Friday, November 22, 2013

Update: Baby Steps in Bangladesh

Nearly a year after the deadly fire at Tazreen Fashions factory, and nearly seven months after the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza building, a group of labor rights activists, advocates, and professionals gathered to discuss progress made toward worker rights and workplace safety in Bangladesh's enormous garment industry.

I'm not going to summarize all that was said - if you are interested in the details, I suggest you check out the tweets from the event #TazreenRanaPlaza and read the report "Still Waiting", which was published by Clean Clothes Campaign and ILRF. (Video in 3 parts here)

Instead, I've summarized my "take-aways" from the panel discussion and recent media coverage.  I've also listed some actions we can take in support of workers' rights and to send a message to brands and retailers that we expect them to take responsibility for their supply chain and that they should better protect human and labor rights throughout their operations.

The Workers

In short, Bangladeshi workers are still fighting for their rights.  Despite all the talk and all the attention, workers are not earning a living wage and continue to work in unsafe conditions.  There are positive developments, but they have been slow coming.  Just this week, we've seen an apparent deal between government officials and factory owners regarding wage increases and an agreement between Accord and Alliance brands that will allow factory safety inspections to begin.  However, labor unions do not have the right to collectively bargain, in fact they are still not allowed a seat at the table during discussions between government officials, factory owners, and multinational brands.  The pervasive attitude that workers are commodities, are easily replaced, presents a problem.  Union leaders face intimidation without protections and without the right to freedom of association. Thus, any immediate gains in labor rights will be gradually chipped away if that attitude and philosophy is allowed to persist.

Despite recent wage gains, there is still far to go. When workers receive higher wages, the surrounding supporting businesses, including housing, see it as a sign they can increase their prices.  As a result, the economy improves but workers experience little tangible gain.  Many workers support elderly or infirm family members and pay for education for their children.  Very few have savings.  Thus, if unable to work, due to illness or injury, the worker's entire family suffers.

While the above applies, generally, to the current workforce, we shouldn't forget those who cannot work, whether due to factory fire, building collapse, or other tragic event in the workplace (and there are many that never receive media attention).  The Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza collapse focused attention and resources.  A victim compensation fund has been established, but those funds are not yet sufficient to cover the losses and they have not been adequately allocated to the victims. Some victims are permanently disabled, no longer able to work. Others might be able to return to work if they receive proper health care, rehabilitation, and, in some cases, prosthetics.  However, few have received the care they need in order to return as productive members of society.  Even if they received compensation, it has since run-out.  Without savings, the injured cannot pay for additional necessary care.  They become a financial burden on their families.  Some families are forced to take the children out of schools and put them to work in factories, so to replace lost wages, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.  In the meantime, the Bangladeshi garment sector has flourished.

The Government

Two Bangladeshi government officials were present at the panel discussion and were given a chance to speak.  The following comments are based on my personal interpretation of their comments and behavior.  When confronted with the lack of progress regarding labor rights and factory safety, the reaction was defensive.  It appears the government is feeling the pressure from worldwide media attention.  They also believe they should be in control of the process of Accord (and Alliance) implementation, specifically as related to how funds for improvements and maintenance are allocated to the garment factories and how victims are compensated.  This may explain why change has been so slow.  This also presents a problem, because about 10% of the Parliament is made-up of factory owners. Corruption is already rampant, and desire to control the allocation of millions of dollars should raise red flags.  However, the officials made some good points, especially related to our responsibility to pick up the bill, likely through higher product prices.  This is valid and we should expect it.  In fact, if we aren't paying higher prices for garments purchased from Bangladesh, then we should investigate whether the companies are doing their part to improve working conditions.  Either consumers will pay higher prices or the brands and retailers will take a hit.  That said, since the Bangladesh garment sector is growing, we should expect the government and factory owners to do their part as well.

The Multinationals - Brands and Retailers

The biggest difference between the Accord and the Alliance is also the most revealing about U.S. corporate philosophy related to their overseas suppliers.  Where the Accord is binding, the Alliance is not.  Alliance members, including Walmart and Gap, refused to join the Accord because the terms were too restrictive.  U.S. corporations who have signed on to the Accord don't seem to have that concern.  The grievance and remediation process under the Accord takes work and requires trust, and it appears the Alliance members aren't willing to take that leap.  There is also no requirement for the Alliance to fund improvements to safety and operations in the factory and, although the applicable organizations have established a fund, there has been no formal method to allocate funds to the applicable factories (see "The Government" above re: allocating funds to factories).  What should be obvious, and hopefully multinational corporations in all sectors are beginning to see the light, is that the traditional audit and remediation process no longer works (if it ever truly did, and that is a matter of debate).  Purchasing corporations need to start taking ownership for their entire supply chain, and that means establishing closer relationships and continuous involvement.  Hopefully, financial commitments toward improving factory conditions and increasing wages in Bangladesh will create this sense of ownership in the sustainability of operations, which includes integrated relations with labor unions.  The unique opportunity for corporations to work cooperatively toward these collective goals in Bangladesh, as they are through the Accord (and, to a lesser extent, the Alliance), bodes well for inevitable necessary improvements in other countries.

The successes and failures resulting from implementation of the Accord and Alliance will dictate changes throughout the region and industry.  We must not wait for another fire, another collapse, to act in Pakistan, India, Burma/Myanmar, or elsewhere around the world.

What You Can Do

Use your voice and use your purchasing power to tell brands and retailers you haven't forgotten about labor rights and workplace safety. 
  • Tweet, Facebook, send emails, make phone calls, tell your friends and family, do whatever you do to spread the word about differences between the Accord and the Alliance, and why Alliance members should continue to be pressured to take responsibility.  It's not too late for Alliance members to formally join the Accord and they should do so, to formalize their commitment and to reduce confusion in implementation of improvements. 
  • Tell Alliance members you expect them to contribute to health care, rehabilitation, and long-term care of victims of all factory disasters. 
  • Above all, continue to buy products made in Bangladesh, favor the Accord members when possible.  The workers are counting on us to keep demand up so their industry continues to grow. 

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