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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 →

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:

Read the rest of this entry →

More Bad Apple: Watchdog Exposes New Chinese Factory Abuses

3:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The workers’ dormitories are often dirty and cramped, with eight to 12 workers in a room and often inadequate sanitation facilities, according to the China Labor Watch report. (Courtesy of China Labor Watch)

Originally published at In These Times

Apple’s growth and reputation for innovation have long been built on the shaky foundation of rock-bottom wages and poor labor conditions in Chinese factories. Now, a new investigation by the New York-based advocacy group China Labor Watch has further revealed the abuses, including wage violations and chemical exposures, at the warped core of Apple’s corporate empire. The report focused on Apple supplier the Pegatron Group, which has become a major producer of an upcoming new model for a scaled-back “cheap iPhone” for lower-end markets.

The most infamous of Apple’s labor problems were the widely reported the Foxconn suicides of 2010–when several workers at the Taiwanese-owned Apple contractor’s mega-compounds in China threw themselves from buildings in despair over their working conditions. Apple has since waged a highly publicized campaign to raise labor standards and wages at supplier factories.

Pegatron—a smaller company, with a mere 70,000 employees, though it counts among its clients not only Apple but also Dell, HP and Microsoft—has avoided the kind of negative publicity that Foxconn garnered. But CLW’s research on three Pegatron workplaces, two in Shanghai and one in nearby Suzhou, suggests that labor exploitation is hardwired into the entire production model for brand-name electronics manufacturing in China.

The report, based on field investigations and interviews with employees, found that workers at Pegatron still facing grueling conditions. Work shifts typically run about 11 hours, with an hourly wage of about $1.50. At the three factories investigated, according to the report, “average weekly working hours… are approximately 66 hours, 67 hours, and 69 hours.” At the same time, Apple has claimed “its suppliers had achieved 99 percent compliance with Apple’s 60-hour work week rule.” (In fact, China’s standard workweek is technically just 49 hours, but workers are typically pressured to work excessive overtime.) Read the rest of this entry →

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.

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 →

All Work and No Pay: Recognizing Women’s Unpaid Labor in the Global South

7:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A Pokot woman with her child, tending to an aloe vera crop. Women around the world spend a great deal of time on unpaid care work every day, but such work often remains invisible. (Des Willie/ActionAid)

Originally posted at In These Times

Imagine being asked to work seven days a week, for free, without breaks or even a thank you. Those conditions might seem outrageous in any workplace, yet they are typical in our homes, where women are regularly expected to serve as faithful unpaid caregivers. Our recognition of the first scenario as a serious violation of labor rights, while the second can be brushed off as “tradition,” is a measure of the sexism still embedded in our thinking about economic equity in the U.S. and around the world.

While many of these debates have taken place in a Western context—the post-Feminine Mystique universe of fights over glass ceilings and parental leave policies—a different conversation is beginning in the Global South about how respect for women’s household labor factors into a wider movement for economic justice.

A new analysis by the advocacy group ActionAid looks at case studies of women’s uncompensated work in Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya as mothers, wives, managers of households and caregivers. The report concludes that women’s unpaid daily tasks amount to a massive amount of time, energy and ingenuity that has been historically exploited and undervalued.

The report defines unpaid care work as home-based tasks like “cooking, cleaning, collecting water and firewood, and caring for the ill, elderly and children,” which are typically woven into interdependent relationships within communities and family structures. Not only is such work essential to maintaining the household; it is deeply interwoven with social development. Stability at home provides a base of security that enables other forms of economic advancement. Care work is of course crucial for children’s development (as well as their future education), but it also enables male family members to engage in wage labor in the mainstream economy. Read the rest of this entry →

World Bank’s Anti-Labor Index Is a Dirty Business

9:45 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

World Bank

Originally posted at In These Times

It’s a 2012 campaign mantra: On Day One, the new president will reboot the economy by spurring businesses to grow and thrive. Both mainstream candidates have vowed to achieve this, in part by eliminating onerous regulations to “unleash” the long-suppressed power of American industry.

