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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 →

Inside World’s Economic Engine, Young China Redefines Class Consciousness

4:32 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Robert Scoble via flickr

Cross-posted from In These Times

In every corner of the world young people are rocking their worlds, defying government crackdowns in Santiago and Sanaa, occupying beleaguered cities in America and Europe, challenging authoritarianism across the Global South. But one of the largest concentrations of youth on the planet seems relatively dormant: China’s rising generation appears, at least in the Western media lens, to be too timid, cynical, or busy making money, to take on political struggles.

But to read China’s fraught political geography, you need a long-range lens. A new report by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin tracks the nascent Chinese labor movement from 2009 through 2011, examining a pattern of conflict, organizing and advocacy, and finds the seeds of a youth-led labor movement underpinned by a sense of growing economic injustice. Communication technology, migration, creative organizing tactics, and the sheer density of the popular mass are fueling thousands of labor protests in both the public and private sectors.

Socially and geographically, mobile young workers are starting to leverage their power within the political and economic establishment, according to the report:

  • Workers are becoming more proactive They are taking the initiative and not waiting for the government or anyone else to improve their pay and working conditions.
  • The protests have created an embryonic collective bargaining system in China. The challenge now is to develop that basic model into an effective and sustainable system of collective bargaining that benefits workers, improves overall labour relations and helps achieve the Chinese government’s goals of boosting domestic consumption and reducing social disparity.
  • Their ability to organize is improving. A growing sense of unity among factory workers, combined with the use of mobile phones and social networking tools, has made it easier for workers to initiate, organize and sustain protests.
  • Worker protests are becoming more successful. Recent protests have secured substantial pay increases, forced managements to abandon unpopular and exploitative work practices, and even stalled the proposed take-over and privatization of SOEs.

Though China has earned a reputation as the world’s preeminent sweatshop, its broader economic agenda centers on turning legions of workers into vast, politically obedient, domestic consumer class. Read the rest of this entry →