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Answer to Garment Industry's Deadliest Disaster: Labor Unions and Wage Hikes, Not Boycotts

US corporations and consumers must advocate for institutional reform, urges Nobel laureate

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

As the Bangladesh government announces initial reforms for the country's garment industry, which claimed over a thousand lives in the recent collapse of a factory building, Muhammed Yunus—economist and winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize—says that US consumers and producers must do their part, too, to prevent future tragedies.

A woman clutches a photograph of a missing relative following the collapse of an eight story garment factory building, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: Shafiqul Alam/Demotix/Corbis) "We have to make international companies understand that while the workers are physically in Bangladesh, they are contributing their labor to the businesses: they are stakeholders," he writes in the Guardian. "Physical separation should not be grounds to ignore the well-being of this labor."

Yunus's plea came ahead of an announcement Monday that the Bangladesh government will now permit the country's 4 million garment workers to form trade unions, lifting restrictions that previously required unionizing workers obtain permission from factory owners.

On Sunday, the Bangladesh government also announced the formation of a "minimum wage board" composed of factory owners, workers and the government, who together will issue a recommendation for pay raises "within three months."

According to the Guardian, minimum wages for garment workers haven't been raised since 2010 following industry-wide protests when they rose 80% to 3,000 takas ($38/£25) a month.

"The souls of those who lost their lives in Rana Plaza are watching what we are doing and listening to what we say." -Nobel Laureate

In his statement, Yunus—founder of the microfinance pioneer Grameen Bank—called for an international minimum wage for the industry (he suggests 50 cents an hour, twice the level typically found in Bangladesh) so that countries may stay competitive without treating their workers like "slave laborers."

The solution, he adds, is not for western buyers and corporations to simply pull out of Bangladesh—as reports indicate that Disney has done. But rather, for US corporations and consumers to do their part in advocating for institutional reform.

He advocates that consumers pay a nominal fee (he gives the example of $0.50 on a $35 item) for a Garment Workers Welfare Trust that would go towards safety, work environment, and worker benefits. "Consumers would be proud to support the product and the company, rather than feeling guilty about wearing a product made under harsh working conditions," Yunus argues.

Also Monday, after nearly three weeks of searching amidst the building's rubble for victims and survivors, rescue workers have officially ended the search. With an updated death toll of 1,127, the disaster is by far the worst in the history of the global garment industry.

The Associated Press reports that the "last body was found on Sunday night" and a special prayer service will be held on Tuesday in honor of the victims.

"The souls of those who lost their lives in Rana Plaza are watching what we are doing and listening to what we say," Yunus writes. "The last breath of those souls surrounds us."

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