Five years after the building collapse at Rana Plaza killed 1,134 workers in Bangladesh, labor rights leaders and other activists discussed workers rights and safety Tuesday afternoon at the Ford Foundation.
After the “Next Steps for Corporate Accountability in the Supply Chain,” a few panelists emphasized priorities that need to be put in place. Paramount is getting organizations that first signed The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh in 2013 to renew that commitment. The legally binding agreement was created between brands and trade unions to work toward a safe and healthy Bangladeshi garment industry keeping workers free from fears of fires, building collapses or other accidents.
The discussion was moderated by Steven Greenhouse, former labor reporter for The New York Times and author of “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.” He started things off by reminding attendees how Rana Plaza came to be. “The worldwide apparel industry always seems to search for the country with the lowest cost and the least regulations, moving from China and then to Vietnam before Bangladesh, [which] seemed ideal — rock-bottom wages, a wild West of very little regulation and a compliant government run in large part by the apparel industry wanting to do nothing that alienated foreign capital,” he said. “The Bangladesh apparel industry boomed, swelled to thousands of factories and over three or four million workers, politicians rejoiced, Bangladesh capitalists rejoiced that they could open all these factories to make a lot of money. Walmart, H&M, Zara, Target and others rejoiced that they had a steady supply of apparel at bargain basement prices. But someone got the short end of the deal — the workers with hard wages, long hours and factories that sadly were death traps.”
Afterward, Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center, said, “Every time there is new initiative to regulate corporate behavior through supply chains, it is incumbent on all of us to insist freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining be included in the core of the negotiations and discussion. It doesn’t happen. Most of the time you get multi-stakeholder initiatives that are discussions about promises or commitments but aren’t binding or negotiated. And they center on every other form of rights but human rights in the supply chains. Right now all of us need to focus that freedom of association and workers’ rights to organize and bargain are covered in any future agreements, not just commitments, but in a way that’s binding.”
Angeles Solis, national organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops, spoke of upcoming ramifications for not renewing support of the accord. On April 21, USAS: Organizing for Worker and Student Power plans to demonstrate outside of Abercrombie & Fitch stores in 10 cities “to demand that executives sign on to the extension of the accord,” she said. “At this point, they have not. They refuse to. They are ready to walk away and abandon and put hundreds of workers at risk.”
An Abercrombie & Fitch spokeswoman did not respond immediately for a request for comment Tuesday.
Solis offered a few next-step suggestions, emphasizing that “a clear commitment on behalf of the brands to sign the accord and uphold the accord,” is needed. In addition, “the National Employment Injury Insurance Scheme is critical to advancing compensation rights especially for those with work-based injuries on the job. Four-hundred million garment workers are producing in conditions where if they were to be injured or worse killed on the job, there is no guarantee of compensation. So it’s very important that advocates, labor unions and the world keeps an eye on Bangladesh and ensures that they stick to their timeline and chart out a clear process.”
Other panelists, including Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment & Industrial Workers’ Federation, and David Schilling, senior program director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, joined in on the post-event reception, while attendee Shareen Hertel spoke of consumers’ power.
Hertel, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Connecticut, said, “I don’t want to close with there is no hope in the United States. We have done public opinion surveys in ’07, ’08 and ’09. In the midst of the downturn in the economy, over 60 percent of consumers say, ‘I would pay more for garments that are sourced effectively if I could be sure that the amount at the till went to the workers. There is a deep reservoir that we tend to discount and this is why this meeting is so important.”