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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 →

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 →

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.

Read the rest of this entry →

Cambodian Workers Wait for Wages in the Street, Shaming H&M and Wal-Mart

7:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Since early January, workers have maintained a 24-hour vigil in front of a Phnom Penh clothing factory to demand owed wages. (Still from Warehouse Workers United video.)

Originally posted at In These Times.

The women of the Kingsland clothing factory in Phnom Penh have been losing sleep over their jobs. It’s not the grueling hours and poverty wages that keep them awake, nor the threat of violent retaliation they’ve endured for trying to organize, nor even the unsanitary, dangerous working conditions they’ve often complained about. They’re used to all that; what they can’t stand is not being paid for their work.

Since the factory shut down weeks ago, workers have held a 24-hour vigil on the street to demand back wages and severance pay. The encampment marks their desperation to make their plight visible and to expose the open secret behind the underwear Kingsland has exported for years: that their cheap labor supplied the global retail empires of Wal-Mart and H&M.

Heoun Rapi, one of about 200 protesting workers, stated in a public declaration:

I am 6 months pregnant. It was difficult to work while I’m pregnant but even though it’s hard I need to struggle. I don’t know what to do. I can’t survive with the salary cut. I will protest like this until there is a solution. I want the factory and Wal-Mart to rush to give us our severance pay. Read the rest of this entry →

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 →

Immigrant Supply-Chain Labor Struggles Galvanize Walmart Activism

4:38 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Young Polish and Romanian workers on "J-1" guest visas who protested their treatment at a Pennsylvania Hershey plant last year recently won back pay from the subcontractor that runs the facility. (Roman Surzhko/National Guestworker Alliance)

Originally posted on In These Times

On Black Friday, as Walmart workers across the country stand up against the retail giant’s labor regime, they’ll be in part standing on the shoulders of smaller uprisings that have popped up in low-wage workplaces. Alongside the disgruntled store employees, various subcontracted warehouse workers have helped lead the wave of protests.

The interconnected campaigns reveal that what makes Wal-Mart so powerful–its hegemonic size and market domination–is also what makes it a solid target for an increasingly militant solidarity movement of precarious workers across the supply chain.

As labor activists brace for Black Friday, federal authorities have vindicated a previous labor struggle involving a major Walmart warehouse subcontractor. Back in 2011, immigrant guestworkers at Exel, a logistics subcontractor, protested against abusive working conditions at a Hershey plant in Palmyra, Penn. As we’ve reported previously, the guestworkers were “invited” to a hard labor stint through a special “J-1″ visa administered by the State Department. As with other labor-based visa programs, lax regulation had turned J-1 into a gateway for the importation of low-wage young workers under the pretext of “educational” summer work experience.

The young Hershey hires quickly saw their resume-building aspirations dissolve into a nightmare of abusive work schedules and workplace safety violations. As one disillusioned young worker told the New York Times. “We are supposed to be here for cultural exchange and education, but we are just cheap laborers.” Read the rest of this entry →

Wal-Mart Circles Indian Markets, and Indians Push Back

7:29 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Shop in Pushkar, India (photo: Felipe Skroski/wikimedia)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The marketplace has always been at the heart of India–exuberant bazaars brimming with local hawkers and traditional wares and foods. But the country’s old-fashioned markets may soon be eclipsed by the towering “free market” of globalization, as multinational superstores push the government to open the gates.

The India Cabinet wants to enable businesses with 51-percent foreign direct investment to enter India’s retail sector–basically inviting in big box behemoths like Wal-Mart under the banner of efficiency and consumer choice. But many Indians aren’t buying it. This week, UNI Global Union reports that shops went on strike:

Over 50 million small traders across India have put down their shutters as part of strike action aimed at getting the India government to review its decision.

In Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, over 6000 traders have closed their shops. Over 100,000 wholesalers, retailers and small traders in Mumbai joined in the All-India strike action. Elsewhere in Maharashtra retailers did not open their shops and it was a similar story in Thane, Pune, Nagpur and other major cities and towns

Karthik Shekhar, who is coordinating UNI’s activities in India on FDI and multi-brand retail said, “Here in Delhi all the markets are closed and thousands are on the streets. They are strongly opposed to the Cabinet’s decision and are making feelings known, especially their distrust of Walmart.” Read the rest of this entry →