Irish group seeks fair deal for workers in Bangladesh

Some 85% of the 1,125 souls who died in the recent garment factory fires at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh were young women who were under the age of 35.

And many of these victims were originally from a rural background, women and girls who had joined the mass migration to cities in a desperate attempt to escape rural poverty.

But what they found instead were long hours, garment factory salaries of $38 (€29.50) a month, life-threatening working conditions and squalid, overpriced accommodation This minimum wage does not cover even one third of the income needed to sustain lives.

Vulnerable women in the garment industry frequently perform unskilled, low-paid, precarious work. They have little voice or influence and are denied the right to join a union or to organise.

In 2009, the International Museum of Women included an examination of the impact that increased numbers of farmers’ suicides have had on their families. These suicides are just one of the driving forces behind the mass exodus of dispossessed rural dwellers to cities in India and Bangladesh.

Their slideshow Growing Debt showed how many widows were left with children to support and the burden of their husband’s debts. They were unlikely to remarry because other men in the community were unwilling to take on the widows’ debts.

But its not just the vagaries of farming and the arrival of multinationals like Monsanto that has driven increasing numbers of people away from rural areas Industry — and the garment industry in particular — has become the main source of income in Bangladesh.

It is now the second largest export of apparel after China and accounts for 78% of the country’s total exports. And it has the lowest paid garment workers in the world. This removal to cities has meant that scarce services such as health care centres and schools have subsequently been deprived of vital funds as populations in rural villages decrease. All eyes are on the city and the chance of earning even the lowest of wages in the garment industry.

The over-dependency of Bangladesh on the garment industry has fostered a climate of corruption and collusion where many workplaces fail to adhere to even the most basic standards of health and safety. Since 2005, over 1,700 garment workers have died in Bangladesh.

The latest disaster for garment workers was in Rana Plaza, which was built by a local politician on a swamp, with little regulatory oversight and no union representation for workers.

And although it is the most catastrophic disaster in the garment industry’s history it is just one of a continuing saga of tragedies to beset garment workers in countries across South Asia.

In October of 2010, 30 people gathered in Dublin to launch the Irish Branch of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). The CCC is dedicated to improving working conditions and supporting the rights of all workers in the garment industry. The Irish CCC is supported by ICTU, Global Solidarity, Re-Dress and Trocaire among others and is the 15th national member organisation in Europe.

Today, the Irish CCC along with the organisations’ other members is celebrating the news that many leading manufacturers have signed up to a ground-breaking agreement that will go some way to protecting garments workers from another disaster on this scale. CCC Ireland founder member Kate Nolan told me why she became involved.

*Why the Clean Clothes Campaign, Kate?

>>“It was Oct 8, 2010. I had been working with Rosie O’Reilly of the Ethical Fashion group Re-Dress At the launch of the Irish CCC Rosie said that along with the other stake holders involved, it was felt that this was the time to launch the Irish CCC. The organisation is based in Amsterdam and at the launch; Marcella Kraay who introduced us to the work of the fourteen other EU organisations represented them. And she pointed out that when consumers demand that their clothes and sportswear is produced under decent work conditions, things can start to change.”

*What was your background prior to this?

>>“I had worked as a buyer between Dublin, London and an Indian factory so I was able to see first-hand the way things were for the workers, the inequities, the callousness and the downright exploitation. I began to work with Rosie who had started Re-Dress and it quickly became obvious to us that there was an important role for Ireland to play — awareness campaigns, the whole issue of corporate responsibility and putting pressure on companies to adopt codes of conduct that will ensure that garment workers through their supply chains are treated fairly.”

*“Isn’t it a bit daunting, considering the scale of the problem and the fact that most of us are just looking for a bargain when we shop for clothes?

>>“It is a huge issue, and it’s difficult for consumers to know how the clothes they are buying are produced. And it’s only sad that it took such an awful event as the Rana Plaza to bring the issue to international attention again. But unfortunately, this is hardly the first time that a disaster of this kind has happened. The Spectrum disaster in 2005 killed 64 workers, 112 workers died in the Tazareen factory fire five months ago and over 300 workers died in a factory fire in Pakistan last September. This latest collapse provides further evidence that the voluntary company led monitoring has failed miserably to protect workers’ lives.”

*But I believe that there has finally been a breakthrough on that front?

>>“Yes and it’s fantastic. Some of the world’s leading retail labels have finally signed up to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety on the 15th of this month. The Accord covers more than 1,000 Bangladeshi garment factories and implementation has already started. It’s only a shame Gap and Walmart have yet to participate. It’s not too late for them to sign the Accord and ensure that their workers don’t have to fear for their lives each time they go to work. But now there are other issues such as a living wage and fair compensation to be tackled.”

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