After Rana Plaza, What Can We Do for World's Garment Workers?

Bangladeshi workers participate in a protest against the collapse of an eight-storey building that housed several garment factories and poor safety standards, in Dhaka, Bangladesh last year. (Photo: AP)

After Rana Plaza, What Can We Do for World's Garment Workers?

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. -- Maya Angelou

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. -- Maya Angelou

More than a year has passed since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Not a lot has changed in Canada -- despite the huge public outcry in its immediate aftermath. Several international organizations, unions and NGOs did initiate a legally binding agreement with some retailers, The Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh, to ensure that workers' rights are respected. Their efforts have been opposed by large brands such as Walmart and the Gap, which have promoted a more "industry-friendly" agreement that is not legally binding. In Canada, only one retailer has signed onto the accord. For their part, governments have taken little action on public policy.

As consumers we often feel powerless, even when economists assure us that we can force retailers to be responsible through our purchasing choices. Many of us, plagued by stagnant wages and rising costs, are not able to contemplate paying higher prices for "ethical products." Others of us, who are willing and able to pay more, are not sure how or where to shop "ethically." The fact is that big retailers, with their huge marketing budgets, are largely insulated from the actions of individual consumers. Change requires our collective action -- as consumers, as citizens, as communities and as a democracy.

Two complementary lines of action are possible. First, we must hold retailers accountable to ensure that workers' rights are respected. Initiatives like the accord can ensure that workers' rights are respected down to the bottom of the supply chain by pressuring retailers to only source from well-monitored and unionized factories. While our actions as consumers are essential, if we do not also act as citizens to force the enactment of supportive public policy, few retailers will respond.

A second, more daring strategy entails promoting alternatives for workers. Imagine what could happen if garment workers in Haiti, Bangladesh, Cambodia and India could leave the oppressive factories in which they work and establish their own firms. The need for monitoring labour rights could virtually disappear, as workers would control their workplace. This is exactly what many around the world aspire to, and what some are actively struggling to achieve.

One such example, Oporajeo ("the invincible") has arisen in Bangladesh out of the dust and ashes of the Rana Plaza tragedy. In this firm, which calls itself the Dream Factory, workers earn legally stipulated wages and an equal share of 50 per cent of the firm's profit. The remaining profits are reinvested or go to educational funds (for the children of workers) and short term loan funds (e.g., health care needs of workers severely injured in the Rana Plaza disaster). Like all start-ups, worker-owned firms and co-operatives face challenges. Oporajeo cites a need for a steady supply of orders, technical and financial support for quality assurance, and professional management expertise for its business model.

However, worker-owned firms and co-operatives, like Oporajeo, have to confront additional challenges. Governments have little knowledge about such firms and are often unwilling to support them. Oporajeo has not only received scant institutional support, but because of its worker-owned status, cannot obtain a trade license or bank financing (even when it meets loan conditions). In addition, initiatives like Oporajeo are often seen to set "a bad example" particularly by dominant players in the market.

Our action as collective consumers and citizens can have an especially transformative impact here. In Canada, the federal government spends millions annually on imported garments, while the government of Ontario also purchases significant amounts, $66 million over the last five years.

While as citizens we pay for these garments, we have little or no information on how or in which countries they are produced. Other public institutions -- schools, universities and hospitals -- also purchase and sell garments. Our governments and public institutions can adopt purchasing that supports more ethical production. Indeed, some already do. Various universities and municipalities in Canada have "no-sweat" policies for the apparel they buy and sell, and an increasing number have also adopted "fair trade" polices.

These policies can be modified or extended to add best practice clauses that support worker-owned firms and co-operatives. However, none of this would happen without our active input. Changes such as these require that we think and act as members of different collectives, institutions, communities and democracies -- and not simply as individual consumers.

This Labour Day (and throughout the year) let us support not only the rights of garment workers around the world, but also their vision. Let us work to make initiatives like Oporajeo truly invincible.

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