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U.S. and European clothing brands are skulking away from workplace safety in Bangladesh — at int’l risk

Middle East
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There has been no new tragedy in Bangladesh in the 5 years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed there on April 24, 2013, crushing 1129 people to death. Rana Plaza was only the worst in a string of workplace disasters, mainly fires, that had killed scores of Bangladeshi workers at a time over the previous two decades.

Credit for the sudden safety improvement should go to an international solidarity movement, which forced the big brand-name European and American retailers who import clothing from the poor South Asian nation to spend real money on workplace inspections, and to repair or even close down the most dangerous factories.

But the successful safety campaign in Bangladesh garment factories is slowing down, as some of the big brands are looking to end their responsibility. The vital pact that reduced the danger to the garment workers, called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, expires on May 15, and some 80 of the U.S. and European importers that agreed to it are not signing a 3-year extension. And certain of the biggest American brands — like Walmart, the Gap and Children’s Place — never got behind the push for safety in the first place.

As some of the big importers skulk away, a new Rana Plaza disaster becomes more and more likely.

Another huge building collapse or fire would be a tragedy first and foremost for the victims and their families. But it could have a new bad consequence — another addition to the rise in jihadist Islamism around the globe. Bangladesh, with 163 million people, is the third most populated majority Muslim nation in the world, but until the past few years violent jihadism had not surfaced there. Now it has, and more mass deaths in the garment factories might serve as a recruiting tool. If that happens, we in the rich world would hear the usual nonsense from the usual suspects about the “clash of civilizations,” when we should instead be blaming greedy American retail chains.

Back in 2013, I visited Bangladesh a few months after the Rana Plaza disaster, and I interviewed survivors and courageous union leaders as part of my long report. The garment factories stretch northwest of the crowded capital, Dhaka: ugly 5-to-9-story buildings, each with anywhere from 4500 to 9000 workers in each. Some 80 percent of the workers were women, nearly all from 18 to 30 years old. Their base salary was $38 a month (not a typo), although compulsory overtime raised that figure to $60-$90.

Walmart and the Gap do not own the factories directly. Local Bangladeshi subcontractors allow the big brands to slink away from their moral and legal responsibility. Kalpona Akter, an impressive 40-year leader in the independent union movement, told me she always rushed out to the scene of the latest factory disaster — to look after the survivors, of course, but also so she could collect labels from the clothing that was being sewn there. She said: “The big European and American importers sometimes deny that their brands were sourced to that factory. So we need to get the logos, the actual proof, before the Walmarts and the others can cover up.”

Kalpona Akter and her allies used the Rana Plaza collapse to pressure 220 of the big brands into signing the Bangladesh Accord for workplace safety, a legally binding agreement in which the importers promised to spend as much as $1 billion for inspections and to fix the most dangerous workplaces. Among those who joined the Accord were the Swedish retailer H&M, and Zara, based in Spain, along with the U.S. parent company for Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. It is at least partly thanks to the Accord that, so far, there have been no more Rana Plazas.

Meanwhile, other U.S. importers like the Gap, Walmart, Target, and Macy’s cooked up an alternate scheme, which they called the Bangladesh Alliance, no doubt hoping the similar name would cause confusion. The Alliance was a toothless arrangement, which promised to spend only a laughable $42 million for safety — a sick joke given that Bangladesh has an estimated 3000 garment factories, employing 4.4 million workers. (To their discredit, former U.S. senators George Mitchell and Olympia Snow fronted for the dishonest, window-dressing substitute.)

The Bangladesh Accord was only a 5-year agreement, and it is about to expire. So far, only 140 of the original 220 brands have signed the 3-year extension; notably absent is Abercrombie & Fitch, and a worldwide campaign is targeting them. (The toothless Alliance is ending after 5 years, and there are no plans to extend it.)

Despite the success with workplace safety, independent unions are under enormous pressure in Bangladesh from the government and the owners, even though the brands promised in the Accord to respect labor’s right to organize. Unions and factory safety are inseparable, as the Rana Plaza survivors told me a few months afterwards.

