Creating justice for Bangladeshi garment workers with pressure not boycotts

A woman holds a picture of her relative missing in the Rana Plaza collapse. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

Two years ago, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,134 garment factory workers inside. Just five months before this accident, a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory killed 112 people.

The disasters left many Americans wondering how to respond to prevent such tragedies from happening again. The companies whose brands were manufactured at these factories and other global garment retailers wondered how to keep their customers in the face of worldwide condemnation of Bangaldesh factory working conditions.

Almost immediately, even with no known association with Rana Plaza factories, the clothing company PVH (maker of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and other brands) signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year, legally binding agreement among international brands and retailers, Bangladeshi trade unions, and international trade unions to work together to improve factory conditions, created in May 2013.

The Walt Disney Company took another approach; it pulled its production from Bangladesh, effectively boycotting the country.

Which strategy is better for Bangladeshi workers? And which strategy should consumers support?

To answer these questions, we must ask two more. What approach would empower the more than 4.2 million Bangladeshi garment workers? And what approach would hold brands accountable? These are the keys to better working conditions long-term.

Studying the lived experience of labor activism

In 1993 a group of village women in Bangladesh introduced me to their strategies for social criticism.

In my view, political theory about ethics and responsibility should be informed by the lived experience of those in the struggle.

Since 2010, I have been studying labor, environment, and gender justice as these have been pursued by activist organizations. The argument below draws on the insights from the grass roots of the global labor movement.

A simple boycott of Bangladeshi manufacturing is not accountable to the workers.

A boycott is not a just approach to labor injustice because, if successful, it would leave the workers without their source of livelihood. To understand what justice requires and what it means to respect the human rights of workers in struggle for their rights, we need to understand what they mean by their “rights,” for example by listening as Kalpona Akter, an activist and a former child worker in the Bangladesh garment industry, addressing the 2013 Wal-Mart shareholder meeting in the video below.

‘Boycotting is suicide for my country’

Boycotting, whether by brands or consumers, may indeed send a message to clothing companies, the Bangladeshi garment industry, and to the government of Bangladesh that poor working conditions are unacceptable.

But that message may cost workers their livelihood. As Kalpoona Akter, who is with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, once said to my Vanderbilt University students, “a boycott is suicide for my country.”

Instead, consumers may be more effective by giving political support to Bangladeshi workers who are trying to change the practices of garment factories and retailers. They may use social media to organize and to protest at stores. In each example they are not merely consumers. They are acting politically and ethically to support workers.

US consumers have been encouraging corporations to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

Students from universities across the US, including Rutgers and NYU, have urged their schools not to source school spirit garments from VF Corporation, owner of the Jansport brand, until VF signs the Accord. Two hundred brands have done so, including Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Fruit of the Loom.

So why did a company like PVH know how to respond with accountability? Because company representatives had already been talking with workers.

After the That’s It Sportswear factory fire killed 29 workers in Bangladesh on December 14, 2010, labor groups, PVH and other US brands began negotiating on factory safety. Then, in March 2012, after ABC News confronted Tommy Hilfiger at Fashion Week with news that workers had died sewing his clothing, PVH signed an agreement on factory safety. After Rana Plaza, that agreement was modified, updated, and went into effect under its current name, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. In other words, PVH management had been listening to workers and understood that accountability to workers was the key to an effective solution.

Another way companies can be accountable to workers is by contributing to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust that helps compensate the over 5,000 survivors and victims’ families, many of whom were orphaned.

To encourage corporations to pay their share to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust, students and consumers have been delivering letters to store managers of clothing retailers including The Children’s Place and the Italian company Benetton. On Friday, April 24, a press release from Workers United-SEIU, announced that an agreement had been reaching in which The Children’s Place would contribute an additional $2 million to the Rana Plaza Donors Fund.

These students and consumers are working in partnership with labor rights groups, unions, anti-sweatshop groups, and Bangladeshi activists to bring political attention to worker rights.

Two of these activists are Kalpona Akter from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) and Mahinur Begum, who was 16 when Rana Plaza collapsed around her. Ms Akter founded BCWS in 2001 with two other former garment workers who had been part of an earlier effort in the 1990s to form a trade union in a garment factory in Bangladesh. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center conducted the training: “The Solidarity Center supports a mission to help build a global labor movement by strengthening the economic and political power of workers around the world through effective, independent, and democratic unions.”

The BCWS was originally founded as a non-government organization promoting worker organizing in sectors other than the garment sector. However, the needs of organizing workers for legal defense and the need for workers in non-union factories for arbitration with their management has kept BCWS focused on the garment industry.

Through their work in legal awareness training for workers, code of conduct training for workers and factory managers, leadership training for worker leaders, and advocacy, BCWS activists have earned the respect of both workers and managers for their skills in conflict resolution.

Yet organizing in Bangladesh can be dangerous.

Even in the US activism is not without some risk. On March 12 this year, Kalpona Akter, Mahinur Begum and two dozen others were arrested at the Secaucus, NJ, headquarters of Children’s Place for trespassing when they tried to deliver a written request for increased compensation to the Rana Plaz Trust. The charges against the Bangladeshi activists and the students in the group were later dismissed.

Trust fund lacks support from key players

Today the trust still has not received adequate donations to meet its obligations.

Although some companies whose clothing was produced at Rana Plaza – like Cato Fashions and JC Penney – have given nothing at all, others companies such as Benetton have contributed, though less than advocates have called on them to give.

Three companies (H&M, Gap and N Brown Group) have donated to the trust even though they have no known association with Rana Plaza factories. Like those who have signed the Accord, they want their consumers to perceive that they are on the right side of this issue.

A body in the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

Both the Rana Plaza Trust and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety are important ways to be accountable to workers. Even with these achievements, however, long-term improvement in working conditions will require effective advocacy within Bangladesh.

For that to happen it has to be safe to speak up. “Bangladesh has a history of corruption, of political turbulence,” Ellen O. Tauscher, a Californian politician who is chairwoman of the of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, told the New York Times.

Non-boycott consumer activism has helped on this front, too.

For instance, in 2010 an international letter-writing campaign coordinated with local organizations secured the release of worker rights activists who had been arrested and held on false charges.

Non-boycott activism has also helped secure better working conditions in many factories as well as the payment of back wages for many workers.

Though workers still experience retaliation for speaking out about factory conditions and for organizing, they have been able to form unions recognized by the government and their work places. And the minimum wage has increased.

The work environment in Bangladesh is being transformed.

Taking steps to accountability

Taking responsibility for worker rights means being accountable to the workers who make the clothes brands sell and consumers wear.

Through basic economics of supply and demand, our choices as consumers affect others. Raising awareness of this fact can be done in small steps – by asking the managers at the stores where we shop about the working conditions under which the clothes we can afford and choose to wear are made.
The consumer today is not alone. There are many ways to nudge brands to support humane working conditions and accountability.

Social media connections with organizations like Clean Clothes Campaign and the International Labor Rights Forum can help consumers identify brands that are concerned with labor rights. Social media also enables consumers to signal to each other and to brands that they care about social responsibility. The power to change work places is not merely a purchasing power.

Our greatest contribution would be to ensure that another Rana Plaza collapse doesn’t happen and that working conditions continue to improve for all workers.

April 24, is the Global Day of Action: Remembering Rana Plaza. We must not let this disaster be forgotten.