The power of organizing
Two separate agreements by European and American retailers around fire safety in Bangladesh mark an important step forward in protecting the lives of Bangladeshi garment factory workers. Because they were signed months after the Rana Plaza collapse, in which 1,127 workers died, it’s tempting to link the two events: a horrifying tragedy, followed by policy change.
But that thinking misses a critical fact about garment manufacturing in Bangladesh, where for decades factory workers — often without formalized power — put themselves at great risk by speaking out against abuses, building worker solidarity, and educating the public. It’s this worker-led organizing that has set the stage for real political and legislative change, and made a final massive tragedy impossible to ignore.
The clear — almost eerie — American parallel is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which also generated new labor laws and corporate accountability. In 1911, 146 mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women were asphyxiated or jumped to their deaths to escape a fire at the Triangle factory. They had been locked in the factory so that they wouldn’t steal clothes, working 60-hour weeks in sweatshop conditions.
Other fires before the Triangle disaster generated no such government response. In 1909 Clare Lemlich, a garment worker and leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, called for a mass strike in response to the terrible wages and working conditions of thousands of women garment workers in New York City. The “Uprising of 20,000,” as it was called, resulted in a 14-week work stoppage and an agreement from companies to increase wages and working conditions, though they did not allow workers to unionize. Triangle refused to sign the agreement. When the Triangle fire broke out two years later, it was the final straw that pushed New York State to modernize its labor laws to some of the most progressive in the country. Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, watched and was deeply moved by the Triangle fire; she later used the New York State laws as a model for the New Deal’s labor legislation.
Like the Triangle factory fire, the Rana Plaza building collapse was also preceded by a number of other fires and almost a decade of worker-led organizing for better wages and conditions. In 2006, garment workers filled the streets of Dhaka in the first and largest public protest since the garment market boom in the 1970s. Demanding better wages, workers protested for a month, pushing the government to finally establish a wage commission. Four years later, the minimum wage was raised to $38 a month, an 80 percent increase, but still the lowest wage for garment workers in the world.
Factory fires and worker abuses did not stop. In 2012, in an internationally publicized incident, a vocal organizer named Aminul Islam was tortured and killed, holes drilled into his leg and toenails and teeth extracted. Many believe that the government was involved in killing Aminul because of his organizing efforts.
Six months after Aminul’s death, a fire broke out at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh. 112 young women died in the same way as the workers who perished during the Triangle fire — from asphyxiation or by jumping to their deaths. As the worst fire in Bangladesh’s history, Tazreen helped to build outrage around the lack of accountability by international retailers who used these factories as part of their supply chains. The Rana Plaza collapse, less than six months after Tazreen, was the final injury in a string of tragedies, with so many casualties it could not be ignored.
After over 30 years manufacturing in Bangladesh, European and American retailers finally took action. On May 14, 2013, over 70 European retailers signed on to a plan for building safety and worker protections, backed by the International Labor Rights Forum and the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity. The European agreement is legally binding, includes a plan to inspect all factories used by participating retailers, and obligates them to provide sufficient funds to upgrade subpar factories. On July 10, American retailers unveiled their own agreement, which was immediately criticized for not being legally binding or including a substantive role for worker representatives, and for committing an insufficient amount of money to fix deficient factories.
The fact that these retailers signed or developed agreements — flaws in the American agreement notwithstanding — represents the first step toward long-term change. Another equally significant victory occurred in May, when the Bangladeshi government announced that it would again raise the minimum wage, and no longer require workers to get approval from factory owners to form a union.
Like the changes that occurred after the Triangle fire in the U.S., these steps shift the dynamic of power away from management and toward workers. They establish a new floor for acceptable minimum wages and working conditions, and require corporations to take responsibility for tragedies that occur in manufacturing their products.
However, the battle in Bangladesh — and indeed in whatever country might be the next center of garment production — is far from over. Ultimately, consumers must recognize that $3 T-shirts have a human cost. Retailers who make money on the backs of dead and injured workers must value the rights of their employees and agree to be held accountable for tragedies that occur in their supply chains. Instead of vilifying unions, corporations must recognize them as a legitimate way for employees to protect their rights. Through it all, workers who rise up for a collective vision of dignity and justice are the lynchpin that supports any long-lasting change.
PHOTOS: Relatives show pictures of garment workers who are missing, during a protest to demand capital punishment for those responsible for the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, in Savar, outside Dhaka April 29, 2013; Garment workers wear headbands and cover their faces as they take part in a protest to demand capital punishment for those responsible for the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, in Dhaka May 1, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj