As the seventh anniversary of the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh draws closer, challenges regarding union rights, factory safety and the treatment of garment workers remain, according to Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On Thursday, Menendez released a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff report examining conditions in the aftermath of the watershed disaster, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers—mostly women—and injured or maimed thousands more.
While the unprecedented event spurred the world’s leading apparel brands and retailers to create a pair industry-leading safety initiatives—the European-dominated Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the predominantly American (and some say weaker) Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety—abuse remains rife as workers’ rights are often sacrificed on the altar of inflexible quotas.
Labor leaders and activists on the front lines are especially vulnerable to abuse and intimidation from factory owners. In the past year alone, nearly 12,000 workers lost their jobs after demanding fair wages. Hundreds more face retaliatory criminal charges or are blacklisted from work.
“We found that the environment for union organizers and activists has deteriorated significantly, as evidenced by the violence or repression of workers who protested for a better minimum wage in December of 2018 and January of 2019,” Menendez said at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. event in Washington, D.C.
The Alliance has since dissolved (and its successor, Nirapon, is still fighting for relevance). By June 1, the Accord will have transitioned all responsibilities to the Readymade Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), a replacement group made up of an equal number of representatives from local garment businesses, international brands and labor-rights groups.
As the safety-monitoring landscape shifts, Bangladesh has a “tremendous opportunity to set a new gold standard” for building safety and workers rights should they choose to seize it, Mendendez said.
Still, stakeholders must take the time to address “some important questions”: Will the government maintain progress on building safety and pursue new measures to guard the rights of workers? Will the RSC build on the successes of the Accord and Alliance, respect labor rights and protect workers from abuse? Will international brands demand higher building safety standards and greater respect for workers’ rights? More crucially, would they be prepared to “walk away” if factories fail to meet those expectations?
“If the answer to each of these questions is yes, a label ‘made in Bangladesh’ will become a badge of honor that represents true purpose and brings people great pride,” Menendez said. “But if the answer is no, I fear that Bangladesh could lose its status as a top destination for the RMG sector. “
Menendez isn’t a stranger to speaking about workers rights issues in Bangladesh. The first hearing he held as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2013 was on Rana Plaza. He organized another hearing on the same subject the following year. The senator also has a personal connection to garment workers; his mother was a non-unionized seamstress who “worked tirelessly” in factories in northern New Jersey. She would come home at night, he said, with her fingers bleeding.
“So I know how difficult this work can be, but it should never be fatal,” he said. “The work environment should never be hostile, and the right to organize and collectively bargain should never be trampled upon. And I truly believe Bangladesh has an opportunity to…be a country that not only produces good products, but does so safely and ethically.”
Indeed, it’s not enough for brands and factory owners to adopt policies against workplace abuse. “You must be willing to fire and prosecute managers who physically and verbally abuse workers,” Menendez said. “Only then does real cultural change take hold.”
The report includes more than 30 recommendations, including, “first and foremost,” an imperative by the government to protect union leaders from retaliation and illegal termination.
“This means carrying out prompt and impartial investigations into factory owners alleged to have broken the law, including by suppressing union activity and verbally physically and sexually abusing workers, and it means prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law,” Menendez said. Furthermore, Bangladesh should register unions that meet all requirements “effectively and transparently.”
Apparel brands and retailers that source from Bangladesh should “collectively develop and implement” a public-facing zero-tolerance policy on violence toward and harassment of workers, especially when it is gender based.
Brands should also ensure that pricing and sourcing contracts with RMG factories factor in the costs of labor and safety compliance, including minimum-wage increases, overtime payments and all legal benefits to “eliminate incentives for managers to cut corners, sacrifice safety and abuse workers.”
The work of the international community is vital, too. The United Nations, Menendez said, should organize a visit to Bangladesh to investigate the rights of workers to join unions and conduct union activities without retaliatory actions such as firings and false criminal charges.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), he added, should launch a commission of inquiry on Bangladesh in response to alleged violations of the ILO conventions on freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain. Moreover, Congress should increase funding for U.S. programs promoting labor rights in Bangladesh.
“Bangladesh has the opportunity to set new gold standards for workers’ rights, and Bangladesh can lead by example a time the world desperately needs it,” Menendez said. “I want Bangladesh to succeed. I want the Bangladeshi economy to grow. I want Bangladeshi workers to thrive and I believe the Bangladeshi people share in these dreams. They want the label ‘made in Bangladesh’ to be a source of pride.”