By Asad Ismi
In April 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,129 garment workers and injuring more than 2,500. The building contained four garment factories. This was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history, and the worst in the garment sector’s history.
As of late January, workers and their families were still awaiting compensation from Western corporations for the deaths and injuries they had suffered from the Rana Plaza factory disaster. This building collapse followed another major disaster that happened in November 2012 when the Tazreen garment factory caught fire, killing 112 workers and injuring 120.
Since 2005, about 1,500 garment workers in Bangladesh have died in such collapses and preventable fires.
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest exporter of garments, which account for 80% of the country’s export earnings. The country’s four million garment workers are the lowest paid in the world, and more than 85% of them are women.
Kalpona Akter is one such former worker who spoke about this issue on a tour of five Canadian cities in November-December 2013. I interviewed her in Toronto.
Her tour was sponsored by three Canadian unions: the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU). Akter is co-founder and Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) located in Dhaka, the country’s capital. The BCWS conducts labour rights and leadership training for garment workers and advocates for their rights.
Akter was a garment worker from the age of 12 to 18, when she was fired for trying to organize a union and blacklisted so that she was unable to find further work in the sector. Canadian companies such as Loblaws, Hudson’s Bay, and WalMart Canada import garments from Bangladeshi factories. Corporations like these reap massive profits from cheap labour while many garment workers are killed or injured, and their lives put in constant danger.
“Many Western companies,” says Akter, “are benefiting from the exploitation of poor Bangladeshi women on a massive scale, including WalMart, The Gap, Sears, J.C. Penney, H & M, Hudson’s Bay, Loblaws, and Lulu Lemon. These companies are responsible for the killing of thousands of Bangladeshi workers. The garment industry is based on the exploitation of women because the companies are paying poverty wages to these workers with no health and safety measures in place in the factories which are death-traps, and no union voice. Out of a total of 5,000 garment factories, only 100 have real unions, which means that only 1% of garment workers are unionized.
“For the majority of women workers, there is no maternity leave or day-care centres. Workers are paid $68 a month, the amount to which the minimum wage was recently raised in Bangladesh. This is a poverty-level wage and it is hard for one person to live on it, let alone four or five people in a family who are often dependent on so little money. This creates a miserable situation, especially because the cost of living is very high in Bangladesh.
“There is also a huge amount of verbal abuse of women, and sometimes physical abuse, too, combined with an excessive production schedule. When I was working in a garment factory, I was slapped by my male supervisor. One woman union leader in a factory who got her union officially registered was physically assaulted by a male manager. She has a knife-slash scar in her back.”
Garment workers and those trying to unionize them are also targets of deadly state repression. Explains Akter, “The factory owner and police can kill you or put you in jail. My colleague, Aminul Islam, was murdered. He was kidnapped, brutally tortured and beaten to death because he was a union organizer. He was a senior organizer at our Centre. Both his knees were smashed, as were his toes. He died due to suffocation, excessive bleeding, and internal hemorrhage. All the evidence points to the national security and intelligence service committing this crime. The government clearly knows who the assailants were, but it is not arresting anyone.
“I myself was imprisoned for supporting workers and organizing them. There were 11 different criminal charges brought against us, and the government revoked the registration of our Centre, which put an end to our funding. The registration has only recently been restored.
“I was psychologically tortured in jail, where I was kept for seven days during which I was not allowed to sleep even for one hour. I was threatened with violence and interrogated for 18 hours straight. It was devastating, and even today I still get nightmares from this ordeal. My arrest happened in 2010, and from then till 2012 I was required to go to court every three days to show that I haven’t become a fugitive.
“Another colleague of mine, Babul Akter, was told by police that he would be killed. He said his final farewells in jail and was released only at the last minute. Moreover, we are under constant official surveillance. Our phones are tapped and security-intelligence forces frequently burst into our office. So you can see what kind of torture and harassment we are subjected to – and simply for demanding workers’ rights.”
Up to now, Primark, a U.K. retailer, is the only international brand that sourced from Rana Plaza which has given emergency relief to the victims of the building collapse. Loblaws, which had clothes for its Joe Fresh brand made in Rana Plaza, has also promised emergency relief but has not yet delivered it. Loblaws, Primark, Bon Marche, and Mascot (the latter three European brands) have signed an agreement to provide long-term compensation to Rana Plaza victims through a joint fund. WalMart Canada, which also sourced from Rana Plaza, has refused to give any emergency relief or compensation to the victims, as have J.C. Penney, Dress Barn, and Children’s Place.
