Monday, April 29, 2013

Corporate murder in Bangladesh

Cheers went up yesterday among the exhausted rescuers at Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It had just been announced that six factory owners had been arrested.

So far 380 garment workers, mainly women, are known to have died in the rubble of that huge building, where 3,000 people were working at the time of its collapse.

The worst ever factory disaster in Bangladesh’s history has shocked people around the world, including those who wear clothes purchased at Primark, Benetton and Walmart, which used the factory. Matalan and Bonmarché are also appear to be connected with the New Wave Style company, the largest employer in the Dhaka building.

Many share the desire to make those who profit from employing cheap labour by making people work under such lethal conditions pay for their crimes. But – and there are several buts –  will punishing these men put an end to the crude and cruel exploitation of human labour that takes place day in and day out, not only in Bangladesh but throughout the world?

And how could this murder – and it is a kind of murder – happen so soon after the fire at the Tazreen factory last November, also in Dhaka, in which 112 people died?  Why was nothing done after that?

The factory owners at Rana Plaza insisted workers should return to work even after safety engineers warned that huge cracks in the building’s walls were evident. They were told they would be docked three days pay for every day they were absent.

In the wake of these events, many shoppers feel complicit in the suffering of those in the Bangladeshi rag trade. Are we wearing “blood clothes”, they ask?  Calls for consumers to boycott companies like Primark are widespread. Ethical buying is said to be the solution.

Like so many others, London Evening Standard fashion editor Karen Dacre calls for “consumer power” to force changes in the clothing industry. That sounds good. But how can you tell how a company treats its workers? And who is responsible for auditing conditions?

Responsibility Outsourced, a report by major US trade unions, is deeply critical of the companies and organisations that are supposed to monitor how workers are treated. The Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan in which 260 workers died in a fire last year, had just earned its certification from the non-profit social auditing group, Social Accountability International.

In the report, which is dedicated to murdered garment workers leader Aminul Islam, the unions are deeply critical of social audit firms, including the Fair Labour Organisation which monitors the Foxconn plant that supplies Apple. FLA gets money from corporates such as Apple and Nestlé.  

Trade union and labour activists know that factories are not going to police themselves and are rightly calling for binding agreements. But even after a binding agreement was developed by labour organisations, Wal-Mart and Sears not only refused to sign but refused to pay compensation to the Tazreen victims.

But, while the report avoids saying so, it is the capitalist system itself which is the real murderer. As it notes: “While this globalised business model continues to provide vast profits for companies, it comes at a tremendous cost to working people and to the economies of many of the poorest nations.”

Human labour is simply another commodity to be bought and sold, at the cheapest price going. That’s why manufacturers moved into Bangladesh in the first place. The Rana Plaza was just one of the 5,500 factories Bangladeshi rag trade factories where the average monthly wage of the three million workers is around £25 per month. Clothing production accounts for 82% of Bangladesh’s GDP, a huge rise since 1985.

Companies must seek out the cheapest labour possible to out-do their competitors. No amount of consumer boycotting or regulation will abolish that underlying imperative. As one Bangladeshi union organiser told the BBC: "You buy one get one free - but it's not really free."

The global corporations will always find willing accomplices, whether it is in Bangladesh, China, Brazil or in Britain in their search for profits. Moving on from an economic system driven by greed and profit is the biggest priority of all.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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