The price of fashion

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh shocked the world – since then, UNISON has helped the garment workers fight for their rights

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More than 1,100 people were killed and more than 2,500 injured in the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, a disaster that finally focussed attention on the appalling conditions endured by Bangladesh’s poorly-paid garment workers.

In the words of the BBC: “The world looked on in horror and began to ask if this was the real price of fashion – cheap clothes paid for with people’s lives?”

The eight-story building housed a number of garment factories, where thousands of workers made clothes for high street brands in Britain, the United States and many other countries.

Just a day before the collapse, Rana Plaza was briefly evacuated when cracks appeared in the walls. But, tragically, workers were forced to return inside by factory owners.

After the disaster, the Bangladesh government decided to make it easier to set up unions, which would give workers a collective voice against such treatment – and allow them to resist entering another Rana Plaza.

At the same time, retailers signed the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally-binding agreement designed to improve conditions.

Yet not a great deal has changed.

Despite the accord, which has led to some safety improvements, many workers are still working long hours in godforsaken buildings that are over-heated, without proper fire exits and with bars on the windows. All for pitifuly low wages.

And despite the trade union law, unions still face a daily battle to be recognised by employers. Many activists are harassed, intimidated and physically attacked.

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UNISON continues to believe that a vital way of ensuring we never see another Rana Plaza is for workers to organise and demand change.

Since June 2014, the union’s International Development Fund has been working with UK campaigners Labour Behind the Label to support the Bangladesh Revolutionary Garment Workers’ Federation (BRGWF), one of the trade union federations set up after Rana Plaza.

With the union’s financial help, BRGWF has opened a small office in Gazipur, outside Dhaka, one of the Bangladesh’s fastest-growing garment industry hubs.

Employing four organisers, the federation offers advice and training to activists, covering such areas as labour law and industrial relations, and helping them to organise inside factories and prepare for and follow up Accord inspections.

The BRGWF has also held negotiations with factory owners with regard to wages and safety concerns.

BRGWF president Salauddin Shapon (below) told U that most employees at the federation have experience working in factories and have themselves suffered as a result of bad management. “That’s why we are proud to work at BRGWF, where we can help our colleagues”.

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Salauddin and the rest of the team at the Gazipur branch have organised training programmes for garment workers in law, safety, grievance processing, working against the discrimination of female workers, the forming of unions and much more.

Since the Tazreen and Rana Plaza tragedies, salaries have improved a little. But they are still extremely low, he says.

Sumona Akter, an organiser for BRGWF Gazipur says that female garment workers typically wake up at 5.30am to cook for their families for the day, before leaving the house at 7am to start work at 8am. If they’re late their employers can deduct money from their wages.

After a 10 to 16-hour day at the factory, she’ll return home to cook dinner, wash clothes and carry out other tasks for her family.

Unions are very much needed. But, although the BRGWF has overseen the registration of a handful of new unions, there is still a long way to go for union rights.

Salauddin has seen factory workers lose their jobs because they’ve joined a union, and have even been threatened or beaten by “gangsters” hired by their employers.

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And Sumona (above) says that she and her colleagues have also been harassed, as they’ve attempted to speak to factory workers.

“They stop us from speaking with workers. Then sometimes they follow us, so that they know where we live. Male organisers are always threatened by them and sometimes beaten. If a female organiser finds herself in this situation it is very dangerous for her.

“But we need to face up to it, in order to reach workers and organise them.”

This is why the staff at BRGWF Gazipur appreciate having UNISON’s support.

As Salauddin put it, “It’s like a shelter that makes us feel that we are not alone.”

UNISON members can donate to the solidarity fund enabling the BRGWF to continue  to challenge the terrible working conditions that Bangladesh workers endure while making clothes for the UK high street.

And why not ask your employer if it has an ethical procurement policy? Are the goods it buys as part of delivering public services – in this case, clothing – produced without abusing workers?