New Internationalist

Bring workers’ rights back into fashion

boards of photos
Relatives have posted photographs of people missing after the Rana Plaza disaster Sharat Chowdhury, under a CC License

It’s May Day as I write this. A few days ago, powerful Bangladeshi writer Rahnuma Ahmed had people across the world in tears, as we read her account of the latest Bangladeshi tragedy: ‘The Stench of Rotting Corpses.’

Rahnuma wrote about the illegally constructed, eight-storey Rana Plaza which collapsed in a heap on the morning of Wednesday 24 April, burying thousands of workers in the five garment factories in the building. Thousands escaped. But, the latest reports say, more than 400 people died. Those who perished instantly were lucky. The others died dreadful deaths, trapped in the rubble with the clock ticking ominously, fully aware that these terrifying hours or minutes were their last. Untrained civil volunteers worked like maniacs, trying to save people. They were weeping, Rahnuma tells us, as they brought each corpse out and anxious mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and children peered frantically at decomposing bodies, hoping desperately it was not their loved one.

Rahnuma gave these people faces, gave them a human identity. For the most part, they are faceless statistics that barely count; no-one seriously cares about their deaths, apart from their families. Life is cheap in our countries, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Africa. Just five months ago, 112 people were killed in another Bangladeshi garment factory. There were no fire escapes and the gate was locked. They were trapped in the burning building. There were empty promises from the Bangladesh government about improving conditions for workers, but all of that was mostly hot air. These are workers who slog for as little as $38 a month to produce clothing for top international brands. Yet they were considered lucky within the Bangladesh economy. Their kids didn’t starve.

There have been articles galore. Pieces criticizing the transnationals, others criticizing nasty Southern governments and their corrupt, greedy, exploitative vested interests and entrepreneurs. Primark offered to pay compensation, as it gets clothes from a factory that collapsed. Most other transnational companies are keeping a low profile, hoping the scandal won’t touch them.

I think Bangladesh, India and Pakistan should take the blame for their own, corruption-induced calamities. They cannot, and should not, be absolved from taking full responsibility for the tragedies. But the malaise comes from within the system.

Globalization is a beautifully ambiguous catch-all phrase to blame everything on. But when you break it down, you can analyse some of the worst effects on our economies. Unions are old hat, they have been crushed everywhere, which makes accountability by companies impossible. Contract work is in, pensions and benefits are not.

In the current economic climate, workers are urged not to complain. If one person is chucked out for asking troublesome questions, 10 unemployed people are queuing up for his or her job. The entire emphasis is on welcoming foreign direct investment: read, laying out the red carpet for transnational companies. So if workers protest poor safety conditions, they can be dispensed with quite easily. If farmers protest losing their land, to make way for mining companies or Indian conglomerates that will bring jobs to underdeveloped areas, farmers are being unreasonable. The state has the right to take away their land at throwaway prices to offer it to huge companies at ridiculously low rates, all in the name of making the economy gallop.

We are not allowed to ask: ‘For whom is this impressive economy?’ Certainly not for the tribal people being displaced and destroyed by Vedanta in Orissa. Nor for the farmers and fisherfolk being ruined to make way for factories or a nuclear plant. The Narmada dam displaced tribal people and farmers; now they are destitute and the water goes to luxurious city apartments. Yet the farmers, fisherfolk, adivasis and dalits who are being displaced are the bulk of our population. Asking relevant questions makes you anti-national, dangerous to the country.

So if we are to prevent further disasters like 400 garment workers being callously obliterated while Bangladeshi factory owners and branded companies make a killing, we need to revert to protecting workers’ rights. Something that’s now out of fashion because of the new, ‘ask no questions, just thank god you have a job,’ work culture. We’ve come full circle back to the Industrial Revolution when workers had no rights. The purpose of May Day, International Workers’ Day – winning workers an eight-hour day, decent wages, safety in the workplace – which originated in the US, not the USSR, seems forgotten. That’s the ultimate tragedy, as workers of the world unite… or not, for 2013.

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