“The corporations are definitely responsible for paying full and fair compensation to the workers because they are responsible for the existence of unsafe jobs,” Akter points out. “The greed of the Western companies is so disgusting. The total amount of compensation that we want for the Rana Plaza collapse is $71 million. Given the large salary and other financial benefits paid the Loblaws CEO (I think he’s the second richest person in Canada), he could pay just two months of the interest his wealth produces and that would make up the whole compensation package for the Rana Plaza workers. So what we are asking for is equivalent to a drop of water from the corporate sea, but the companies are still not listening.”
To prevent more fatal factory disasters, Akter, along with Bangladeshi and international unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), is campaigning to convince major apparel brands to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This is a legally binding agreement signed by international and Bangladeshi unions, as well as retailers and brands, with four labour rights NGOs signing as witnesses. Up to now, more than 100 major brands and retailers from Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan have signed the Accord. Loblaws is the only Canadian signatory.
The Accord ensures independent factory inspections, democratically elected health and safety committees, health and safety workers, management training in which unions participate, an anonymous complaint system, and the workers’ right to refuse unsafe work. Once safety hazards are found, the brands and retailers sourcing from the factory must pay for the required building upgrades. The value of the Accord lies in the fact that it includes worker participation and independent monitoring that cannot be controlled by the companies.
In contrast, several North American corporations, including The Gap, WalMart, Hudson’s Bay, and Canadian Tire among others, have created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a self-regulatory scheme in which the companies control the monitoring and training with no role for unions or workers and little transparency for consumers.
Akter calls on Canadian consumers to pressure companies in every way they can, — especially through unions and community organizations — to sign the Accord which is legally binding and will ensure safe workplaces. “Canadians should also tell these companies,” she added, “to ensure that our workers are free to organize unions in the factories they buy from. As consumers, Canadians should definitely buy clothes made in Bangladesh because not buying these will harm Bangladeshi workers. But please be responsible consumers by telling these companies to pay higher prices for the garments they buy so our workers can get a decent wage.”
Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking 146 out of 187 countries on the U.N.’s 2013 Human Development Index. Forty-five percent of Bangladeshis live below the poverty line of $1 a day, and 45% of them are unemployed. Bangladesh is considered a Least Developed Country (LDC), which is why the Canadian government allows duty-free access to the Canadian market for all Bangladeshi garment exports. This duty-free access, however, is not contingent on Bangladesh meeting minimal labour standards. Says Akter: “I don’t think Bangladesh’s duty-free access to Canada should be suspended or revoked, but the Canadian government should take the position that, if the Bangladesh government and factories want this trade privilege to continue, then they should pay workers a living wage, give them a safe workplace, and allow them a union voice in the factory.“
In June 2013, the U.S. government suspended Bangladesh’s trade privileges due to the Rana Plaza collapse and insisted on the country improving labour standards before these privileges will be restored. But the fact is that Bangladesh hardly got any trade privileges from Washington, which actually charges that country much more in duty than it charges a rich country like France. Before the suspension, only a small percentage of Bangladesh’s exports to the U.S. were allowed in duty-free, and these exemptions do not apply to garments.
In 2012, the U.S. spared Bangladesh only $2 million in duties on $35 million worth of tents, golf equipment, plates, and other items. On the other hand, Bangladesh had to pay $732 million in duties on garment exports worth $4.9 billion to the U.S. This is close to twice the amount the U.S. collected from France in tariffs on exports worth $41 billion in 2012.
* * *
Much of Bangladesh’s poverty and its status as a low-wage haven for Western corporations are a result of its being a U.S. client state in South Asia. The country was born in December 1971 after the Pakistan Army unleashed a genocide in March of that year that killed up to three million Bengalis in East Pakistan in eight months. East Pakistan was the eastern half of Pakistan where Bengalis were the dominant ethnic group. The horrific bloodshed took place because the Awami League, the main eastern political party, had the temerity to win a national election which gave Bengalis political control of all of Pakistan. Pakistan’s army and power structure, which were dominated by the Punjabi ethnic group based in West Pakistan, had no intention of handing power over to the Bengalis even though they constituted a majority in the country.
The army arrested Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, in March 1971 and started to butcher Bengalis. This sparked the exodus of 10 million refugees to neighbouring India, Pakistan’s rival, causing India to invade East Pakistan in December. Indian forces defeated the Pakistan Army in a week, and East Pakistan became a sovereign Bangladesh (which means “Nation of the Bengalis”).