They said that the awful disaster there was completely foretold. The day before the building collapsed, a big crack opened in a wall on the third floor, and crowds fled the building in fear. The young garment workers, some of them missing limbs or still on crutches, showed me cellphone photos of the actual crack. The next morning, they fearfully milled around outside, only going in when they were warned they would be fired otherwise. The 9-story building fell at 8:30 a.m. An independent union could have protected them by calling them out of the factory without fear of reprisal.

Without immediate action, another disaster becomes more likely. This time around, though, the local jihadist movement will argue that “Muslim Lives Don’t Matter.” And the jihadists will have a point.

James North
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7 Responses

  1. eljay
    eljay
    April 27, 2018, 10:27 pm

    … Another huge building collapse or fire would be a tragedy first and foremost for the victims and their families. But it could have a new bad consequence — another addition to the rise in jihadist Islamism around the globe. Bangladesh, with 163 million people, is the third most populated majority Muslim nation in the world, but until the past few years violent jihadism had not surfaced there. Now it has, and more mass deaths in the garment factories might serve as a recruiting tool. If that happens, we in the rich world would hear the usual nonsense from the usual suspects about the “clash of civilizations,” when we should instead be blaming greedy American retail chains.
    . . .
    Despite the success with workplace safety, independent unions are under enormous pressure in Bangladesh from the government and the owners …
    . . .
    Without immediate action, another disaster becomes more likely. This time around, though, the local jihadist movement will argue that “Muslim Lives Don’t Matter.” And the jihadists will have a point.

    I don’t see why “we” or “jihadists” shouldn’t consider blaming the Bangladeshi government.

  2. gamal
    gamal
    April 27, 2018, 11:27 pm

    “But it could have a new bad consequence — another addition to the rise in jihadist Islamism around the globe. Bangladesh, with 163 million people, is the third most populated majority Muslim nation in the world, but until the past few years violent jihadism had not surfaced there”

    that is surprising, considering the simmering concentrations of the jihad prone.

    “now it has” , probably inevitable really,

    will America be supplying the “violent jihadists” or will Bangladesh be sourcing them from elsewhere.

    At least rising American Imperial violence isn’t a problem that would be inconceivable.

    Is Islam the only thing that goes on in Muslim countries from your point of view?

    Muslim lives Don’t Matter, and they have a point in regard to the garment industry in Bangladesh,

    but what about all those millions…millions of Muslims you have so recently killed or is that not the point, what about Mosul ..no…i hadn’t heard either because it doesn’t fucking matter..guess why?

    you counter jihad now, that is a proud profession.

    without googling tell me what is a quomi madrasa and what is significant about them (its about social structure not the nizami curriculum or fundamentalism)

  3. gamal
    gamal
    April 28, 2018, 3:32 am

    how about this excert, some insights perhaps? I do not in anyway mean to demean the crusade against jihad, just a tad sick of that way of screaming at the world…

    COUNTER-MILITANCY, JIHADISTS AND
    HYPERGOVERNANCE: MANAGING DISORDER
    IN THE “UNCOMPLETED” POSTCOLONIAL
    STATE OF PAKISTAN
    Michael Humphrey

