The United States may lead the world in some measures of national wealth, but it is fiercely regressive when it comes to protecting the workers whose blood and sweat subsidize American lifestyles. Since the tragic factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 people, many Western apparel brands have been shamed into addressing labor conditions in Bangladesh’s booming garment sector. Yet two U.S. giants, the Gap and Wal-Mart, remain deaf to the public outcry.
On Saturday, activists will stage protests in cities around the world, from Osaka to Cincinnati, to demand that Gap and Wal-Mart sign onto a major agreement to improve safety and labor conditions in Bangladeshi factories. The actions mark a new phase in an ongoing struggle to raise consumer awareness. The protests also coincide with U.S. campaigns against the exploitation of Wal-Mart workers at the stores and warehouses that control a huge swath of the country’s low-wage labor force. Union groups, including the United Auto Workers and the SEIU’s Workers United, have thrown their weight behind the campaign as well.
Since the Rana tragedy (just one of many recent factory disasters in the region), Bangladesh’s garment sector has come under scathing international scrutiny: Thousands of the country’s production facilities are rife with safety violations and labor abuse, and multinational brands are directly responsible for keeping these factories in business. And there is no regulatory framework to hold companies accountable in this game of global capital arbitrage.
The proposed safety agreement, which would introduce a worker-led system of safety oversight, has about 50 signatories, including major European brands like H&M and Espirit. According to the End Death Traps campaign, the agreement would establish a “binding contract between the brands and worker representatives that make these commitments enforceable – so the brands have to follow through, even if it means increased costs or longer turnaround times on orders.”
The big holdouts are, not surprisingly, U.S. companies that have for years been beating back campaigns to improve worker safety. Back in 2010, for example, Gap rebuffed a proposed factory safety accord that has now become the basis for the current plan, and sought instead to its own voluntary safety plan. Wal-Mart too has beefed up its company-controlled “social responsibility” programs to placate demands for stronger factory oversight. Activists meanwhile decry such voluntary schemes as toothless at best, designed to preempt pro-worker initiatives to address safety standards.
In recent weeks, industry spokespeople have argued the legally binding safety program would invite excessive litigation. But activists and progressive legal scholars counter that the fear of lawsuits essentially reflects apprehensions about being held accountable for the human suffering that subsidizes their profits.
The latest wave of anti-corporate activism has deepened solidarity networks between regions by making a point of elevating the voices of workers in the Global South. Earlier this month, Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter, a former factory worker and a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, joined the demonstrations of striking Wal-mart workers at the company’s June shareholder meeting, to demand fair treatment and higher wages for garment workers. In her address, she reminded Wal-Mart Chairman Rob Walton, “I am sure you are aware that fixing these buildings would cost just a tiny fraction of your family’s wealth… You have the power to do this very easily.”
Akter’s presence at the shareholder meeting reflected the intersection of workers linked to the Wal-Mart empire both in the United States and overseas. Alongside Akter were throngs of U.S. workers and protesters who held up signs displaying the death toll at Rana Plaza.
Another reason why solidarity is vital to the movement is the growth of political consciousness in the South Asian diaspora in the West, which bridges two ends of the global trade chain. Arif Ullah, a New York-based activist with roots in Bangladesh, tells Working In These Times that members of the diaspora carry unique political leverage. Although Wal-Mart and Gap are primarily responsible for safety hazards and labor abuses, he says, Bangladeshi activists should also target local factory owners:
Bangladeshi factory owners will do what their foreign bosses tell them to do, including improving working conditions. But, the factory owners, many of whom are members of parliament, are also responsible. Their hands are just as dirty and bloody as their masters’ hands. They’re getting crazy wealthy, and I think we need to shame them into making these changes on their own.
But Ullah also noted that the country’s dependence on garment exports complicates the question of whether to maintain the manufacturing system:
I’m personally very critical of the capitalist model. And at the same time, it’s from a place of privilege I’m talking, right? I’m sitting here in New York … Some of my family members, if they didn’t have this job, I don’t know what they would be doing. And so the answer isn’t to boycott. I think the answer is, at least immediately, to improve working conditions so that those who really have no other choice but to work in these factories at least are able to do so in a safe way and are not being put at risk every time they go to work.
There are signs that corporate power is starting to crack, with some members of Congress and even the White House stepping up political pressure on the Bangladeshi government to work to improve factory conditions.
But Bangladeshi workers, who took to the streets after the Rana collapse and have braved anti-labor crackdowns, will play a key role in resisting the neoliberal manufacturing model – if they can continue to fight political suppression of activists and push for better wages and working conditions. They need all the help they can get from consumers and workers at the other end of the manufacturing chain. To connect struggles at both the storefront and the shop floor, the boundless flow of global capital must be matched by a groundswell of transnational solidarity.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.