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Sweatshop Workers Speak Out! National Tour Kicks Off at Macalester College, Twin Cities IWW Offices

National Sweatshop Workers Tour Kicks Off at Macalester College, IWW Headquarters

April 21, 2010


Kalpona Akter, of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), paying her respects at the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 workers, overwhelmingly women, died because their factory was locked from the outside.  In February 2010, 21 workers died in a similar fire in a Bangladeshi Factory Fire.

Kalpona has been working in sweatshops since she was twelve. Coming from already-desperate poverty, she spent a few years thinking of her exploitation in relatively benign terms: “I thought I had a good job! I worked for them, and they paid me money!” Even though, as she described moments later, she was working non-stop, for 23 days at a stretch, and living on the factory floors. At the age of twelve, she live with her family about 5 days a month between ‘shifts.’ It wasn’t until Kalpona heard about Bangladesh’s formal – and rarely enforced – labor laws that she realized her job was actually a horrendous violation of what other people thought her rights should, and could, be. Today, Kalpona is a union activist working at Bangladesh Center for Worker Soldarity (BCWS).

Along with Zehra Bano from the Home Based Women Workers union in Pakistan, Akter kicked off a national speaking tour on Friday at Macalester College. The “Sweat Shop Workers Speak Out!” tour is organized nationally by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and Sweat Free Communities (SFC), and was organized locally by the Twin Cities Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, ‘the wobblies’) and Macalester College Religious Studies.  At many of the stops, other associated events will also be held. In the Twin Cities, an evening benefit concert was held for the workers by the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union with its local headquarters in Minneapolis’ historic Grain Belt Brewery Bottling Building in Northeast Minneapolis.  Local bands Cloves and Big Strong Men performed, along with performances from the Hype Dance Troupe, and DJ sets from DJ Colin of Spinner’s Suite.

Zehra Bano, of the Pakistani Home Based Women Workers’ Union, represents women who sew soccer balls in their homes,
according to piece-work rates.

Kalpona’s experience – moving from a situation of such desperate exploitation and poverty that she herself didn’t even realize it – is emblematic of the situation of workers in Sweatshops and Export Processing Zones (EPZ) around the world:  it was not until Kalpona discovered that laws existed protecting her as a worker that she felt emboldened to question the conditions of her labor, and to struggle to have those conditions improved.  The tour she and Zehra are now on addresses precisely the disconnect between nice words and good laws, and their lack of associated action and enforcement.

***

In many of the factories around the world, over fifty percent of the products they make are purchased by one large end-consumer.  This usually happens through a process called “Procurement,” which means nothing more and nothing less than institutional purchasing, by City, State, and Federal Governments, or by educational institutions.  Workers in these sweatshops spend their working hours sewing uniforms for police, sherrifs, prisoners, janitors, and others.  In Pakistan, where Zehra Bano works with women who stitch soccer balls at home for piece-work rates, women and their daughters stitch together the 32 panels of soccer balls that are then purchased by schools, Public School districts, and municipal sports teams.

While consumers are often encouraged to take personal moral responsibility for their own purchases, it is intimidating and often overwhelming to imagine how such individual purchases can make a difference.  By focusing on procurement policies and enforcement, however, citizens, representatives, activists, unionists, and people of basic human compassion and decency can make effective changes through collective action.

This national speaking tour focuses on two aspects of municipal and institutional procurement – policies, and enforcement.  There are places on this tour where local city and state governments, or large universities, have refused or resisted adopting Sweat Free Procurement Policies.  We should be very clear about what this means:

Sweat Free Procurement Policies are nothing more, and nothing less, than a promise on the part of the consumer institution (local government, university, etc.) to demand information from their vendors about the conditions of work in the factories where the products are made, and to make purchasing decisions with working conditions as a priority consideration.  In other words, a government or other  institution that adopts a Sweat Free Procurement Policy promises to make good faith efforts to purchase from companies that do not actively, intentionally, and repeatedly violate existing labor laws, abuse their workers, and organize their mass deaths.  It shocks the individual conscience that any human being could explicitly refuse to adopt such policies, and instead continue to profit from such inhuman working conditions.  But these are the explicit positions of many governments and institutions.  Their citizens and neighbors must pressure these decision makers to change their minds in such cases.

