Labor Rights in Jeopardy in US and Across the World

In April, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,129 workers and injuring at least 1,500 more. In September 2012, a fire at a factory in Pakistan killed about 300 people. In November, 112 people were killed in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh. Last year, an exposé of the Foxconn factory in China, where Apple products are made, detailed distressing worker conditions and a string of worker suicides. Yet, conditions like these will persist unless labor rights progress can be made, including the fundamental right to join a union.

The April 24, Rana Plaza factory collapse is considered the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. Most of the workers were young women, making about $37 a month. The day before the building collapsed, cracks appeared in the infrastructure and police ordered the building to be evacuated. Yet survivors say they were told their pay would be docked if they followed the evacuation order and left the factory floor, according to The American Prospect.

A 400-page government report on the collapse found widespread fault for the disaster including a blatant disregard for building codes, construction with substandard materials, and urging workers to return to the factory despite evidence that the building was unsafe.

The Rana Plaza disaster has brought global attention to workers’ rights, particularly in the garment industry. But finding an effective and lasting solution to ensure global labor rights will be difficult.

Organizations meant to protect the human rights of workers around the world have not always lived up to their purpose. In January 2012, after the Foxconn exposé, Apple used the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct an investigation into Apple’s contracted Foxconn factories in China. In February, the head of the FLA pronounced that the facilities were “first class,” “tranquil… compared with a garment factory,” and “way, way above average of the norm.”

In August 2012, one of the most highly-respected human rights organizations, Social Accountability International (SAI) gave a factory owned by Ali Enterprises in Karachi, Pakistan, a clean bill of health and said they were running a model business, just before the fire that killed 300. It’s clear there is a flaw in the human rights monitoring system, which may be that the monitoring organizations are industry-backed. According to the New York Times,

For the past 15 years, retail giants like Walmart and Carrefour have helped create and champion numerous factory inspection systems… the companies are motivated by genuine concern for the workers at the bottom of their supply chain, but also by their own bottom line, worried that consumers might shun products made at factories where there are abuses.

However, the monitoring is often conducted by unqualified or unsupervised subcontractors. The company that certified the Ali Enterprises factory never even visited the facilities, the Times reports, but handed the job off to a local inspector.

The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, the global labor movement, anti-sweatshop activists, and an independent labor rights monitoring organization, Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) helped pressure approximately 40 fashion brands into signing a legally binding contract to take responsibility for what happens in the factories that make their clothing.

The agreement demands that the fashion brands require their contracted factories to allow union representatives to help train factory employees in safety monitoring. The contract was signed in May and by July, about 70 major European fashion brands and retailers had also signed, the Prospect reports. Few US companies joined, however.

The European accord, which promises union rights, could be a promising step in the labor rights movement. But Walmart, the Gap, and 15 other North American brands created an alternative, voluntary agreement also announced in July. Their agreement has “no arm’s-length monitoring, no penalties, no enforceable rights, and no role for unions.”

While trade unions could be a solution to ensure a safe working environment and a livable wage, union members in some countries are often blacklisted, and sometimes, worse. In April 2012, a labor rights organizer, who exposed dangerous working conditions, was found dead after having been tortured after a meeting with workers near a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a deal by and for the industry, defined health, safety, labor, and environmental protections as obstacles to trade. Many Mexican unions serve government interests, and those that do not are subject to persecution, according to the Prospect. Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, president of the Mexican National Union of Mine and Metal Workers, for example, is currently living in exile in Canada after being accused of fraud by the Mexican government.

The Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, is the most important piece of labor legislation in US history. The Act was designed to protect the rights of workers to organize unions. When the Clinton administration pushed through George H.W. Bush’s NAFTA, it ultimately did so without requiring those same labor rights for workers in other countries with which the US has trade agreements.

Today in the US, consumers may not think that labor abuses in countries like China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan could occur in this country. However, unfair wages and harsh work environments have been the issue of many recent protests across the nation. And since the recession, businesses have gained more power over employees who are more likely to put up with worse conditions in order to hold a job.

In April, a Los Angeles Times report found that US businesses are requiring employees to work harder without providing the financial and psychological rewards that were once expected. Employers have the mentality that long-term employees and good relationships with employees are no longer necessary. There are so many people desperate for jobs that workers have become expendable.

The right-wing assault on labor unions in the US is also deeply concerning. In February, conservative legislators in Pennsylvania, backed by business interests, pushed for the return of the so-called “right to work” laws, which cripple labor unions and keep wages low.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R), along with five other Republicans, introduced the initiative, which was very similar to the big business advocate group, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) own “right to work” bill. Metcalfe is a “highly active member” of ALEC. “Right to work” provisions exist in 24 US states.

Both globally and nationally, consumer pressure is necessary to ensure labor and union rights and to prevent worker victimization. If businesses practices are not adequately monitored, environments like the garment factory in Bangladesh will persist and devastating, preventable losses will continue. Labor rights advocates and organizations should focus not only on safety and health standards, but on obtaining livable wages for workers. Americans must insist on labor rights in trade agreements, as well as defend their own workers’ rights.

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.

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