“A Single Garment of Destiny” for American and Bangladeshi Workers

“A Single Garment of Destiny” for American and Bangladeshi Workers

“Injustice anywhere,” Martin Luther King famously wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Two events last week which might seem worlds apart provide evidence that working people around the globe are indeed tied together in King’s “single garment of destiny.”

In Texas, fourteen people died and up to 180 were injured in an explosion that obliterated a fertilizer factory and leveled the surrounding town. In Bangladesh, over 400 garment workers died when a factory building collapsed with thousands inside. Rescue and recovery operations continue to find additional Bangladeshi dead, with hundreds still missing. The human toll makes this the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry worldwide, even before the terrible final count is known.

Neither of these terrible events was “an accident.” In both cases, factory management engaged in dangerous and reprehensible conduct, creating entirely avoidable conditions that made these events possible, even predictable.

There was a history of environmental safety violations at the Texas factory (see here, here, and here). It warehoused large amounts of ammonium nitrate fertilizer—the main ingredient in the 1995 Oklahoma federal building bombing by Timothy McVeigh—which the owners never reported to the Department of Homeland Security, as required by law. (In 2012 alone, the plant processed 270 tons of the explosive fertilizer.) Complaints by surrounding townspeople of noxious ammonia smells seem to have been largely disregarded, even though the factory had large amounts of an extremely hazardous gaseous chemical, anhydrous ammonia, on hand.

In Bangladesh, large cracks appeared in the foundation of the illegally constructed factory building the day before its collapse, leading local authorities to ask for an evacuation (see here, here, and here). The owner of the building and owners of the garment factories on the building’s upper floors refused to comply. Since the garment workers knew they would be penalized three days of unpaid labor for every missed day of work, most felt they had little choice but to enter the building and go to work. The building owner and factory owners have now been arrested.

Clearly, the managements in both settings were greedy and unscrupulous. But it would be a mistake to write off these events as that and nothing more; both reflect larger economic and political realities.

The context for the Texas factory disaster is a decades-long corporate assault on workplace safety and health in the United States, a campaign that has grown in strength with the decline in the American labor movement.* After years of deregulation, U.S. occupational safety and health laws are weak and poorly enforced; oversight relies in significant measure upon corporate self-reporting. The factory owners had told the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that there was no “worst-case scenario” risk for fire or explosion at the factory, and that proffer alone was sufficient to make it a low priority for inspections: the last federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) inspection was nearly thirty years ago, in 1985. After decades of defunding, OSHA can maintain only a bare-bones regimen of inspections, with a triage-like focus on the most critical situations. There were also Texas agencies charged with oversight, but they communicated irregularly with each other and the federal agencies, and lacked the necessary expertise for the work—as evinced by the decision to allow a factory to process and store such dangerous and explosive chemicals in the close vicinity of schools, a nursing home, and residential housing.

The context of the Bangladesh catastrophe is especially grim. Just last November, Bangladesh was the site of another horrific mass death of 112 garment workers in a factory fire. Workers died in such large numbers because they had been locked inside the factory by management and so could not escape the fire, a scenario eerily reminiscent of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City that provided the impetus for the first meaningful occupational safety legislation in the United States. Dangerous workplace conditions are widespread in Bangladesh’s garment industry, with over 500 workers killed by factory fires since 2006. Bangladeshi garment factories provide textbook examples of “sweatshops.”

In both Texas and Bangladesh, the international political economy has set the stage for needless human tragedy on a mass scale. The “race to the bottom” that has decimated industrial unions and undermined industrial working conditions in the United States now finds its nadir in Bangladesh, the world’s second largest exporter of apparel after China. Bangladeshi garment workers earn 18¢ an hour; with monthly earnings of about $36, it’s highly unlikely that any of these workers will ever be able to purchase a single garment she has produced. Unbelievably, these wages represent an increase over even lower pay, a concession wrested from the government in 2010 by massive worker unrest. Working conditions are also among the most unsafe and exploitative in the world, as Human Rights Watch thoroughly documented in its October 2012 report on one Bangladesh company. With some of the lowest labor costs in the world, the Bangladeshi garment industry is exporting $18 billion of garments annually and is on the cusp of a major expansion.

To maintain the low wages that attract foreign investment, Bangladeshi law restricts the development of free and independent unions and creates “export processing zones” for the garment industry in which unions are illegal. Bangladesh’s authoritarian government treats the garment industry as a national security issue and actively suppresses worker efforts to organize. The New York Times reported last year that “a high-level government committee monitors the garment sector and includes ranking officers from the military, the police and intelligence agencies. A new special police force patrols many industrial areas. Domestic intelligence agencies keep an eye on some labor organizers.” And according to Human Rights Watch, over a dozen Bangladeshi union leaders are now facing spurious criminal charges.