But adopting Sweat Free Policies on their own is not a solution, and that leads to the second goal of the tour.  In Minnesota, almost every major educational institution has already signed on to various forms of Sweat Free Procurement – either by joining the Worker’s Rights Consortium, or through a variety of Designated Supplier Programs.  But these policies are nothing but window dressing if they are not enforced, and enforcement is the second goal of the tour.

Just as Kalpona’s real struggle began not with the adoption of Bangladesh’s labor laws, but in her awareness that these laws were being egregiously violated, so too our real struggle for solidarity with factory workers around the world – the people who make our products – begins with the realization that such violations of human dignity, worker rights, and basic decency must be challenged, and that Sweat Free Procurement policies, when adopted are only the begining of a struggle for enforcement.

To make real progress in the factories of Bangladesh, Honduras, El Salvador, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, or in the home-based piece work of Pakistan and elsewhere, excellent policies must be met with vigilant work.  Policies by themselves do nothing; all real work is done by human beings.  Where institutions refuse to even adopt Sweat Free Policies, the response of activists should be pressure and attack – there is no legitimate reason for such refusal.  But when such policies are adopted, the situation becomes more complex.

Because such policies and enforcement campaigns are relatively recent, systems of monitoring, reporting, and enforcement are still in the making.  At one college with a Sweat Free Procurement Policy, the flow of communication has been so slow between vendors, producers, and purchasers that it became very unclear how even a person acting in full good faith could proceed.  To that end, this tour aims also to connect purchasing agents and procurement departments with workers, unions, citizens, and student activists.  We must pressure responsible parties to do the right thing, but we must also help make doing the right thing possible.

The specific enforcement mechanisms promoted on this tour fall into three rough categories: (1) Direct worker monitoring of factory conditions, with reports from the workers to union and worker organizations, which then transmit the information to the Worker’s Rights Consortium databases; (2)  Regular queries of vendors from purchasers about the named specific factories where products are produced, and reports (from both vendors and workers’ organizations) about conditions in those factories; and (3) Purchasing decisions by institutions will then be made on the basis of evaluation of worker conditions in source factories.

These proposals improve on the current condition in many ways.  Currently, the ‘showpiece’ monitoring organizations of Sweatshop factories, such as that of Better Factories in Cambodia (a project of the International Labor Organization, ILO) is announced ahead of time to factory owners and managers, takes place only at work (and not in worker’s home communities), and most commonly under the watchful eyes of managers.  Accurate assessment of worker conditions is impossible through such practices. Instead, the proposed enforcement mechanisms on this tour include surprise workplace visits, interviews without managers present, and visits to worker home communities.

There are limits to what the adoption, monitoring, and enforcement of such policies can accomplish. These policies and their enforcement are not magic bullets which will slay the giant of economic exploitation, or immediately bring working standards in Bangladesh or Pakistan to levels acceptable to workers in North America.  But these are important, necessary, steps that if taken vigorously, can effectively and quickly help empower workers in countries all over the world to take control of their work situations, and hence, of their own lives, communities, and destinies.

***

Next March 25, 2011, will be the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on the East Side of New York City.  In that fire, which took place on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of a tall building, 146 workers – overwhelmingly young women and children – died.  They didn’t need to.  The reason they died is that they had been locked into the factory, to prevent the workers from sneaking cigarettes on the balcony, or taking breaks for fresh air.  As the fire blazed higher and higher, worker after worker threw themselves from windows in their desperate attempts to survive.  None did.  The factory owners were acquitted of any wrongdoing (and in fact made a profit on the insurance policies they’d taken out on their workers), and one of them was locking his workers into a new factory just two years later. These owners were organizing mass murder of their employees; they did not, perhaps, want their employees to die, but they certainly knew full well that many would, if they were locked inside their factories.  They did not, and do not, care.

