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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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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 →

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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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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China Labor Watchdogs Expose Dark Side of Global Toy Empire

8:00 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


(Plounsbury, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Despite the occasional factory fire or sweatshop media expose, American consumers have largely inured themselves to the status quo of exploiting the Global South as our overseas workshop for cheap clothes, toys and gadgets. With the holiday shopping season in full swing, consumers have affixed even more tightly the corporate blinders, rendering the workers in Santa’s Workshop comfortably invisible.

But some of the factories churning out hot toys have recently been exposed as bastions of labor abuse. According to an investigation by the New York-based watchdog group China Labor Watch,several toy-industry supplier factories in China (which have collectively produced for famous clients like Mattel, Disney and Hasbro) have flouted both international ethical standards and Chinese law. The extensive investigation, based in part on worker interviews, uncovered troubling conditions:

CLW’s investigation revealed at least 15 sets of violations in four factories together employing about 10,000 workers: illegal overtime pay, excessive overtime, forced labor, myriad safety concerns, a lack of safety training, a lack of physical exams, inability to resign from work, blank labor contracts, unpaid work, a lack of social insurance, use of dispatch workers, a lack of a living wage, poor living conditions, unreasonable rules, and a lack of effective grievance channels. Read the rest of this entry →

Bangladesh Factory Fire: Workers Burn, Walmart Ducks Responsibility

8:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


Fire at Tazreen Fashions (International Labor Rights Forum)

Originally posted at In These Times

Perhaps the images no longer have the power to shock. Charred bodies and wailing families appear in the news with grim frequency, giving the numbing impression that industrial fires are simply a necessary toll for poor nations on the road to “development.” The latest factory inferno in South Asia should prompt us to ask why this keeps happening, but once again, challenges from local and international labor advocates are being dodged by the global apparel-manufacturing machine.

The fire this weekend at the Tazreen factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than 110 of the 1,000-plus workers, bears the stamp of some of the world’s most iconic fashion labels. According to labor advocates, the Western brands linked to the factory included Disney, Sears, Dickies, Sean Combs’s Enyce and Walmart’s Faded Glory.

According to initial reports, the workplace was fraught with fire-safety issues, including the lack of a viable road for rescue workers to approach the facility and a lack of safety exits. Before workers could flee, some managers reportedly “stopped them running to safety after the fire alarm had gone off.”

Just about everyone who could be held responsible has a story to deflect the blame, and some are even implicating workers.

Amid international outcry and local street protests in response to the fire, Bangladeshi authorities suggested that the incident was not a product of an industrial accident such as faulty wiring, but sabotage, pointing to another investigation of fires reportedly started by workers in a nearby factory. (Notably, Bangladesh’s garment industry is a bulwark of the country’s low-wage economy, employing about 3 million people.) Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina argued the Tazreen fire also appears to be the result of arson, perhaps tied to local political conflicts—a claim echoed by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. According to Hasina, the disaster ”was not an accident, (it was) planned. The incident takes place when it is the time for buyers to come and sign contracts.” 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 →

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 →