The brutality of the repression aimed at Bangladeshi garment workers takes on a human face in the story of Aminul Islam, a key garment worker organizer and labor leader. Islam “was vocal, and he was fearless,” Babul Akhter, the head of the nonprofit labor group where Islam worked, told the New York Times. “Whenever workers came to him, he took them as his own case, as if it was his own pain.”

And that made him enemies. A little more than a year ago, he was tortured and killed. To date, his murder remains unsolved.

Islam’s troubles started when his fellow garment workers elected him to represent their grievances. Fired from his job, he became a full-time worker advocate at the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity. In 2010, state security revoked the center’s registration and arrested Islam’s two bosses, charging them with inciting workers to riot. Police wire-tapped Islam’s phone and regularly harassed him. In June 2010, he was kidnapped and beaten by domestic intelligence agents who threatened his life and the lives of his family members. In March 2012, a dozen members of the Industrial Police took Islam in for questioning, and on April 4 he disappeared. Two days later his corpse was found. His knees had been smashed, his feet had been broken, and a hole had been drilled into one knee. He had bled to death.

Torture and extrajudicial killings by police are common in Bangladesh and, as reported by both the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International, are often done at the behest of wealthy individuals and business executives. Despite the focus of the international human rights community, Islam’s murder remains unsolved after a year, leading many to suspect that the police forces had a hand in his demise.

Who profits from this state of affairs?

The factories in the collapsed Bangladesh building were producing garments for Wal-Mart, the Children’s Place, Dress Barn, Primark, Mango, Benetton, C&A, KIK, Cato Fashions, Matalan, and Bon Marché, among others. Wal-Mart garments were also being produced by the company that locked in its workers last November, leading to the death of 112 workers in a factory fire. The Gap, Calvin Klein, H&M, Target, and Tommy Hilfiger are other well-known brands and retailers that also manufacture their garments in Bangladeshi factories. In the classic “race to the bottom” production model in use in Bangladesh, China, and other low-wage settings enforced by anti-union authoritarian governments, these Western firms outsource their actual production to foreign-owned factories, such as those in the collapsed Bangladesh building, seeking to create plausible deniability about what is entailed in the manufacture of their products.

In the days since the building collapse, corporate public relations machines have been in overdrive, seeking to distance their firms from events in Bangladesh. But only the most gullible can believe in the ignorance or innocence of those at the helm of these corporations. It is worth noting, for example, that in the wake of the November 2012 factory fire, Wal-Mart and Sears, who profited from the lax conditions, refused to provide compensation to the victims and their families who bore the cost. Wal-Mart was also one of a group of corporations that rejected a 2011 plan put together by labor advocacy groups and international and Bangladeshi unions to create an independent inspectorate “to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions.” Wal-Mart’s representative, at a meeting on the plan, declared that it was “not financially feasible…to make (the) investments” required to implement the inspectorate. In other words, Wal-Mart and the other corporations know full well that the low production costs they enjoy are subsidized by the blood, sweat, and lives of Bangladeshi garment workers. It simply could not happen otherwise.

Sadly, there its little new to distinguish these stories from the several decades worth of news reports on the ways in which workers worldwide suffer from the greed and indifference of multinational corporations. But my point is this: we ignore these stories at our own peril.

The global “race to the bottom” in which multinational corporations outsource the manufacture of products to repressive, low-wage nations has exacted a very real price on American workers as well. The decimation of American industries and American industrial unions, with the resultant decline in the income, benefits, and health and safety protections of the current U.S. workforce, has been made possible by the outsourcing of the work they once did to, in the words of William Blake, the ”dark satanic mills” of Bangladesh and other nations. The collapsed factory in Bangladesh and the obliterated factory in Texas are artifacts of an international political economy in which power and wealth is concentrated more and more in the hands of a small elite, at the expense of working people the world over. And as U.S. unions and the American middle class they helped to create have weakened, states have become more prone to engage in their own “race to the bottom” behaviors, attempting to lure or retain corporate investment by offering to lower wages or business taxes or relaxing the environmental and workplace oversight that could have prevented the West, Texas, explosion from happening.

That is, the future of American workers and their unions is tied, inextricably, to the future of the workers of other nations. So long as the world’s most exploited workers can be denied the right to free, independent unions that would empower them to fight for their own rights and freedoms, our rights and our unions will be in danger. So long as the workers of Bangladesh and similar nations can be harshly exploited, our living standards and our working conditions are also open to exploitation.

International solidarity is no longer simply a virtue; it has become an imperative. Without it, our “single garment of destiny” could well be a shroud.

Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

* See Worker Safety Under Siege: Labor, Capital, and the Politics of Workplace Safety in a Deregulated World (2005), edited by Vern Mogensen.