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Unions may be the answer for exploited garment workers


In Australian homes, sewing is a dying art. At age ten, I received a beautiful dress with coloured hearts, sewn carefully for my measurements by my grandmother. I wore it for four days straight. Reflecting on that fact alone makes me realise how disposable our wardrobes have become.

Aftermath of Tazreen Fashions fireThese days, a metre of fabric costs more than a hastily assembled garment purchased at K-mart, so I don't sew my own clothes. I am far from alone in this.

But of course, such convenience and affordability has a well-documented dark side. It is embodied in the flourishing of exploitation in the garment industry.

Australian retailers compete to seek the lowest common denominator when sourcing clothing, and an ever-increasing demand for 'fast fashion' means Bangladesh, a country that pays some of the lowest wages in the world, is a cheap option.

A few days ago (24 November 2015) marked three years since the Tazreen Fashions factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that left over 100 garment workers dead.

Just six months later, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka tumbled down, and 1134 people were killed. Labels for top brands such as Inditex, H&M, Benetton and more were found in the rubble.

A single pair of jeans at these stores in Australia can cost up to twice what Bangladeshi women working in the factory are paid in a month.

International pressure led to many companies signing onto a fire and safety agreement and, later, a 77 per cent wage rise. Yet this has paradoxically caused more exploitation. Managers of the factories increased quotas to coincide with the rise, and now, mostly young female workers are expected to sew up to 140 collars onto garments in one hour.

Jasmine Sultana, whose testimony is recorded on the globallabourrights.org, was one of the workers who was on deck the day of the Rana Plaza collapse. She escaped death, but was permanently disabled:

'On 24 of April I was working on the sewing machine. An hour after starting time, the factory building came crashing in. Like other colleagues, I was trying to get out using the stairs. But I fell down. An iron bar hit my back hard ... I was released from the hospital on 30 April, but I still can't walk straight as I feel pain in my back. I need further medical care.'

Since the Rana Plaza collapse, there has been more scrutiny by international labour organisations. Baptist World Aid has produced a comprehensive report over the last three years called the Australian Fashion Report, where companies are rated for their record on workers' rights, safety codes, and sourcing of materials. A new app called Good On You, developed for iPhone and Android devices, allows shoppers to type in a brand name and find out how that company performs on workers' rights.

Yet such initiatives are unable to do much to address the reality for workers on the ground, and tend to survey representatives of the organisations in Australia. In the Australian Fashion Report, even the highest rated companies were unable to guarantee the supply chain.

Back in 2012, in an article exploring fashion juggernaut H&M's bid to become the 'ethical choice' for fashion, the company's head of sustainability Helena Helmersson admitted that such guarantees simply could not be made for companies of that size.

'A lot of people ask for guarantees: "Can you guarantee labour conditions? Can you guarantee zero chemicals?" Of course we cannot,' said Helmersson, 'when we're such a huge company operating in very challenging conditions. What I can say is that we do the very best we can with a lot of resources and a clear direction of what we're supposed to do. We're working really hard.'

While such efforts might be admirable, it's clear that other solutions are needed, too.

Josh Cullinan, secretary to the Australia-Bangladesh Solidarity Network, believes the only way for a more just treatment of garment workers is the proper organisation of the workers themselves.

His colleague Colin Long wrote: 'What is needed in Bangladesh today to prevent future Rana Plazas and Tazreens, and to ensure that improved pay doesn't just lead to heightened exploitation, is a real union movement free to organise workers and to press its demands for decent terms and conditions of work.'

But Cullinan explains that in places like Bangladesh, unionisation comes at a heavy cost.

'In Bangladesh, 95 per cent of factories don't have unions, and those that do are often corrupt,' he tells Eureka Street. 'More than 99 per cent of factories are unsafe, and they treat their employees abysmally. No major fashion label is sourcing products ethically in Bangladesh. They simply don't take into account the on-the-ground experience, even if they have monitored some aspects.'

