Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, killed more than 1,100 garment workers. Bayazid Akter/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.
Martin Luther King once said, “all labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and status and should be undertaken with meticulous excellence”. This sentiment has been largely lost in our world of global supply chains and bargain-basket prices, but I would see it revived. As good a place as any to start such a project is in Bangladesh, where millions upon millions of people work under harsh conditions to supply multinational companies with the goods westerners want to buy – yet there is little concern for ensuring their rights as labourers in return. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ready-made garment industry.
Another May Day has just passed and once again designers and their spring collections eclipse any mention of the grim reality facing the people who make our clothes. Right now in sweatshops across the world, millions of garment workers, mainly women, struggle to survive on poverty wages while also providing for their children. Sometimes they are forced to work 14-hour days in appalling conditions. The fast fashion industry is inherently, inextricably exploitative. It’s not about one brand being bad and another one less so. Regardless of the label sewn onto the back of the neck, to remain competitive in this industry requires companies to pay poverty wages to the people who produce clothing.
What has changed since Rana Plaza – a factory building that produced clothes for United Colors of Benetton, Primark, Matalan, Mango and other major brands – collapsed three years ago, killing over 1,100 garment workers? Only recently did the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund meet its target of raising $30 million to compensate victims and their families. Yet, this does not mean that justice has been served, or that structural changes to prevent such accidents in the future have been implemented. Big brands reap billions of dollars chasing the lowest production costs they can find, moving from one country to another when costs rise too much. This creates a perpetual race to the bottom, in which workers’ rights are squeezed by the factories that employ them and by the governments that supposedly oversee those factories.
Why should workers organise, why do workers need trade unions? There are many reasons. Trade unions are the only way to manage compliance and control the labour force. They exist to defend or improve the wages and working condition of workers. By strengthening workers’ collective bargaining power and by establishing efficient communications between the employers and management, trade unions work as the negotiating machinery to enhance the overall effectiveness of an organisation. In fact, the objectives of a trade union are varied and ever-changing according to the need of the economy and the overall industry. When these objectives are not settled, there is unrest.
Invisible women workers
It is surprising, given the number of women working in Bangladeshi industry, that trade union leaders rarely talk about women’s welfare or about the women-specific aspects of issues like maternity leave, weekend off, overtime pay, worker compensation, fair wages, discrimination, child labour, occupational health and safety, job security or better working conditions. Generally speaking, trade unions in Bangladesh have failed to address labour rights in the era of globalisation. That failure is all the more stark in the garment industry, which employs an overwhelmingly female work force and in which labour organising is almost entirely absent.
Given the global nature of the garment industry and of its shortcomings, improving workers’ lot calls for a global solution. The most efficient approach is to increase the costs to the big brands themselves for tolerating poor working conditions. This is also the fairest approach. As the main drivers and the main beneficiaries of the global garment industry, the big brands are ultimately responsible for the basic welfare of all the workers who toil for their bottom line.
It would greatly help if independent trade unions worked to increase the pressure on global brands. To counteract the habit of playing one producing country off another, local unions could coordinate with international union groups to demand that working standards be harmonised across the global production chain. Likewise, governments from sourcing countries should act together: Rather than be driven by the fear of losing out to one another, they should form a bloc and insist that the big brands set uniform standards for wages, union rights, and workplace safety.
Recently the Bangladeshi government made the process of starting and registering a trade union easier and more transparent, a shift that I take as a good sign. Hopefully organised labour and trade unions will now become more widespread, and perhaps within the next few years our workers will fully enjoy the benefit of social rights through trade unions.