I’ve just returned from Bangladesh, and I am angry. Not, of course, with the people. They were incredibly warm and open, inviting us into their homes and sitting with us into the night in poorly lit windowless union offices telling us stories of their lives as garment workers.
I am angry because of what is happening to these workers. There are 2 million garment workers in Bangladesh, and 85 percent are young women 16 to 25 years old. Each year they sew $2.8 billion worth of clothing for export to Europe and another $2 billion to the United States.
One worker explained their situation like this: “We feel like prisoners. There is no value in our lives. We are like slaves. Our hands are bound and our mouths are stopped.”
Corporations claim they have codes of conduct that guarantee the rights of anyone making their products. They say they are monitoring their contractors’ plants. In reality, if their monitoring is applied at all it is failing miserably. But it is not just corporations that are responsible — it also is the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Two thousand garment factories opened in Bangladesh between 1994 and 2003, and apparel exports during this period grew by more than 300 percent — from $1.56 billion to $4.91 billion. So why are 2 million garment workers stripped of their rights — getting paid cents an hour, working exhausting hours and seven-day weeks, living in misery, then being discarded when they reach 35 years of age? What have these women done wrong?
The answer is nothing. Moreover, it is about to get worse. For years, the apparel trade has been governed by bilateral agreements that provided developing countries with a quota, or amount of apparel they could export to the United States and Europe. Each year, quotas increased. In January 2005, the WTO plans to abolish these quotas, and across the developing world millions of crushingly poor workers could lose their jobs.
We need fundamental standards of human, women’s and worker rights and environmental protections, beneath which we will not allow corporations to go. Given the WTO always will serve corporate interests, “we the people” need to hold corporations accountable.
This is why I say, “If shirts could only speak; if we would only listen.” There is a human being behind that label. She is our sister. That garment holds the story of her life. If we ignore it, if we do not care to understand, she suffers. And so do we. As I’ve tried to say so many times, if we do not take it personally, corporations will continue to commodify, trivialize and exploit every aspect of our lives.
In Bangladesh, garment workers have the right to three months’ maternity leave with full pay. Yet, in more than 90 percent of the factories this right is routinely violated. For the women and their infants, this is literally a matter of life and death, because their below-subsistence wages mean they have no savings.
Thus, we are launching a grassroots campaign to shame the largest apparel companies in Europe and the United States into signing a pledge that Bangladeshi garment workers will be guaranteed their maternity leave with pay. The companies that are smart enough to sign up will be listed on our Web sites. Those that refuse will be even more prominently displayed, and we will do everything in our power to circulate their names.
This is not an anti-corporate campaign; it is an attempt to establish a fundamental human right that global corporations cannot be allowed to violate.
If this works, we can move on to other fundamental rights, establishing minimum standards that companies will be obliged to enforce. As people, as consumers, we have the chance to hold corporations accountable. We aim to do so, one right at a time.
This might seem like a small step. But if the race to the bottom accelerates in the global sweatshop economy, we, the people, must find ways to take back our world and make it human. The small start proposed here is achievable. Together, we can win it and then the next!
This excerpt was originally published as part of an ongoing debate on trade and justice at www.openDemocracy.net — an international forum for dialogue on issues of global politics and culture.
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