Bangladesh: elements of a successful global worker solidarity campaign

kathmanduIndustriALL

A behind the scenes look at a successful campaign. Bringing about social change is difficult, and clicktivism – signing an online petition – is not enough. So how do you campaign and win?

The issue

Textile and garment workers in Bangladesh are joining unions and fighting for better conditions. In December 2016, thousands went on strike for a higher minimum wage. 1,600 workers were fired, 35 trade unionists were arrested, others went into hiding, and trade union offices were closed.

IndustriALL and our sister global union UNI launched a campaign to end the crackdown. Yesterday, we had confirmation that we had been successful: the last trade unionist was released from prison, and our union affiliates in Bangladesh have been recognized as negotiating partners by the government and the employers’ association, the BGMEA.

How did we do it?

1. We had a backstory

We spent years raising awareness of conditions in Bangladesh, and building relationships with people working to improve things. We could quickly launch the campaign with a simple message.

2. Mobilized our base

We contacted our affiliated unions across the world and asked them to send letters of protest to the Bangladeshi government. We coordinated a day of action that saw union-organized protests outside Bangladeshi embassies in Berlin, Geneva, London, Brussels, The Hague, Washington D.C., New York, Ottawa, Kathmandu, and Seoul.

3. LabourStart campaign

We launched a campaign on LabourStart, the online petition site for the labour movement. More than 10,000 trade unionists around the world sent messages of protest to the Bangladeshi government.

4. Activated our network

We have built strong relationships with partner NGOs. We contacted organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign and Fashion Revolution, who supported our campaign and shared it with their networks.

5. Gave people something to do

We engaged people by using social media to tell the story of the workers who make our clothes. We used easily shareable content with lots of images.

We produced a simple poster demanding the release of the trade unionists, and made it available to download. We asked people to take selfies of themselves holding the poster, and share it on social media with our campaign hashtag #EveryDayCounts. Hundreds of people posted images, which helped spread the message further.

6. Used positive alternatives

Our opponents characterized trade union protests as criminal and violent. We countered this with a positive alternative: two of our affiliates signed collective agreements with Bangladeshi garment employers during the period of the crackdown, showing that positive industrial relations are possible.

7. Used global framework agreements

We have spent years building relationships with major fashion brands that source from Bangladesh. We have signed global framework agreements with H&M, Inditex (ZARA), Tschibo and Mizuno. These agreements contain strong language that requires brands to take responsibility for their supply chain, and include a commitment to support collective bargaining.

Consumer activism means more and more people now care how their clothes were made: to stay competitive, brands need to show they care too. Major brands could not afford to be associated with a labour crackdown in Bangladesh. As a result, they announced they would not attend the crucial industry trade fair, the Dhaka Apparel Summit.

This was the last straw for the factory owners.

8. Established ourselves as partners

Unions make deals. We will need to work with the government and the employers’ federation in future to create a successful garment industry that provides quality jobs.

We created a situation where it would be costly for the government and employers to continue the crackdown, and made it clear we were in a position to escalate the campaign. Then we gave them a way out.

Union representatives on the ground, the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, negotiated an agreement that saw the arrested trade unionists released. Commitments were made to offer dismissed workers their jobs back, and we established the precedent of the IBC being recognized as a partner for negotiations.

Conclusion

The two most important factor in our success were:

Spending time to build relationships and trust beforehand, so that a lot of people could be mobilized quickly.

Tackling the problem from different angles. With the Bangladeshi government receiving emails, letters and embassy protests, and brands refusing to attend the apparel summit, they felt pressure from all sides.

The campaign relied on relationships and networks. We played to our strengths (our networks), and targeted the employers’ weak points (reputational damage and the threat of lost business).

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Triangle Shirtwaist and Rana Plaza- Same Struggle

 by Brian Finnegan

What-the-Triangle-Shirtwaist-Factory-Has-to-Do-with-the-Protest-Outside-the-Ralph-Lauren-Shareholders-Meeting-Today_blog_post_fullWidth

 

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.

