Factory collapse a catalyst for workers' rights
Since the collapse last week of Bangladesh's Rana Plaza much of the focus has been on international retailers and what they can do to ensure the safety of the 3.6m Bangladeshis working in a $19bn industry focused on producing clothes for cost-conscious western consumers.
But Bangladeshi labour rights activists, and their international supporters, say the tragedy at Rana Plaza -- which left more than 500 dead after garment workers were forced back to the production lines even after the building developed cracks -- has highlighted a simple truth.
They argue that Bangladesh's garment workers, mostly women from poor rural backgrounds, need to organise labour unions that can effectively represent their interests, including their fundamental interest in a safe workplace.
“If these [workers] were able to organise, this [death toll] wouldn't have happened,” says Kalpona Akter, an activist with the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity. “If they had unions, as soon as they saw the cracks they could have raised their voice.”
Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director-general of the International Labour Organization, says the toll at Rana Plaza could have been much lower if the five factories housed in the building had unions that could have resisted the order to return to work until doubts about safety were resolved.
“Had the staff been organised in a union, or any kind of association, it would have made a big difference,” says Houngbo, who has led an ILO emergency mission to Bangladesh. “Instead of workers feeling pressured to go back to work, they would have had an opportunity to discuss safety, and the union would have had to take a stand, yea, or nay.”
On paper, Bangladeshi workers do have the legal right to form unions, and collectively bargain with factory owners. In reality, attempts to unionise the country's garment workers have been ruthlessly suppressed, with any activist workers hounded out of their jobs, blacklisted or worse, with tacit government approval.
Last year, Aminul Islam, a prominent garment worker-turned-labour organiser who had complained of harassment by security forces, was murdered, and his body – bearing marks of torture -- dumped on a highway. His killers were never identified, but labour groups believe his murder was intended to warn potential labour agitators.
Today, Bangladesh's garment workers are the lowest paid in the world, with an official minimum wage of about $38 a month. Minimum wages last rose in 2010, when they were increased by 80 per cent, after a four-year period with no change, despite persistent high inflation.