In April 2013, the most deadly textile accident in world history - the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 workers in single day - revealed to the world the grave hazards of sweatshop work.
The tragedy also brought to light the even larger global epidemic of occupational injury and disease. Occupational injury, according to the World Health Organization, accounts for an estimated 352,000 global deaths annually. This is in addition to the 177,000 cancer deaths from exposure to occupational carcinogens and the 457,000 deaths caused by the inhalation of airborne particulates in the workplace (according to 2004 data), adding up to almost 1 million dead from occupational injury and disease a year.
Yet, tragedies can highlight injustices and catalyze change in ways that statistics can't. Since April, there has been definite action: consumer petitions and rallies, a legally binding safety plan involving major retailers, the suspension of Bangladesh's US trade privileges, a promise for a higher minimum wage and - most recently - the July 15 passage of a new labor law by the Bangladeshi parliament. Such progress has led some to hope that Rana Plaza might lead to a new era of occupational health and safety in the developing world, analogous to the response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the United States.
Yet there are several reasons to suggest that the campaign for decent working conditions in the developing world will not be won so easily, chief among them the unique challenges of labor organization in these nations. For if it is true that successful unionization is a critical component to a strong occupational health and safety framework, then whatever the proclamations of Western retailers and the resolutions of their consumers, there is still a long struggle ahead for the workers of Bangladesh.
Occupational Health in Comparative Perspective
Nations in Asia are now passing through a new stage of the global industrial revolution that began in the 18th century. It is not surprising that - as it did for Europe and the United States - industrialization is now creating novel problems for the health and safety of the workers of these nations.
Indeed, although we may be shocked at the extreme laxity of workplace safety in Bangladesh, throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, employer disregard for the health - and lives - of workers was rampant in the United States as well. Understanding what made things better - if still far from perfect - in this country helps shed some light on the challenge of occupational health in Bangladesh today.
For more than anything, it was the mobilization of an increasingly emboldened labor movement - beginning in the Progressive era of the first decade of the century - that pushed the agenda for worker health and safety onto the forefront of the mainstream political agenda. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911 - so frequently compared with Rana Plaza - was such a catalytic event not merely because of the number killed but because of the massive organizing campaigns that preceded and followed it.
Clearly, the tragedy moved the nation: 120,000 marched in the streets with the bodies of the killed workers, and an additional 300,000 went out to support them. The labor movement - with much of the public at its back - was asking for more than improved safety: It was demanding justice. "I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk of good fellowship," declared Rose Schneiderman of the Women's Trade Union League in front of some 50,000 rallying unionists. "Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."
Ensuring worker safety became an almost defensive position for industry and government. In 1911 a bill establishing the New York State Factory Investigating Commission passed without a single dissenting vote. And in the decade following the fire, some 25 states passed, in relatively short order, Workingman's Compensation, the most significant welfare legislation the nation had yet seen.
In the aftermath of World War I, however, the conservative and pro-business environment of the 1920s stemmed the expansion of worker safety efforts. Subsequent upsurges in occupational safety efforts - to some extent during the New Deal in the 1930s but more so in the late 1960s and 1970s - awaited the mobilization of labor.
Apart from its overall political influence, labor frequently pushed effectively for specific health and safety reforms. For instance, as described by the historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz in their exposé on industrial pollution Deceit and Denial, in the 1970s steelworkers joined the fight for more rigorous standards for lead in the workplace, which succeeded in pushing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to pass a more stringent occupational lead standard in 1978. Along similar lines, in the late 1960s, again following another disaster - the November 1968 coal mine explosion in West Virginia - rank-and-file miners revolted and brought about the "Black Lung" compensation laws of 1969 and 1972. And the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 itself was very much the result of pressure from rank-and-file laborers working with environmental activists in the context of a political climate in which labor constituted a crucial voting bloc.
This intersection between politics and health is, of course, nothing new. Occupational health merely happens to be an area in which this relationship is particularly, if not uniquely, transparent.
Bangladesh and the Climate of Labor Activism
None of this is to say that there aren't men and women struggling in Bangladesh for better working conditions today. On the contrary, the nation has a history of trade union activism stretching back to its independence in 1971. May Day is even a national holiday in Bangladesh. And the nation's labor law of 2006 enacted a procedure - albeit a highly problematic one - for unionization.
But whatever the letter of the law, sweatshop labor activism is gravely dangerous work in Bangladesh. In 2010, for instance, a campaign for a higher minimum wage was countered with heavy-handed repression from the government. An "Industrial Police" was launched to meet the protesters in the street. One group that helped lead the campaign, the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), found itself targeted and was deregistered as an NGO while the leaders of the organization - the labor organizers Aminul Islam, Kalpona Akhter and Babul Akhter - were arrested and charged with inciting riots.
The fate of one of these three - Aminul Islam - is most disturbing of all. After being arrested, Islam - according to his later statements - was tortured by police and intelligence services, and threatened with death. Following this ordeal, according to The New York Times, his coworkers and his family reported that he had his phone tapped and was harassed by officials. But despite facing such repression, his work bravely continued.
That is, until April 4, 2012, when he disappeared. His body was found a few days later near a police station north of Dhaka. The signs of torture were clear: wounds from the waist down, toes and ankles smashed.
In an open letter to Bangladesh's prime minister shortly after the Rana Plaza collapse, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reiterated its "grave concerns" about Islam's killing, noting that the circumstances of his death "raise concerns of involvement by Bangladeshi security forces." Despite the passage of more than a year since his death, there has been no progress in finding, much less prosecuting, those responsible.
