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The Fight For Bangladeshi Labor Rights Hits New York City

Labor rights activists gathered outside of Walmart board member Christopher Williams’ Manhattan office last Thursday in a display of organized dissent against the company’s decision to forego signing onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Walmart, which has declined to support the legally-binding agreement requiring companies to implement and fund specific safety measures in factories, has previously said it would conduct its own in-depth safety inspections and make the results of those inspections public.

The retail giant then helped lead efforts to create the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a parallel initiative to the International Labour Organization (ILO) backed Accord, causing a heavily debated divide between proponents of the Accord and of the Alliance.

Both undertakings were born out of a need to restore Ready-Made-Garment (RMG) worker well-being in Bangladesh following the deadly Tazreen garment factory fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse.

While some steps have been taken to implement increased safety measures to prevent future tragedies, victims of the previous tragedies are still suffering. Up to now, one year after the Tazreen garment factory fire and six months after the Rana Plaza building collapse, victims of these incidents have not been compensated.

“We’re here to ask Chris to tell the Walmart board to pay the full and fair compensation to workers in Bangladesh,” Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said.

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The group, made up of members from the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and the Bangladesh Center For Workers Solidarity, also called on Walmart to sign the Accord and for Williams to resign his post on the board.

Liana Foxvog, organizing director for the ILRF who helped plan the demonstration, said that five of fourteen product lines being made in the Tazreen factory were Walmart’s and 112 workers died producing clothing for the brand.

Officials from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity uncovered a document last year showing that even after Walmart publicly announced that it was cutting ties to the factory following the Tazreen fire, the retailer continued to produce goods there. Walmart responded in reports that a supplier subcontracted this work to the factory unbeknownst to them.

Foxvog said Walmart is just “avoiding responsibility” and “shifting the blame,” and the group of activists has been leafleting in front of Walmart board members’ homes and offices around the country over the past year seeking to be heard. No board member has yet agreed to meet the Accord-backing activists and Williams also declined requests to meet and did not appear during the protest.

Mr. Shafiqul Islam, commercial counselor for the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, D.C. weighed in on the protest in an exclusive interview with Sourcing Journal, saying the protest doesn’t accomplish anything.

“Walmart is trying to do the best they can, given their position in Bangladesh,” he said. “They have been very generous setting aside financing for loans for factory improvements, and they have conducted many inspections of their own factories.” Islam added that Walmart’s recent inspections have been “very thorough and transparent,” and of the 200 factories the company has in Bangladesh, many have already made real progress.

The demonstration followed a panel discussion Wednesday evening at the Ford Foundation auditorium titled, “The Rana Plaza Disaster in Bangladesh–Taking Stock Half a Year On.” The talk was part of a Mary Robinson Speaker Series on Business & Human Rights and held to help spread the word about the progress, or lack thereof, in the RMG industry post-tragedies.

Kalpona Akter, a constant voice in the fight for factory worker rights in the country, gave the keynote speech. Lauren Compere, managing director and director of shareholder engagement at Boston Common Asset Management, Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, Harpreet Kaur, South Asia researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, and Chloe Poynton who manages BSR’s East Coast human rights practice made up the panel. Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times who has covered the tragedies in Bangladesh extensively, moderated the panel.

In the six months since Rana Plaza, nothing significant has been done, Akter said. “The government is really moving slower than other stakeholders,” she added.

Representatives from the Bangladeshi government including Mr. Shafiqul Islam, voiced dissent from the audience, citing a laundry list of accomplishments the government has made. A hotline is already in place for receiving safety complaints, Islam said, there’s been an adoption of a national plan of action and installation of a committee to review factory standards.

But Akter didn’t buy it. The problem, she said, is that the government isn’t doing much to enforce any laws that benefit workers because they are more concerned with owners’ best interests as many of the country’s leaders are factory owners themselves. “How do we prevent collusion when 10 percent of Parliament members are factory owners?” Akter asked.

The discussion turned to the wage rate and the recent 77 percent increase to 5,300 taka ($68) which factory owners reluctantly agreed to and garment workers were unsatisfied with as it was less than the $100 they sought.

“That rate is just the minimum,” Islam said, take-home pay after overtime is much more he added. Either way, if the government is going to raise the wage level, the prices brands pay for goods have to be higher, he said.

Akter agreed that brands will have to come out of pocket more than in the past. “To all the companies in this room,” she said, “You can still make a profit and be good to workers.”

With regard to the victims of both tragedies, Akter said every stakeholder has an obligation to act. Many of these victims can’t afford hospital bills, can’t work and have pulled their kids from school to send them to work. Instead of providing compensation the best these brands are doing is spending their money on public relations consultants, Akter said.

“What is it going to take to get these companies to pay up?” she asked.

Akter’s takeaway message to brands was, “We do not want you to leave our country, but we do want you to be responsible,” she said. “We want jobs, but we want jobs with dignity.”