Cullinan has spoken with survivors of the Rana Plaza tragedy and the Tazreen fire, and says that workers are under extraordinary pressure to perform when vigilators visit the factories.

'The only way for there to be a genuine analysis is for the workers to tell their stories without fear of repercussion. The vast majority will never receive that opportunity. There needs to be open dialogue.'

There is hope, if consumers begin by voting with their feet, and making their voices heard, perhaps by contacting companies they buy clothing from.

'One positive change I found in Bangladesh was that I had the opportunity to meet with a small group of workers who set up a cooperative,' says Cullinan. 'We are hoping that by the end of the year, we can get a crowd funding campaign happening to help support workers like this. The cooperative is called 'New Life' and we have been able to make a small order with them.'

In the meantime, the only way Australians can know they are getting a 100 per cent ethically sourced product is to physically go to where the garment is made and watch the entire process. I recommend grandmothers if you are blessed enough to have them still with you.


Beth DohertyBeth Doherty is a staff writer and editor at Jesuit Communications.

Topic tags: Beth Doherty, Tazreen Fashions, Dhaka, Rena Plaza, Bangladesh, unions



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Existing comments

Have I ever mentioned that my skills with needle and thread fall into the category of 'abysmal'? Notwithstanding, I have a dear friend who is poetry in motion with a sewing machine. Opposites attract. Mankind has become adept at exploitation: the environment and people. Especially poor people, vulnerable women and children. There is hope though. Even though unions are going through a difficult time at the moment, they have a proud history. Co-operatives could make a big difference.

Pam | 27 November 2015  

Great article. As Bruce Cockburn once sang, 'One day you're going to rise from your habitual feast and find yourself staring down the throat of the beast they call The Revolution.' Global capitalism or 'globalisation' has been a nightmare for all but the lucky few in western countries. The union movement might be down but it is certainly not out. The IWW is still operating and dream of the 'one big union' is alive.

Tony Thompson | 27 November 2015  

Nothing has changed since Marx's 'Das Kapital' except that the scale of exploitation of labour by capital has become globalised. The cheap goods that we were promised with the reduction in tariffs came not Bly at the cost of the destruction of the local textile, clothing and footwear industries, but also at the cost of the exploitation of labour in places like Bangladesh where there is little or no regulation of wages or working conditions. Free trade agreements without complementary fair work agreements will always result in the exploitation of labour and the theft of a large part of the value of their labour. It was ever thus.

Ginger Meggs | 27 November 2015  

What’s changed, GM, is that, thanks to capitalism, systemic poverty (ie, less than $1.50 per day) has on a global level dramatically sunk since Marx’s time, is now at its lowest level in the history of mankind, and but for Marxist-inspired pockets like North Korea and Cuba, will disappear entirely in a few decades. (I apologise to E.S. readers for repeating this undisputed finding of the Brookings Institute for the umpteenth time, but it seems the point never sinks in around here.) So Marx’s prediction has been completely smashed. Even in his own day, the standard of living indices were turning so badly against his theory that he and Engels, heavily in denial, had to fudge the figures. For a thought-provoking look at how sweatshops play a positive role in helping the poor out of poverty, and how the anti-sweatshop movement actually can harm the interests of sweatshop workers here’s a lively online interview between Tom Wood and Professor Benjamin Powell, author of “Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the global economy”: tomwoods.com/blog/stop-protesting-sweatshops. Note, finally, that if we first-worlders took up en masse Beth Doherty’s concluding recommendation and fell back to our grannies for clothes – not that I would want to prevent anyone taking this suggestion up – the inevitable economic consequence would be the collapse of the garment industry in the developing world. I’m not sure the impoverished unemployed third worlders would be thanking Doherty for this. Maybe some first world grannies, already consigned to babysitting for working mums, would be not too pleased either.

HH | 01 December 2015  

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