Triangle Shirtwaist and Rana Plaza- Same Struggle

 by Brian Finnegan

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Protesters gathered today in front of the St. Regis Hotel in New York City to call on Ralph Lauren to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to improve workplace safety for garment workers. The protest preceded Ralph Lauren’s annual shareholders meeting where the AFL-CIO Reserve Fund (its investments) had a proposal on the ballot related to human rights reporting.

At today’s shareholder meeting, Nazma Akter, president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, representing 70,000 workers, spoke to the protesters and called on Ralph Lauren join with more than 180 brands that have agreed to participate in the Accord.  The Accord is a binding and enforceable agreement that represents a new model in supply chain accountability and risk management. Other programs to audit and monitor for workers’ safety follow the same model that has failed the hundreds of workers who have died in preventable garment factory fires and building collapses over the past 20 years.

Akter spoke in the name of “women like me, who produce goods for Ralph Lauren in Bangladesh.”  Young women are 80% of the garment workforce in Bangladesh. Most of the more than 3,600 workers killed and seriously injured in the April 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse were young women. Hundreds of children were orphaned when their parents were killed in the collapse.  But Rana is only the most notorious of recent deadly workplace disasters in factories along the global supply chains of major U.S. and European brands and retailers.

Rana Plaza reminded many of the Triangle factory fire in New York more than 100 years ago that killed more than 100 workers yet eventually led to improved workplace safety laws and enforcement and innovative collective bargaining agreements. The changes after the Triangle factory fire helped make what was once sweatshop labor into good jobs and a way into the middle class.

Following the protest, Akter participated in the Ralph Lauren shareholders meeting where she presented the AFL-CIO Reserve Fund’s shareholder proposal, urging the company to report to stockholders about how it assesses human rights risks. The AFL-CIO Reserve Fund submitted the proposal after the company failed to acknowledge or respond to written requests to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Ralph Lauren has bought thousands of tons of goods from at least 15 locations in Bangladesh since 2007.

At the shareholders meeting, Akter asked: “So why has a company that has always stood for the highest quality not joined the accord?” She also pointed out that workers in factories that have signed the accord are in a better position to exercise other workers’ rights. “There are over 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh. So far, 1,600 are covered by the accord and workers in these are better protected. Workers have a union at only 160 of those thousands of factories. Workers at factories covered by the Accord and those who have a union could have refused to enter Rana Plaza when they saw cracks. Workers must have Freedom of Association to protect themselves and claim their full human rights.” Unfortunately, workers who organize unions in Bangladesh are often fired, harassed or violently attacked.

Rana Plaza should help major corporations realize that the current model of cheap goods at any price through vast and unaccountable global supply chains is often inhumane and unsustainable.  Brands that want to act responsibly must take concrete measures to improve respect for human rights in the workplace.

This has been reposted from the AFL-CIO Now Blog, an indispensable source of information for worker activists.

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