by Mike Hall
Would you trust that your food is clean and uncontaminated, the plane you’re flying in airworthy or your workplace safe, if those were certified by companies counting on the profits they’ll make from your purchases, travel and labor? Of course not.
But that’s the dilemma millions of workers around the world face—often with deadly results—when it comes to their safety on the job, a new report from the AFL-CIO reveals.
As two 2012 fires that claimed the lives of nearly 1,300 workers in Bangladesh and Pakistan show, the problem is especially acute in the garment industry that produces goods for well-known brands such as Faded Glory and retailers including Gap, Walmart and H&M. Since 2006, more than 600 garment workers—mostly young women—have been killed in preventable factory fires in Bangladesh alone.
In the most recent fires, both factories had been certified as meeting working condition and safety standards by official-sounding groups financed by the very corporations profiting from the low-wage labor churning out the pants, sweaters, shirts and more destined for boutique stores and department store racks, according to Responsibility Outsourced: Social Audits, Workplace Certification and 20 Years of Failure to Protect Worker Rights.
Nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and others where manufacturers have flocked to take advantage of incredibly low-wage workforces have miserably failed to protect workers. In an effort to project a “socially responsible” image to consumers and the media, manufacturers and retailers have established what are known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs.
The CSR programs, says the AFL-CIO report, have spawned a system of “privatized regulation” by groups such as the Fair Labor Association (FLA), Social Accountability International (SAI) and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP)—funded for the most part by the same corporations seeking their “seal of approval.”
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), says in the foreword of the report that such self-regulation:
Has not only kept wages low and working conditions poor, it has provided public relations cover for producers whose disregard for health and safety has cost hundreds of lives.
Sumi Abedin nearly became one of those victims when a fire roared through the Tazreen Fashion plant in Bangladesh, killing 112 of her co-workers. The plant—with no fire escapes—had been certified by WRAP as meeting safe working standards, according to the international labor rights watchdog group the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC).
But as Abedin—who escaped by jumping from the fourth floor—said, through an interpreter, in a recent interview with AFL-CIO Now:
Before the fire, along with the other workers, I was as worried because working conditions were so poor. The doors were closed and locked. The aisles were full [of finished products] and blocked. Management ignored workers’ safety concerns. Whenever there was an accident, they’d say they’d fix it but never did.
If supervisors had heeded a worker’s warning that there was a fire, lives might have been saved, but says Abedin:
The factory manager told us there was no fire, that it was a lie and told us to go back to work. I smelled smoke and ran to one of the doors, but it as padlocked. Then I ran to the stairs on the second floor. Many of my co-workers had fallen in the stairs. The power was out. We used the light from our cellphones to go up to the fourth floor and some worker were able to pull bars off the windows. If I jumped at least my family would be able to identify my body, I wouldn’t be burned to death.
Abedin, along with Kalpona Akter, executive director of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, is currently in the United States on a tour to highlight the need for strong workplace safety standards— especially fire safety—certified by independent organizations. They say workers’ unions are the best option. They are also demanding compensation for the fire victims. Akter said:
The self-certification by these oversight organizations doesn’t really mean anything. I think you can buy them….Workers have to be free to form unions and then they can negotiate for themselves to ensure safety….Unions are a great tool to prevent these kind of things from happening.
For the most part, the nations that host these global manufacturing facilities have signed on to International Labor Organization (ILO) standards on workplace safety and the rights of workers to join unions. But as the AFL-CIO report points out, most—especially in the lesser-developed world—do little to enforce those standards.
The AFL-CIO report says tragedies like the Tazreen Fashion fire and other violations of fundamental rights at work will continue:
Unless governments protect workers through enacting adequate laws and enforcing them so that corporations respect those laws. Workplace unions are the key to monitoring and enforcing such laws.
Ultimately, says Burrow:
It is through the freedom of association and organizing unions that workers have the best chance to defend their interests.
Read the full report, which includes a history of the development of CSR privatized regulation, a close look at the major corporate-backed accrediting organizations, several case studies and recommendations on improving working conditions in the global supply chain.
Mike Hall writes for the AFL-CIO Now blog where this post first appeared,before the recent tragedy.