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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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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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Your ‘Distressed’ Jeans Are Wearing Out Workers’ Lungs

5:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: SACOM

“Distressed” jeans are designed to make that wear-and-tear look seem oh-so-effortless, but it can be the result of someone’s body taking a real beating.

According to a recent investigation by the advocacy groups Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want, and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), several manufacturers in Guangdong, China—which supply global brands such as Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler—have used patently unsafe sandblasting techniques on their denim.

Sandblasting usually involves spraying chemicals and mineral dust against textiles to create a weathered look. It is commonly done by hand, using an air gun, though some manufacturers use mechanical sandblasting performed inside special cabinets. Without adequate ventilation and other protections, either technique can expose workers to damaging particles that increase the risk of silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung and respiratory problems.

Researchers found that while safety conditions varied across the different facilities, “none of the factories where sandblasting was still reported to be taking place provided sandblasters with adequate safety equipment.” From the report:

Workers were not provided with adequate protective wear (e.g. face masks, eye masks and gloves) when they undertook procedures like hand-sanding, polishing, water-based treatment, and chemical spraying (e.g. potassium permanganate). They received no proper training and were not equipped with enough occupational health and safety knowledge to understand the risk of the materials they use every day.

Some workers reported alarming exposures to potassium permaganate, a lightening chemical linked to skin and respiratory irritation. But, they said, “supervisors often dismissed their health concerns, declaring that the chemicals were not harmful in any way.

On top of the sandblasting hazards, researchers also found that workers reported suffering from fatigue and chronic pain under the strenuous working conditions.

The report indicates that socioeconomic pressures lead struggling migrant garment workers to accept unhealthy conditions as just part of the job. At the Conshing factory, for instance, “although they were aware of the health risks associated with their jobs, they were willing to take the risk for the higher salaries that Conshing offered sandblasters.”

Choking on the dust of prosperity

Silicosis is just one of a set of work-induced respiratory diseases, collectively called pneumoconiosis, that have exploded in China over the past two decades of breakneck “modernization.” According to a major new analysis by China Labour Bulletin (CLB), there is no clear data on the scale of the epidemic, in large part because Beijing refuses to fully acknowledge it as a rising occupational health crisis. The actual number of cases nationwide could be as high as six million. Fully covering the healthcare costs of pneumoconiosis patients would cost 120 billion to 250 billion yuan (US $19.6 to $40.7 billion), CLB estimates.

Rates are highest among migrant workers (unofficial local residents) who tend to be poor and from rural areas. Since medicines can cost as much as 1000 yuan (US $162) per month, untold numbers of migrants are priced out of treatment.

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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 →

Cambodian Workers Wrest Justice from Wal-Mart and H&M Supplier

5:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cambodian garment workers celebrate winning a settlement of as much as $200,000. (Photo from Community Legal Education Center)

Cross-posted at In These Times

After workers across the U.S. staged mini-strikes at Wal-Marts this winter, a small crowd of Cambodian garment workers caused a stir by camping in front of a shuttered Wal-Mart supplier in Phnom Penh. The workers were protesting a sudden closure of the Kingsland apparel factory, which robbed them of both their jobs and tens of thousands in wages. They staged creative direct actions, including attempts to physically block the removal of sewing equipment.

Now, the Cambodians’ efforts to hold their former bosses accountable have paid off–in both money and political impact. Some two hundred Kingsland workers who produced clothing for H&M and Wal-Mart-affiliated brands for about $60 a month have won a settlement of an estimated $200,000.

The workers won the surprise victory against the global manufacturing Goliaths thanks in large part to savvy support from Cambodian and international labor groups. These allies helped spread the word globally by broadcasting the protestors’ video testimonials and marching to present a letter to Rajan Kamalanathan, Walmart’s Vice President of Ethical Sourcing.

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