Bring Fight to Wal-Mart’s Doorstep

4:11 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The day after the enormous fire in Bangladesh in November, Kalpona Akter holds up a garment bearing Wal-Mart's brand, "Faded Glory," which she found in the ashes inside the Tazreen factory (Photo by Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity)

Originally posted at In These Times

Wal-Mart’s business model runs on the art of delusion. Clean aisles and bright decor insulate customers from the unseemly factories that produce the brand’s sought-after bargains. But when Wal-Mart’s label was found plastered all over the charred remains of a massive factory fire in Bangladesh last fall, the ugliness at the root of the retail giant’s supply chain was exposed.

The company, however, continues to ignore victims’ demands for compensation, so Bangladeshi activists and their allies have brought their grievances to Wal-Mart’s doorstep in a 10-city U.S. tour.

In New York on Thursday, activists from the U.S. and Bangladesh rallied to demand compensation from Wal-Mart, Sears and other multinational companies that contracted with the Tazreen factory that burned down in November, killing some 112 people. The stop was part of the multi-city tour coordinated by anti-sweatshop and labor groups to call on corporations to “End Death Traps.”

The actions reflect a broader movement for accountability in a multinational manufacturing supply chain that stretches from Latin America to the U.S. to South Asia. As Josh Eidelson reported in the Nation this week, activists are also targeting Wal-Mart over its links to systematic attacks on union activists in Nicaragua, led by one of its multinational contractors, SAE-A. In this case, as in the Bangladesh fire, Wal-Mart has distanced itself from the scandal with the same meticulous image management that it applies to its product line. In both scandals, the corporation places the blame on contractors at the bottom of the supply chain. But advocacy groups point to the direct and indirect ties from big brands like Wal-Mart and Sears to small suppliers and underregulated factories in the Global South. Multinationals use this cheap subcontracted labor to squeeze down prices while preserving a clean, consumer-friendly image. Read the rest of this entry →

Flammable Material: How Garment Workers Can Respond to the Tazreen Factory Fire

5:47 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Bangladesh labor protest (dblackadder via flickr/creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

In a fashion industry where trends change by the minute, the lives of the workers who make the clothes are often valued as cheaply as the products they create. The devastating fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 110 people, is tied to what labor advocates describe as a powder keg: the manufacturing system in the Global South, where countless factories are one spark away from catastrophe.

A new report on factory safety by the International Labor Rights Forum documents the story of one teenager who survived a deadly fire in 2006, which left dozens of workers to burn in a sealed death trap:

I think that they used to lock the doors all the time because most of the workers were my age, and they thought that we might leave the factory any time, as we were kids. That is why they always locked the main door.

Of course, it would be children who lacked the discipline to stay put, whose natural impulse to resist restraint required the industry to literally lock them in.

Today, the charred Tazreen factory represents the extreme end of a long continuum of anti-worker oppression and violence, beginning with multinational brands that build their profit model on cheap overseas labor, to the brutalization of workers who dare stand up for their rights on the job.

The cost of treating these workers humanely doesn’t add up for brand-name manufacturers. The garment industry death toll in Bangladesh has risen to about 700 since 2005, and seems on track to grow as more foreign business flock to the South Asian country for rock-bottom wages and a burgeoning workforce willing to earn as little as $43 a month, far less than typical wages in China or India. Read the rest of this entry →