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Q&A With Congressman George Miller

After meetings with a Bangladesh delegation of officials, followed by a more public panel session in Boston, Miller spoke with WWD about the key issues at hand.

Congressman George Miller (D. Calif.) and Bangladesh Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed.

U.S. Congressman George Miller (D., Calif.) has been following the situation in Bangladesh closely. After meetings with a Bangladesh delegation of top government and industry officials in Washington, followed by a more public panel session in Boston, Miller spoke with WWD about the key issues at hand.

WWD: This whole discussion today and the delegation being here, has it been helpful?

George Miller: Well, the back-and-forth is always helpful. We moved the issue further…I don’t know yet, but…if the government is not going to take action, then this is just all window dressing. There’s no action by the Bangladesh government. They’re so proud that these people have asked for a union. They now owe them the protection of the state to make sure they can exercise their rights, and if they don’t do that, then this conference is for naught, and others like it.

The tragedy of these events alerted a lot of people who would have never thought about it and were just horrified by it. I think the government understands it is important to act with speed and efficiency. Words aren’t going to solve this problem with the world community, and certainly not with women.

WWD: Some of the delegation seem a little frustrated after their meetings in Washington. Do you feel that the changes they are making are simply not enough?

G.M.: I think they are making big changes. The changes were forced upon them, but they are realistic enough to know that you can’t keep making death traps and sending people to work. But obviously it becomes more difficult when you’re talking about empowering workers — especially when 80 percent of those workers are women — it becomes a very difficult conversation.

They want to get full credit for allowing people to register a union, but they can see that as they allow activities, they threaten those very same people who had the courage to ask for a union. That inconsistency can turn out to be really dangerous for those people who have asked to have a union in the workplace, and that’s my concern.

They want to make it seem like an exception, saying they are outsiders, it is a made-up story…no, no, no.…I know these people, the factories that they work in, these are their citizens, so it’s very much a challenge — it’s a challenge to the brand, a challenge to the country and in between that to the factory owners.

WWD: Is it unrealistic that they would need more time to effect the changes they have introduced for labor laws and unionization?

G.M.: They are so proud that more than 4.2 million people are working. So they made a law, they give these people rights, but don’t ask a question if they really have the rights? So they have 100 unions, out of four million workers, out of 5,000 factories, and they want to say they’ve done their job? Not at all. Not at all.

WWD: The Bangladesh commerce minister, Tofail Ahmed, made the point that it took more than 20 years after the Triangle factory fire in 1911 in New York for the U.S. to change laws, but they did it within three months of the Rana Plaza tragedy.

G.M.: Well, if the action is hollow, what difference does it make if you do it? If they have a union and they have no rights, or they are physically endangered and their income is endangered…this has a lot of violence in it, certainly against women. So saying that we’ve enabled them, now our job is done, no…no…the state owes its duty to its citizens.

WWD: How do you see this process being speeded up in Bangladesh? What should they do?

G.M.: They can honor their reports of violence, the BGMEA [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] members and factory owners can tell the police, “We have to honor the reports”; the government can tell the owners, “This is unacceptable, and if we catch you at it, the full force of the law is going to come into play.”

Just having the right doesn’t mean it is being implemented — the government has to step up and say, “In Bangladesh, we’re no longer going to tolerate this level of violence, we’re no longer going to tolerate this inconsistency.” It needs a statement by the prime minister and others that this is the law of the land. It’s not about being so proud about allowing unions as said in their constitution and yet people can be punished for exercising their constitutional right and the rights of the laws of Bangladesh. They’ve got to clarify it. It doesn’t take 26 years to do that.

WWD: Don’t these changes take time to implement?

G.M.: They keep saying we can’t do it by tomorrow. Nobody’s expecting them to do it by tomorrow, but don’t tell me that 156 unions are adequately dealing with 5,000 places of work, and when many of those people who form those unions are being set upon with economic violence or physical violence.

WWD: Another concern they bring up is that the U.S. is being too judgmental. Is that justified?

G.M.: It’s an intolerable system. The situation is that there are 80 percent of women working in the industry, it is full of economic violence, physical violence, sexual violence against the workers, and that’s how the system has maintained itself, not just in Bangladesh, but in many other countries. This is true in Central America, in other parts of Asia, it’s true in America, that these women have been set upon all too often. Their overtime pay is stolen from them, their maternity pay is stolen from them.…They have reported the situation and reports have been borne out, the fact is that it is happening and they’ve got to tell the factories that this is unacceptable behavior. The factory owner isn’t doing it, I wouldn’t expect that he is, but supervisors and managers are carrying out this behavior and these women are seriously victimized, and of course, it’s always a question of family income.

WWD: Is it something that the International Labour Organization can step up and monitor?

G.M.: Well, the ILO is doing the best it can, but if the country itself doesn’t want to enforce its laws but yet it wants credit on the world stage for passing those laws, you know.…They have to take care of this problem. I think women are the major consumers of these goods, women are the major producers of these goods and at some point, the consumers are going to recognize the plight of these women making these garments. For a moment the tragedies of the women of Tazreen and Rana Plaza brought that to the consumers and they were shocked as they saw what happened there.

WWD: You’ve been working on labor issues across the world. Is the situation in Asia getting any better over the years, or getting worse? Are governments more responsive? Are there better check backs?

G.M.: There’s a little bit more. The industry has a little more visibility now, because they’ve had some horrible episodes in Central America, in Vietnam, in Cambodia, so there is more awareness, I think.

WWD: But the situation overall continues to be as much of a problem?

G.M.: Oh yeah. Because again, the laws aren’t enforced. People in parliament have a financial interest that laws aren’t enforced. This is a very powerful industry.

WWD: Over the last year, since you were in Dhaka, do you have a sense of frustration at the end of it…

G.M.: Oh, I’m always frustrated!

WWD: …Or is it a sense of elation that you have been able to elicit some major change?

G.M.: I think there is change to some extent because they’re beginning to realize that they have much more visibility on the world stage and they have much more at risk than they might have had before. At some point, if this continues to happen, these brands are not going to want to be associated with violence against women. This is a world that is dramatically moving toward the empowering of women, the recognition of women, the promotion and education of women, and this can turn out to be very inconsistent and the brands won’t stand for it. They know who their consumers are, especially younger consumers in America who are much more aware and asking questions, whether it’s food or fashion. And they care about it. It’s a long haul.