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.

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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