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Despite Violence, Cambodian Workers Vow To Continue Their Fight

12:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Rashif Sheikh, All Voices (creative commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Though Cambodia’s days of colonialization, war and genocide may be over, the country is still wrestling with political turmoil. At the start of the new year, when workers massed in Phnom Penh to demand a fair minimum wage, the government responded with a spray of bullets.

A major garment worker strike in December capped a recent groundswell of protest in the country’s capital. After deeming insufficient the government’s proposed hike of the minimum wage to $95, labor leaders aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to shutter factories and bring large crowds into the streets, concluding a year of labor agitation that saw more than 130 strikes.

Newly reelected Prime Minister Hun Sen—a former Khmer Rouge official whose legitimacy has been questioned amid accusations of rigging last summer’s election—took the protests as an opportunity to suppress both the pro-democracy and labor movements with one fierce blow. On January 3, police responded to protesters’ bottles and petrol bombs with live ammunition, killing five and injuring dozens. More than twenty were detained, and some are reportedly still being held incommunicado.

On January 4, the government then forcibly cleared a major protest encampment in the city center; many workers have since returned to their jobs. Factories have also started to reopen after temporarily shutting down out of safety concerns. In the wake of the unrest, a coalition of rights groups, including Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum, has called for an “immediate end to all violence and intimidation against workers and their representatives,” release of detained protesters and no charges against the strikers. Meanwhile, activists are continuing to push for the minimum wage to be raised to $160 a month.

Cambodian garment and shoe producers employ roughly 600,000 people in about 800 factories, and their business is eased by neoliberal trade policies with Western nations, particularly the United States. Yet these fashion powerhouses pay workers a pittance—generally as low as about $80 a month—compared to the profits they reap.

David Welsh, a Phnom Penh-based organizer with AFL-CIO’s international arm, the Solidarity Center, says the $160 minimum wage demand is the very least the garment industry could offer, especially considering some advocacy groups estimate that a living wage would be more than triple workers’ current pay. The Solidarity Center has been facilitating talks with the Labor Ministry and campaigning with local civil society groups for the detained activists. Along with other labor groups, the Solidarity Center has also raised concerns about a trend toward placing workers on so-called fixed-duration or short-term contracts, which tend to restrict job security for workers who came to factories seeking steady livelihoods.

According to Welsh, big retail brands foster a common media narrative that claims labor costs must be kept low to meet market demand. He explains that companies use the threat of pulling out of Cambodia if unions demand too much as a way to “discourage workers, to sort of say, ‘Do this or you’ll be out of the job.’”

Realistically, though, Welsh says, “The amount of work that is being put into creating an incredible supply chain internationally … with foreign investors that are getting off like bandits, frankly, off the backs of impoverished Cambodian workers—the dynamic cannot continue.”

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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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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 →