Behind the Pakistan Army was its overseer, the United States, which approved and supported the genocide in East Pakistan. It was with U.S. arms, training, military aid, and encouragement that the Pakistan army killed millions of Bengalis. U.S. President Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, despised Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader, for having (in Kissinger’s view) “the audacity to become independent of one of my client states” [Pakistan]. The U.S. arranged a military coup against Mujib in August 1975, which led to his murder and that of 40 of his family members. The only survivors were Mujib’s two daughters, one of whom, Sheikh Hasina, is today the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Both daughters were fortunate to be abroad when the coup took place.
This coup and the 11 years of military dictatorship that followed ensured that Bangladesh would become a neoliberal vassal of Washington controlled by a tiny domestic élite that enriched itself by selling its people as the cheapest labour to service the needs of Western corporations. In this way the Bangladeshi upper class got rich, the West got cheap clothes, its companies made massive profits, and the majority of the Bangladeshi people were consigned to a nightmare of extreme exploitation, destitution, and death.
The political system became divided between Sheikh Hasina as head of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia, the wife of General Ziaur Rahman, a military dictator who ruled Bangladesh from 1977 to 1981, when he was assassinated. Khaleda Zia leads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Hasina did not oppose the U.S., but instead competed with Zia for its favour. Both parties and leaders are neoliberal, elitist, and highly repressive, especially when it comes to labour rights. Also very repressive is the military, which continues interfering in politics, taking over the country in another coup as recently as 2009.
Unable to deal with the central questions of economic rights, poverty alleviation, and wealth redistribution, the Bangladeshi political system has become largely redundant. The latest national elections held in January were boycotted by Zia’s party and 20 others, with the Awami League returning to power unopposed. Only 25% of Bangladeshis bothered to vote.
As Kalpona Akter puts it, “I need to learn what is the definition of democracy. Our only democracy, if it can be called that, is that every five years you vote for someone, that’s all. And then they become what they are. They’re not pro-worker, they’re always pro-management. In fact, legislators are factory owners. Garment factory owners are in our Parliament. By saying they’re earning 80% of our export dollars, they rule the country. They’re so powerful. More powerful than the government.
“The fires in the garment factories and their collapses are nothing new. Bangladesh has laws regulating such matters, but the problem is that these laws are not heeded by the factory managements, and the government has totally failed to enforce these laws. This is because 10% of our parliamentarians actually own garment factories. So my legislative representative is my factory owner. This is clearly why things are not improving for workers in my country.”
There is also the important issue of patriarchy. Eighty-five percent of Bangladeshi garment workers are women, but their exploiters, the factory owners, are almost all male. Akter explains why the overwhelming majority of garment workers are women: “Factory owners prefer female workers, partly because they have already been exploited by their husbands or parents at home, so they are less likely to speak out than men, and the factories take advantage of this. Women in Bangladesh are also good at stitching, and the fact is that the garment sector is the only one in which women can find jobs.
“What’s happening in Bangladesh is in large part the result of patriarchy. In all these garment factories injustices are happening to women, and men are the ones who are making money out of the exploitation of women all across the supply chain. Both of the two major political parties in Bangladesh are led by women [Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia], but these female leaders have done nothing to benefit women because they rule on behalf of the interests of the rich upper class in Bangladesh. They are class-oriented, not women-oriented. Also, these parties, though female-led, are not female-dominated. Most other main positions in both parties are held by men.
“To overcome this patriarchy, women should know that they can be empowered. They should believe this within themselves and then act. The main problem is that, culturally, women have been kept behind so they feel that they cannot be in the frontlines of the struggle. Most families are male-dominated, which is why women are subdued. So we need to let them know that ‘Yes, you can. If I can, then you can too.’ Women are qualified to take leadership positions in every area, and should be free to do so.
“Things need to change, and only economic power in the hands of women can bring this change about. Right now, garment factories don’t provide this economic power to women, but if wages improve, then this could happen. Women need to create and lead their own organizations and, as these become more prominent, society will change for the better. In our organization, we impart the values of women to men and teach them why they need to be under the leadership of women workers. Women are generally more compassionate than men, and show more solidarity towards their fellow humans.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, February 2014,
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent and has written extensively on India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. His radio documentary, Capitalism is the Crisis, (2013) has been aired on 42 radio stations in Canada, the U.S., and Europe, reaching more than 33 million people.