Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — In an effort to drive home the message that sweatshops and dangerous working conditions are still festering in today’s garment industry, UNITE convened a panel discussion of labor leaders and garment workers on Tuesday to address globalization.
The panel included two survivors of a November blaze at a Bangladesh apparel plant that claimed 51 lives. Labor leaders pointed to the similarities between that fire and the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist disaster of 1911 — in both cases, locked security gates are believed to have increased the death tolls.
“The doors were locked for the same reason,” said Jay Mazur, president of UNITE. “The owners believed the workers would steal the garments.”
The women, Salema Begum and Kohinur Begum, who were both injured in the conflagration, have returned to work in the factories, typically working 12 hours a day, six days a week, for a salary worth about $35 a month, they said.
Speaking through an interpreter, Salema, who is not related to Kohinur, said she was working on the third floor of the four-story Chowdhury Knitwear and Garments Ltd. factory when the fire broke out.
“There were cries and chaos and I fell down,” she said, explaining that she was knocked unconscious in the panic and awakened hours later in a hospital bed, covered with bruises. “I feel I’ll never be the same again.”
Labor advocates speaking at the meeting, held at the Greenwich Village campus of New York University, a few blocks from the site of the 1911 Triangle fire, said that the poor working conditions in many factories around the world are a result of the contractor system, but that steps can be taken to prevent future fatalities.
“The multinationals at the center of this draw on a galaxy of suppliers and set up a competition among them to get the lowest price,” said author William Greider. “That’s a pretty strong incentive to whack it out of your workers.”
While many countries have labor laws intended to protect workers and many apparel companies have put in place codes of conduct with the same goal, speakers said their effectiveness is limited by the focus on price. Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment & Leather Workers Federation, said workers are in no position to hold their employers accountable.
“If you complain, the response is immediate dismissal. If you try to form a union, the reaction is worse,” including violence in some instances, he contended.
Even sympathetic factory managers can have their hands tied, he added, saying that, in China, managers have told him that they want to limit hours at their plants, but can’t do so and meet their customers’ price expectations. “
He said governments face the problem of whether they should strictly enforce trade laws and run the risk of losing jobs by raising costs. Greider suggested a solution: “The U.S. should enact a law that says it will not import goods from anywhere without certification it was made in a fire-safe factory.”

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