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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  1. #1 Mark 02 May 13

    I guess ’Economics’ has made us self centered and we dont want to see beyond ourselves, our families...it is sad but true!

  2. #2 john 02 May 13

    Another area is Food. basic food workers ie agriculturist are the most poorly paid workers. They also have to pay the price of ’entrepreneurship and risk taking’. Further they are treated as ’unskilled’ workers, very much like how Uzramma assertion that weavers, and cotton processors are considered ’unskilled’.

    Internationally, the number of workers in food processing industry, agri-business, seed industry, and agricultural implements, agri- inputs land development, micro-finance, restaurants, food supply, cold storage is increasing, as corporates line up to extract a piece of the pie from the bottom of the pyramid in the food system
    Perhaps this gives new meaning to the idea of peasant-worker alliance. Alliance between food workers in these business with the peasant..

    I remember that striking workers at Hindustan Lever two decades ago, started making their own detergents and started selling then directly to customers during their strike. On this May Day, when it seems that Labour is getting marginalised by a ’middle-class}-isation of the working peoples', a new alliance between food system workers, peasants, and alternative local finance is called for.

  3. #3 Prabir 02 May 13

    Yes 38 dollars (Rs 2000 Indian)a month will probably be around the starvation line in South Asia. Certainly governments need to wake up to tea garden workers who get Rs 82 a day (or less) in Jalpaiguri and to how multi national businesses and big national players (Maruti paid Rs 6000 a month at the factory near Delhi where there was violence recently) who claim to ’benefit the economy’ while increasing hunger and unhappiness and occasionally resulting in horrible deaths.

  4. #4 Gerard Oonk 02 May 13

    For now something you can immediately do is to sign this very relevant petion putting pressure on the brands involved.
    Governments should take responsibility but brands are also responsible.They can no longer dodge responsibility for their lack of action to prevent these tragedies from happening. There is no way to justify any more delay in signing the binding Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.

    Sign the petition and tell brands to take responsibility and sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement!

    http://www.cleanclothes.org/action/current-actions/rana-plaza

  5. #5 Betty 02 May 13

    The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to his young disciple, Timothy, had this to say: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

  6. #6 Betty 02 May 13

    Just to let you know that I always read your blogs and really value them as a perspective from the 'real world', even if you don't see many responses from me.

    As you say, its a bit too easy to blame everything on globalisation and other outside influences, when many of the causes and 'solutions' lie closer to home.

    Robin Stafford

  7. #7 David Cohen 02 May 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara continues to combine superb journalism with compassion and dignity for people who have been victimized. The victims are the authentic voices that must be heard..

    Yes, Mari is right that Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have to accept full responsibility. People in those countries will hopefully turn their protests into politics and halt the systemic exploitation and corruption that strips people of their dignity.The Pope is right: in Bangladesh, in the garment factories, people are working as slave laborers.

    That means those of us who live in Western countries have a special responsibility to hold the corporate enablers of death by fire, death by building collapse, death by rape and sexual harassment, death by slave labor, responsible legally, financially and criminally for their actions and their inaction..

    There is a basic agency principle in Western law. Companies such as Walmart, GAP, H&M, JC Penney and others bear direct responsibility for what happened in Bangladesh. Those of us in the US must and will press the Obama Administration to take effectively appropriate actions in a timely way. Already influential Members of Congress have begun to speak out.

    These American companies must face the same responsibility as the wrongdoers in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

    David Cohen
    Washington DC
    May 2, 2013

  8. #8 Sabita Banerji 02 May 13

    Well said, Mari. It is interesting to see this from the South Asian perspective; workers' voices stifled, unions powerles, governments and entrepreneurs profiting from their exploitation. Yet I'm heartened by the workers' May Day protest marches in Dhaka, which, like the protest marches and vociferous Indian press in response to the ghastly gang rape phenomenon, show that people are no longer prepared to accept this kind of callousness. This is mirrored by a growing movement around the world of consumers who are no longer prepared to accept goods made or grown under exploitative conditions. Those voices of dissent maybe be small and few compared to the vast commercial and governmental powers, but to quote one of a growing breed - an ethical enterpreneur (Anita Roddick of the Body Shop) If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.

  9. #9 Peter Berger 08 May 13

    Workers rights are so very important, sad to say even in states like West Bengal, the unions have been diluted until they pay lip service to the workers they represent and look for ways to line their own pockets.
    Corruption is everywhere and best shown in the way in which the poor and downtrodden count for nothing as the rich get richer and the poor become destitute.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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