In late February of 2010, 21 workers at the Garib and Garib factory, which produces for H&M, Wal-Mart, JC Penny and others, died when a fire broke out inside the factory.  Just as in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the workers were locked inside the factory, which led directly to the deaths of these workers, and the hospitalization of more than 50 others.  Such factory fires and deaths are common in Export Processing Zones around the world today.

After the Garib & Garib Factory Fire in February 2010 killed 21 workers, this young woman’s sign says, “I came to work alive, and don’t want to go home as a corpse.” The most basic safety standards and working conditions are routinely ignored by employers intent on squeezing every last of cent out of the bodies of their employees, even at the cost of arranging for their avoidable deaths.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire brought the plight of young immigrant workers in New York’s sweatshops to full public attention.  The image of adolescent girls’ bodies slamming into the sidewalks was too much for even the most comfortable of citizens to simply ignore.  Predecessor organizations of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration) began in its aftermath, and unions and politicians alike began to push for improved – and enforced – working conditions.  For a while, US citizens managed to put an end to the vilest forms of sweatshop labor (they are creeping back now, though largely illegally; the legal ones are largely in our enormous penitentiary system, where minimum wage is not paid, and the intensely low wages allow the products to be competitive with products made in sweatshops abroad).

But these sweatshops did not disappear; they moved.  They moved to places like Bangladesh and Pakistan, El Salvador and Honduras.  The exploitation and planned murder of workers did not end, but moved abroad.  Our global economy is connected now like never before in human history – a potentially wonderful or hateful thing, depending on how these connections are used.  The differences between workers here in North America and those elsewhere – differences of geography, race, ethnicity, nation, citizenship, religion, political party, sex, sexual orientation, etc., – are used to justify the differences in working conditions.  But those who work against exploitation and murder at work refuse this plan.  We believe we are one humanity, and that the struggle of workers in Bangladesh and Pakistan, is the same struggle as that of workers in the United States.  There are many differences, to be sure, but like us, they struggle for dignity, safety, respect, and the right to the full value of their labor. We would do well to support them, for in the coming economic times, their recent past may very well resemble our future.

***

Kalpona and Zehra are traveling from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic on this tour, and there are many opportunities for you to become involved.  Go to one of their tour stops; write your local city councilors, representatives, governors, and officials.  Call the purchasing department of your local university and ask if they have signed Sweat Free Procurement policies, and how they enforce them.  Demand that no more workers are murdered at work by bosses attempting to squeeze every last cent of work out of them.

Sweat Shop Workers Speak Out! National Tour

April 16: Twin Cities, MN
April 17: Eau Claire, WI
April 19: Milwaukee, WI
April 20: Chicago, IL
April 21: Cleveland, OH
April 22: Lansing, MI
April 24: Detroit, MI
April 25: Delaware, OH
April 26: Columbus, OH
April 27: Pittsburgh, PA
April 28: Philadelphia, PA
April 29: Baltimore, MD
April 30, May 3: Washington, DC
May 4: Bangor, ME

The Industrial Workers of the World is a labor union, founded in Chicago in 1905, which aims to organize all workers, regardless of trade, nation, religion, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, or any other distinction.  Our motto, “In injury to one is an injury to all,” represents our solidarity with all workers, everywhere.

International Labor Rights Forum is an organization dedicated to advocating for the just and humane treatment of workers in international trade. Founded in 1986, by leaders in human rights, labor, academic and faith-based communities, ILRF was created as an agency responsible for monitoring the enforcement of international labor standards and to develop other means of protecting workers’ rights around the world. www.LaborRights.org

SweatFree Communities, an ILRF campaign, coordinates a national network of grassroots campaigns that promote humane working conditions in apparel and other labor-intensive global industries by working with both public and religious institutions to adopt sweatshop-free purchasing policies. Using institutional purchasing as a lever for worker justice, the sweatfree movement empowers ordinary people to create a just global economy through local action. Learn more at www.sweatfree.org

The Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, comprised of states, cities, counties, local government agencies, and school districts, as well as human rights advocates and labor rights experts, pools resources of public entities to investigate working conditions in factories that make uniforms and other products for public employees. Learn more at www.buysweatfree.org

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