Despite this threatening context, there has been significant worker action since the Rana Plaza disaster. In early May, for instance, almost 100 textile factories in the Ashulia industrial area near Dhaka were closed after workers erupted in protest. On June 17, about 5,000 workers in the Tejgaon area protested for improved benefits, clashing with police and facing tear gas and rubber bullets. Another 2,000 or so workers in the Gazipur district fought with police after their factory was indefinitely closed.
It remains to be seen, however, whether or not this energy can be transformed into the effective organization of Bangladeshi labor in the years to come.
Promises and Pessimism for a Safer Workplace
But already, during the past few months, a combination of domestic unrest and international pressure has resulted in some reforms in Bangladesh. The crucial question, however, is how sustained, effective and substantive these reforms will be.
On the international front, for instance, in the face of petitions and protests, many large clothing retailers - including Europe's two largest - signed onto a five-year safety agreement on May 13 that would require independent factory safety inspections, with mandatory improvements paid for by the retailers. Yet a number of giant American retailers - including Walmart, Gap and Target - have refused to join, fearing that such agreements would expose them to litigation and claiming that they would pursue their own safety assessments.
Also in May, the US trade representative - under pressure from labor advocates - moved to exclude Bangladesh from the import tax breaks that, under the "Generalized System of Preferences," allow developing countries to sell some goods tax-free within the US. On June 27, the administration announced that it would move ahead with this suspension and, several weeks later, detailed steps that Bangladesh would have to take to restore its trade privileges: an increase in the number and training of safety inspectors, a public database of inspections, improved recognition of unions and an investigation into the killing of Amimul Islam.
Meanwhile, within Bangladesh, the government moved to set up a new minimum wage board in May, tasked with issuing recommendations for pay raises. Around the same time, the Cabinet passed an amendment that would, pending Parliamentary action, lift restrictions on labor organizing. Given previous unfulfilled promises from the government, however, these proposals met with skepticism from various quarters, ranging from labor groups and HRW to The New York Times’ editorial page.
Subsequent developments, unfortunately, have confirmed some of these pessimistic suspicions. The law that was passed by the Bangladeshi Parliament on July 15 does do some useful things, but with many more caveats, restrictions and loopholes.
Factories, for instance, are required to set aside 5 percent of profits for a welfare fund for employees. However, export-oriented factories are exempted.
The 30 percent workforce threshold needed for unionization - put in place by the 2006 labor law - remains in place. But unlike in the United States, where 30 percent of workers at a particular plant can form a union, the law requires 30 percent of all the company's employees, no matter how scattered or numerous their factories, to sign-on - a formidable barrier.
The law does away with a provision in place from 2006 that required that the labor ministry hand over a list of workers who had voted for unionization to factory owners for verification of employment, a practice that could result in anti-union firing and an end to the organization effort. Yet the new law also requires that union leaders be active workers at the factory, allowing a firm to quickly eliminate union leadership through firing.
Other provisions of the law are more straightforwardly antiunion, such as the exclusion of several additional sectors from legalized unionization. Additionally, all workers in the "export processing zones" would remain unable to form unions. There are antistrike provisions as well: Workers at factories owned by foreigners or even in collaboration with foreigners would be barred from striking for these operations' first three years. And even worse, the law allows the government to stop a strike if it would be "prejudicial to the national interest," a rather vague formulation.
Finally, the law curbs efforts at transnational labor solidarity: it requires prior approval from the government before trade unions can receive technical or financial support from international sources. "By controlling access to foreign funding," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch in a statement on the law, "the government would have a stranglehold over assistance to unions."
Laws and Reality in Bangladesh
Putting aside for the time being the balance of positives and negatives in this law, it is clear that paper promises alone won't be sufficient. Existing safety regulations, minimum wage requirements, and labor laws have been consistently ignored in Bangladesh for years. For instance, anti-union firing - which allows employers to nip organizing in the bud - is widespread in Bangladesh. According to the US State Department's human rights report on Bangladesh, despite allegations of mass anti-union firing, in 2012 the nation's labor court - which is charged with reinstating workers who are illegally fired - did not reinstate a single worker.
Nor are the problems limited to the textile industry. As documented in an extensive report on Bangladesh's shrimp industry by the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center, shrimp workers frequently face forced and unpaid overtime, shifts in excess of 12 hours per day, exploitative wages less than the legal minimum wage and dangerous working conditions. Along similar lines, a report from HRW based on extensive on-the-ground research describes the grotesquely unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh's tanneries, which have resulted in health consequences for workers ranging from severe respiratory disease to amputations. Despite being illegal, this is the reality of working conditions in Bangladesh, and disempowered workers simply have few options to resist.
Given this context, consumer activism can take us only so far. First, the consumer simply has too many choices (and often limited means), while the complexity of the supply chain is vast and the origin of goods frequently obscure. But second, even when consumer movements succeed in pushing particular retailers to pressure producers to improve working standards, without organization and empowerment, workers remain at the whim of the subcontracted employers, whatever the letter of the law. In the context of such gross asymmetries in power, the rules truly are made to be broken.
This is not to say that consumer education does not have a place. But "smarter shopping" is neither a sufficient nor realistic course. If the history of occupational health and safety in this country is to be any guide, the empowerment of the individual worker - girded by a potent political movement - is a far more powerful force for the creation of decent working conditions. Would organized workers - whose meager wages could not be docked so easily or whose jobs could not be taken away so easily – have stepped back into the Rana Plaza factory, the day after cracks ominously developed in its foundation?
What Bangladesh really needs from the developed world is more efforts at solidarity with Bangladeshi labor activists, like Aminul Islam. Although his murderers may never be brought to justice, it is through the work and vision of men and women like him that - one day - justice will come to the workplaces of Bangladesh.