As the tragic tale of garment workers in Bangladesh unfolds, the usual cast of characters dominates an all too familiar story line: factory owners who build illegal death traps; politicians bribed to look the other way; large retailers hiding behind “social responsibility” policies; monitoring bodies unable to ensure safety standards, and our governments, in the name of free trade, refusing to act to support the rights of workers.
Amid expressions of sorrow (and denials of responsibility), the responses of the actors have also become all too predictable — visits by corporate executives to the site, meetings with local officials, offers of help to survivors, pledges to review their practices, etc. (Was it not only six months ago that a similar story played out in Bangladesh?) While those responsible should be held accountable for their actions (and inaction), it is time for us to look to other protagonists for solutions.
First, clearly, as citizens we have some responsibility, if not culpability, in this matter. It is, we correctly assume, the role of governments to incorporate appropriate labour standards into trade agreements. But when governments fail, citizenship requires that we mobilize to hold them accountable. We should, for example, pressure governments at all levels (and public institutions such as schools and universities) to adopt procurement policies that protect workers’ rights.
Second, as consumers, we must admit our complicity through our fetish with low prices. How can we ignore the conditions under which workers produce garments at the “everyday low prices” that we demand? Would it kill us to pay a couple of dollars more for a T-shirt (for not doing so is killing workers in developing countries)? Of course, for some workers in the North, it is a hardship, but that is because downward pressure on wages induced by the likes of Walmart also affects workers here. We need to support labour rights organizations that work to hold corporate retailers accountable both in the South and in the North. Only then can workers and consumers in the North and South stand to gain together, rather at the cost of one another.
Third, we need to move beyond the clichéd narratives about women and factory work. Many romanticize such work as “liberating.” Jeffrey Sachs, for instance, describes it in The End of Poverty as “a step on the path of future urban affluence.” Conversely, others see women in factories as helpless victims of injustice. Neither portrayal is accurate.
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Most garment workers in Bangladesh — as in China, Mexico and India — are young women who migrate from rural regions. It is their first exposure outside their homes. While they fight hard to make the best of this “opportunity,” their reality remains a harsh one. Low hourly wages — as little as 23 cents in Bangladesh — barely allow for survival. While formally “voluntary,” overtime becomes in fact a necessity, leading to average workdays of up to 13.5 hours. Working conditions, which often include harassment, are unspeakable.
Yet, workers manage to resist and organize. Huge struggles need to be waged to secure basic rights, which should have been guaranteed without a quibble. A more radical solution — that gets closer to the root problem of the lack of control — involves the development of co-operatives and worker-owned firms. Many countries have rich co-operative traditions, which need to be supported. For workers, they can mean the difference between life and death. Obviously, if the Bangladeshi workers were unionized, they could not have been forced back into a structurally unsound building. But if they could own their workplace, such a building would never have been built.
Exciting new experiments in co-operative ownership are being spawned in many countries. While the most well known of these are associated with food-related movements, others are also emerging in the manufacturing sector.
Building on co-operative principles, these initiatives involve brilliant organizational and legal innovations to adapt to local conditions. They are also trying to give voice to marginalized groups, such as women and indigenous communities. If we hope to contribute to their struggles for justice, we must support such initiatives by workers (and producers) that provide them greater decision-making power over the conditions of their work.
Through education, advocacy, public policy and our consumption choices we must move such initiatives from the margins of our economies to the centres. Only then can we begin to see the victims of this tragedy as they truly are — not only as objects of horrendously inhumane and unjust practices, but also the potential protagonists of bold, new solutions.