The story is surprisingly similar across the pond. The financial giants of Europe’s troika pummelGreece and other struggling Eurozone countries with a blitzkrieg of kamikaze deregulation, conditioning financial “rescue” on giving markets free rein to work their magic, unencumbered by law. The flipside of this celebration of the Invisible Hand is, inevitably, a merciless beatdown on labor, stripping protections like unemployment aid and wage standards.

The World Bank has taken the extremely dubious science of deregulation one step further by creating a guide, known as the Doing Business report, that quantifies the regulatory “burden” that investors may face in various countries. The 2013 report was released this week.

Echoing the corporate “job creator” mythology of the Washington consensus, Doing Business encourages financiers and governments to erode public-interest protections, including safeguards for unions and workers. Labor groups say the publication’s warped views on regulation and worker protections effectively gives a statistical justification for leveraging economic aid or investment to pressure countries to privatize, deregulate and undermine unions. Read the rest of this entry →

South Korea’s Boom Leaves Workers in the Dust

10:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Hyundai worker rally (via links.org.au)

Originally posted at In These Times

South Korea is sometimes touted as an exemplar of capitalist progress in Asia–a sophisticated economy with global brands and an educated populace (not to mention a stunning contrast to its miserable Communist analog to the north). But the lives of South Korean workers tell a different story. In recent months, they’ve been slammed by a much-maligned free trade deal, tussled with Hyundai in a bitter strike, and, according to an international assessment, become examples of how an economic boom can be a bust for labor.

According to a report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), published as part of the World Trade Organization’s periodic Trade Policy Review, Korean workers have faced major challenges in organizing independent unions, and women, migrants, and other marginal workers face widespread discrimination and exploitation.

Though unionization is generally legal, in practice, labor activities are regularly suppressed by employers, and independent organizing may be preempted by “management-controlled” or “paper” unions. Restrictions on public-sector union activities–in the name of protecting the public–parallel the limits on labor activism imposed on U.S. civil servants, according to the report:

[T]here are numerous categories of public officials who are still denied their trade union rights, including managers, human resources personnel, personnel dealing with trade unions or industrial relations, and special public servants such as military, police, fire-fighters, politically-appointed officials, and high level public officials. … The law also prohibits public sector unionists from engaging in “acts in contravention of their duties prescribed in other laws and regulations when doing union activities”. This very broadly worded provision leaves the door open for abuses. Read the rest of this entry →

Pakistan Fires Echo 1911 Triangle Factory Fire—But Will They Spur Similar Change?

8:22 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

“Won’t it ever be safe for us to earn our bread?” That was the anguished question of the mother of one of the victims of Manhattan’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, quoted in Miriam Finn Scott’s famous narrative “The Factory Girl’s Danger.”

The family had hoped for a better life for their daughter, but poverty pushed her to follow her mother onto the factory floor. Then, one spring day in 1911, the girl went to work and did not return. The garment factory went up in flames while horrified crowds watched bodies fly from the upper floors, hitting the pavement as nameless masses of charred flesh and fabric; more than 140 dead altogether, mostly women, many of them teenagers and immigrants.

The question the mother asked, which became the resounding theme of Scott’s story, will be asked again today by other mothers, in a different language. About a century after the shock of the Triangle fire spurred major safety reforms in New York and helped catalyze the U.S. labor movement, two catastrophes in Pakistan on Tuesday revealed that similarly dangerous factories still flourish outside of the United States, in the Global South. A massive fire at a textile factory in Karachi (reportedly with ties to the European market) killed more than 250 workers, and a shoe factory in Lahore was also engulfed in flames, killing 25.

In Karachi, workers reportedly also lept from windows; onlookers below could only watch as rescue workers extracted bodies from the concrete inferno. In both incidents, workers were trapped amid the flames, with escape routes blockedJust as the Triangle workers were sealed inside, VOA reported, authorities admitted the factory “was illegally constructed and there was only one exit, with no safety measures or equipment in place to extinguish the fire before it engulfed the entire facility.”  Read the rest of this entry →