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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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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 →

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.

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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 →

WalMart Empire Clashes with China

3:34 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Nik McGettigan (via artistsvswalmart.tumblr.com)

Typically when we hear “WalMart” and “China” in the same sentence, we picture the “made in” labels on our toys, gadgets, and the other mass-produced stuff that we grab off the shelves at low low prices. But WalMart’s vast retail empire has a whole other wing in the Middle Kingdom. As the brand has expanded aggressively into the coveted China market, it has engendered a new wave of Chinese shoppers–and legions of workers to serve them. The rise of a Westernized consumer culture has also generated familiar tensions around labor, inequality and workplace rights.

Just in time, too: as demonstrations mushroomed WalMart stores and warehouses nationwide, a disgruntled WalMart employee was leading a small uprising in the coastal boomtown of Shenzhen. His agitating and organizing work has led to a partnership with SACOM, a Hong Kong-based labor rights organization that has previously taken on the notorious Apple manufacturer Foxconn.

The conflict began last summer when Wang Shishu, a 52-year-old WalMart store employee and outspoken labor activist, helped lead a campaign against plans to cut pay and slash benefits. When a small strike involving about forty workers broke out, the management cracked down.

According to SACOM’s petition: Read the rest of this entry →

Flammable Material: How Garment Workers Can Respond to the Tazreen Factory Fire

5:47 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Bangladesh labor protest (dblackadder via flickr/creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

In a fashion industry where trends change by the minute, the lives of the workers who make the clothes are often valued as cheaply as the products they create. The devastating fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 110 people, is tied to what labor advocates describe as a powder keg: the manufacturing system in the Global South, where countless factories are one spark away from catastrophe.

A new report on factory safety by the International Labor Rights Forum documents the story of one teenager who survived a deadly fire in 2006, which left dozens of workers to burn in a sealed death trap:

I think that they used to lock the doors all the time because most of the workers were my age, and they thought that we might leave the factory any time, as we were kids. That is why they always locked the main door.

Of course, it would be children who lacked the discipline to stay put, whose natural impulse to resist restraint required the industry to literally lock them in.

Today, the charred Tazreen factory represents the extreme end of a long continuum of anti-worker oppression and violence, beginning with multinational brands that build their profit model on cheap overseas labor, to the brutalization of workers who dare stand up for their rights on the job.

The cost of treating these workers humanely doesn’t add up for brand-name manufacturers. The garment industry death toll in Bangladesh has risen to about 700 since 2005, and seems on track to grow as more foreign business flock to the South Asian country for rock-bottom wages and a burgeoning workforce willing to earn as little as $43 a month, far less than typical wages in China or India. 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 →

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 →

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 →