Mr. Miller Goes to Bangladesh

Workplace safety crusader Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) on how to prevent another tragedy like Rana Plaza.

Mike Elk

In Bangladesh, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) seeks justice for garment workers. (Courtesy of the Office of Rep. George Miller)

In the wake of a factory collapse in Bangladesh in April that killed 1,129 garment workers, President Barack Obama announced on June 27 that he was revoking the country’s preferred trade status under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program. That’s just what Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) had been waiting to hear. Since returning from a five-day fact-finding trip to Bangladesh in May, the congressman had been pressing Obama to suspend the country’s trade privileges until it honored union rights and ensured workplace safety standards.

There are going to be people that fight for the status quo, that just continue to put blood on their labels.

Miller, however, isn’t declaring victory yet. As the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, he has spent his 38 years in Congress fighting uphill battles for better workplace safety measures. He knows how tricky it can be to go from public outcry over a workplace accident to real systemic change. For each fight he has won—shutting down the exploitative garment industry in the Northern Mariana Islands, successfully sponsoring a two-dollar federal minimum wage increase in 2007—he has lost another. Most notably, after 29 miners died in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion at a Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County, W. Va., the then-Democrat-controlled House failed to pass mine safety legislation pushed by Miller.

The suspension of GSP should not be viewed as the end of the debate,” Miller tells In These Times. I hope this is a temporary suspension, and I am confident it will be if Bangladesh takes serious action to bring their laws and their practices up to international standards.”

Specifically, Miller wants Bangladesh to enact a fire and safety accord with binding third-party enforcement. The proposal is backed by Bangladeshi unions, the United Nations and the International Labor Organization.

Standing in the way, however, are a multi-billion dollar garment industry and its two chief lobbyists, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) and former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Mitchell and Snowe’s group, the Bipartisan Policy Center, has teamed with the National Retail Federation and retailers such as Wal-Mart, JCPenney and Gap to develop an alternative fire and safety accord that will be merely voluntary. Miller sat down with In These Times to discuss the next steps to ensure Bangladeshi workers’ rights.

What was it like to be in Bangladesh after the recent disaster?

It was very sad to meet with the victims, who were mainly women. Some of those in the hospital had amputated legs, arms or both, and in some cases, serious brain damage from being crushed in the glass of the Rana Plaza. Later, I had tea with seven women who made the decision to jump out of the third and fourth floor. Their bodies are shattered, which means their employment possibilities are pretty shattered because they’re crippled in one fashion or another. One of the women said the reason she jumped was that if she stayed, her family wouldn’t be able to find her body, because it’d be consumed in the fire. I’ve been chasing this industry around the world for 30 years and I thought I knew the horrible conditions these companies are willing to allow to get their garments made, but this sort of takes the prize.

So you’ve seen these kinds of sweatshop conditions before?

Yeah. I was very involved in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. Clothes made there could have the label that says, Made in the USA,” which is valuable. I was interviewing women who had been locked into basically a prison camp — locked into barbed wired houses, you know, horrible conditions.

But the Bangladesh trip was more shocking?

Yeah, in the sense that these women’s lives had been completely shattered.

How receptive was the Bangladeshi government to you being there?

Well, they all tell you that everything’s going to change. The prime minister’s chief advisor tells me labor organizing is a constitutional right and unions are going to be protected. We’ll see if that happens or not. They have rights, now, to have a union, but the government hasn’t recognized any unions in many, many years. Out of 5,000 factories eligible for unions, they’ve licensed 29.

Are they truly independent unions, or are they more like state-run enterprises?

Well, they’re supposed to be independent, but they live in a system of reprisals where you could lose your job at any moment for joining a union. There are 160 million people in a country the size of Iowa, and most of them are looking for work, so you have no leverage. I met the elected leaders of the new union — they’re young, they’re interested in improving their workplaces, they’ve opened discussions with the owners of the factories and, in fact, got the owners to change things they felt were unsafe. So it’s a beginning, but they need some government protections. We’ll see if that happens or not. These aren’t unions like the AFL-CIO. These are just the beginning steps.

So if something’s going to happen, it’s going to have to happen because of international pressure?

These are globalized brands. These brands have great value. If you’re Wal-Mart, you have great value. Same for the Gap, H&M and Zara. There are going to be people that fight for the status quo, that just continue to put blood on their labels. I have great respect for my opponents. They have great resources; they’re hiring the credibility of George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe. I’ve been around this industry long enough to know that they’re going to play every card in their hand and most of those cards are against the interests of these Bangladeshi women.

Of course, there’s a split between the Americans and the European brands over these fire codes. It’s very clear that the American brands don’t want something that they don’t control. They don’t want an independently enforceable code. They don’t want to be committed to spending money — hopefully matched by the government of Bangladesh — to improve the safety of these factories.

But when you talk to individual factory owners, when you talk to the Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, everybody admits that there are factories that just weren’t built to be factories and that are very unsafe for a host of reasons.

Why do you think there’s such a big difference in the response of the European brands and the American brands? Do you think it has to do with the level of trade unionism in Europe?

In Europe you have a much longer historical cooperative relationship between unions and manufacturers or owners. They have a different value set on the rights of workers at work. It’s a different system.

If you look at a number of the European brands, they put people in the factories so that they can see that things are being done as they want them done. The American brands use middlemen. If Wal-Mart says they want 25 cents a shirt, they’ll pay the middleman, who [in order to] to get that contract because the volume’s so big [will] screech out the next three cents of that shirt from the factory owner. But yet H&M, which is large volume [and based in] the EU, for the most part doesn’t use middlemen, as I understand it.

(As I was leaving Miller’s office the congressman came running after me down the hallway, saying he had one more thing to add.)

So here’s the pattern. Here’s the deal. There’s a tragedy. Everybody’s upset about it, miners got killed, we feel for the families, yadda, yadda, yadda. And then time passes and we go back to doing business. And then another mine explodes or women get killed in a factory. And then industry knows it has to do something to make time pass. What do you do? You go and create an alternative code over fire safety, you confuse the picture, you draw it out, you get these people on your side so that you have credibility. And what you’re playing for is time. It’s always time. And, you know, the people who might come and vote yes” in the middle of a catastrophe — 90 days later, they’re not there.

So that’s the problem.

That’s what they’re doing. They’re playing for time.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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