Plus Ça Change: Triangle Shirtwaist and Rana Plaza

by Joe White
triangle building

The horrible deaths of over 1,100 clothing workers in Bangladesh bear more than a passing resemblance to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of l9ll in which l46 garment workers perished. In certain key respects nothing has changed over the last l00 years. In both New York l9ll and Bangladesh 2013 the distinguishing characteristics of garment manufacturing were low capital entry levels, cut-throat competition, utterly atrocious wages and working conditions, and bosses who ranked with coal mine owners when it came to respect for human life. Both then and now, these catastrophes were completely avoidable as well as being completely predictable.

Yet another parallel is that there were unheeded warnings. Fires in the shirtwaist sector of the New York City garment trade were nothing new; smaller building collapses had already occurred in South Asia’s 21st century version of 7th Avenue. The sheer magnitude of the catastrophe raises an alarming question: Can it be that things are actually worse for working people throughout the world than they were l00 years ago? Twenty-five years ago such a conclusion would have been implausible if not downright unthinkable. For people on the left, (though of course polls don’t get taken on things like this), the consensus seems to have been that world history had entered a period of transition from capitalism to socialism—however long and messy that transition might turn out to be. But who’s going to bet the price of a six-pack on that in 2013?
Continue reading

New Bangladesh Law Fails Again to Protect Workers’ Rights

International Trade Union Confederation

Hundreds of Bangladesh workers in several garment factores were killed in a building collapse  Photo: Bangladesh Federation of Workers Solidarity (BFWS).

Hundreds of Bangladesh workers in several garment factores were killed in a building collapse Photo: Bangladesh Federation of Workers Solidarity (BFWS).

(20 July 2013)Long-awaited amendments to Bangladesh’s Labour Act passed by the parliament earlier this week fail to protect workers’ rights to freedom of association, falling well short of international labour standards. These obstacles to organising a union and bargaining collectively with employers will continue to make it exceedingly difficult for workers to negotiate for fair wages and safe and decent conditions.

The absence of unions in the vast majority of workplaces has up to now kept wages at poverty levels and has allowed employers to force workers to work in dangerous, even fatal conditions. The Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions disasters have shown how vulnerable workers can be without the protection of strong unions. Continue reading

Fashion Victims: Garment Workers in Bangladesh

Watch this informative and moving report from the Australian Broadcasting Service.

“Fashion Victims”, reported by Sarah Ferguson and presented by Kerry O’Brien,was  aired on Monday 24th June at 8.30 pm on ABC1.  There is a webpage with background information.

Walmart and Gap Advance Toothless Unilateral Version of Bangladesh Safety Accord

                                                                                                                                                        IndustriALL Global Union
Bangladesh workers

July 10, 2013

Global Unions IndustriALL and UNI, reacting to the announcement by Walmart and Gap today of another toothless corporate auditing programme for Bangladesh factory safety, stated that these companies are only repeating the mistakes of the past.

The Walmart/Gap initiative falls short of the standard set by the binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord is an enforceable building safety programme backed by more than seventy global brands from 15 countries. Unlike the Accord, the Walmart/Gap initiative is unclear on enforceability and there is no commitment from the brands to stay in Bangladesh, nor is there full transparency.

Implementation of Bangladesh Safety Accord Advances

                                                                                                                                                        IndustriALL Global Union
Bangladesh workers

The broad coalition of trade unions – led by IndustriALL and UNI – and 70 market leading clothing brands and retailers today announces the next steps to implement the historic Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

 The signatories to the Accord, IndustriALL Global Union, UNI Global Union and the over 70 clothing brands and retailers, set themselves a 45 day period to draw up and agree on the implementation plan and 8 July is the deadline. The Accord represents a new era of collaboration and sincere efforts to make the Bangladeshi garment industry safe and sustainable through comprehensive inspections, repairs of factories, training and involvement of workers.

All parties to the five-year binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh are enthused by this milestone and the real work on the ground will begin soon. Continue reading