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Two months after more than 1,100 Bangladeshi workers died in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, workers and students staged global protests on Saturday to demand that Gap and Wal-Mart sign onto a Bangladeshi factory safety agreement.
The demonstrations — which took place in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Japan, and Bangladesh — were part of the International Day of Action to End Deathtraps, organized by a coalition of unions and labor advocacy groups. In the U.S., the day of action was spearheaded by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF).
“We are in solidarity with the workers in Bangladesh. They’re not alone,” says Martin Macias, the Chicago regional organizer for USAS and an urban planning student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Ben Lorber was among those protesting at the Gap store in downtown Chicago. Lorber was fired from a subcontracted Wal-Mart warehouse in Ellwood, Ill. last November after he and other employees delivered a petition to management calling for fairer and safer working conditions. He says the global supply chain links workers abroad to workers here at home. “I do feel solidarity with the Bangladeshi workers who are being crushed by the same corporate machine and aren’t getting working conditions they deserve,” he says. (Full disclosure: Lorber was also an intern at In These Times from November 2012 – December 2012).
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh on April 24 captured international attention, and the tragedy has reinvigorated a global movement to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories. In recent weeks, thousands of Bangladeshis have taken to the streets and gone on strike, while the government has raised the minimum wage for garment workers and made it easier for them to form unions. Late last week, the U.S. revoked trade privileges with Bangladesh to pressure the government to enact further reforms.
Among the most impressive responses has been the sudden willingness of over 60 retailers and apparel brands — including H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Zara — to sign onto the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The accord, first proposed by Bangladeshi labor unions after a factory fire in December 2010, according to Liana Foxvog, organizing director at ILRF, would set up a system of independent inspections to ensure factory buildings meet safety standards. In the event a company is found to be negligent, the case would be mediated or arbitrated in a court of law in the company’s home country. Last year, PVH (which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and German retailer Tchibo became the first companies to sign on. “All the other signatories have just happened in the recent weeks since the Rana Plaza building collapse,” says Foxvog.
Gap (which owns Old Navy and Banana Republic) and Wal-Mart are the two remaining hold-outs among major retailers. The companies are also among the top ten buyers of apparel made in Bangladesh, according to Foxvog. Gap and Wal-Mart say the accord would open them up to unlimited liability, an argument which has been refuted by legal scholars James Brudney and Catherine Fisk, who note that signatories are only liable for abiding by the terms of the accord, which include paying for building repairs and inspections.
“For the accord to have its maximum impact, U.S. brands and retailers need to be participating,” Foxvog says. “And now that over 60 companies have signed on, including several U.S. companies, there’s really no excuse for Gap and Wal-Mart and other major brands in the U.S. to not sign on.”
Gap and Wal-Mart have teamed up with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think-tank, to create their own, non-binding accord. The “Safer Factories Initiative” has been criticized by the labor federations AFL-CIO and Change to Win, who in a joint statement said, “No amount of bipartisan window dressing can change the fact that Walmart and the Gap have refused to take this important step [of signing the accord]. This is a matter of life or death. Quite simply, nonbinding is just not good enough.”
Macias points out, moreover, that unions and labor advocacy groups have had no say in Gap and Wal-Mart’s voluntary safety initiative. “If you don’t have input from the workers who are actually in these factories, and you’re constructing something that’s going to affect them, there’s a clear disconnect,” he says. “What [Gap and Wal-Mart] are putting forth is something they’ve constructed that they know they’ll be able to maneuver around.”
In Chicago, one of at least 25 U.S. cities that saw demonstrations Saturday, several dozen activists from USAS, Jobs with Justice, Workers United, United Steelworkers, Arise Chicago, and Chicago Fair Trade held protests at two Gap stores and a Wal-Mart. At the downtown Gap store, demonstrators picketed in front of the main entrance and engaged passersby. Two organizers entered the store and attempted to deliver a letter demanding that the company “protect the lives of workers who sew Gap clothing.” The store manager refused to accept the letter.
“Gap doesn’t want to sign onto the international safety accord because they want to keep their profits up,” says Lorber. “In the same way, Wal-Mart uses its supply chain subcontractors to keep prices down and keep working conditions bad in the warehouse I was working in. Obviously the working conditions in my Wal-Mart warehouse were slightly less barbaric than the ones in Bangladesh…but the same ills plague the whole global supply chain.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.