    ” Religion, Power, Disorder
    The reluctance of the Pakistani military to confront the Taliban’s growing political
    influence and military power is the product of the contradictory allegiances of
    the postcolonial Pakistani state and the role of the military in it. On the one hand
    Pakistan is a geopolitical military-rentier state that signed up to the global war on
    terror, on the other hand it is a state that has franchised its sovereignty, exploited
    religions and ethnic divisions and emphasized uncertainty as a mode of political
    management to control dissent and maintain power. The Pakistani military supply
    geo-strategically important resources for which they receive rent in the form of
    economic aid, loans and loan guarantees. Internally the military controls large
    businesses, extensive landed interests and remains unaccountable to the population.
    In addition the military have formed strategic alliances with religious militias,
    among them the Taliban, as a way to project strategic depth into Afghanistan as
    well as use them as agents of violence and humanitarianism in the internal political
    management of Pakistan (Bhatt, 2007).
    The present war on the Frontier and state counter-militancy strategies deployed
    to contain para-statal militias are not merely a problem of the re-assertion of state
    territorial sovereignty or the attempt to recover a monopoly over the use of violence.
    War and counter-militancy must be understood as the politics of the management
    of disorder in the Pakistani postcolony and the competing hypergovernance of
    populations, “transnational processes of domination, regulation and resistance”
    (Bhatt, 2007: 1075). Hypergovernance involves global projects, Western and
    Islamic, acting at the local level articulated through global discourses – rule of law,
    human rights, humanitarianism and Islamic radicalism. As well as it’s geo-strategic
    relationship with the US as a “frontline” state in the war against global jihad,
    Pakistan forged a close relationship with Saudi Arabia under President Zia ul Haq
    who supported the promotion of Wahhabist Islam through global organization
    Rabita al- Alam al-Islami (Muslim World League) (Bhatt, 2007). The reach of Saudi
    influence in the Pakistani population is a product of labor migration, remittances,
    Saudi economic loans and aid, the export of Wahhabist education, Saudi Islamist
    militia support, all accommodated by the Pakistani military-rentier state. The role
    of the Pakistani military in this relationship has been to look after the ideological
    and political interests of the Saudi state in Pakistan.
    Political disorder in Pakistan arises from its predicament as a postcolony, a state
    dominated by new modes of governance and forms of wealth which displace politics
    into the market, criminal economies and the courts. As the state out-sources its functions and franchises force, para-statal organizations “begin to mimic the state
    and the market by providing protection and dispensing justice, social order itself
    becomes like a hall of mirrors” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2006: 34). If the state
    cannot produce certainty and order then it must manage uncertainty and disorder by
    emphasizing it as a mode of governance. Politically this leads to the separation of the
    protected and unprotected and the expansion of the use of violence to settle political
    struggles. The escalation of violence is itself a mode of governmentality in which
    the state uses the military, along with shadow forces (gangs, vigilantes, militias),
    to challenge stateless militias. The overlap between legitimate politics and criminal
    activity creates “gray zones,” spaces of indirect government (Auyero, 2007). In
    these spaces emerge “private indirect government” in violence and criminality
    that become articulated in legal and political forms with the trappings of state.”

  4. echinococcus
    echinococcus
    April 28, 2018, 3:51 am

    Pitifully poor reporting of some tragic story that has absolutely zilch connection in any way or wise to Palestine, Zionist aggression, or the price of cat’s milk.

    It also has nought connection, by the way, to “Muslim lives” –in a theocratically created country that only exists as a result of confessional-based compulsory population exchange, resulting in a 100% Muslim proletariat and 100% Muslim comprador capitalists and 100% Muslim police state.

    Besides, there is next to no information at all on the mechanisms by which some mentioned voluntary accords or understandings among monopoly capitalist corporations and the spending of money is supposed to magically provide “safety”, nada discussion of imperialism or local class war, etc. etc. Just some somber cursing of the monopoly capital group that spends less –on what exactly is left unclear.

    What’s the idea, MW? From the outside it looks as if you were trying your best to shed more readers, on the “right” or the “left”, who aren’t with bleeding heart, do-gooding Dim liberalism and those who get irritated by piss-poor reporting on totally off topic stuff. Instead of trying to attract and mobilize all those who agree to help Palestinian resistance to Zionism.

    • irishmoses
      irishmoses
      April 30, 2018, 12:38 pm

      “…some tragic story that has absolutely zilch connection in any way or wise to Palestine, Zionist aggression, or the price of cat’s milk.”

      I couldn’t agree more. Just the title was a shock to me. What the hell is this doing on MW? There are dozens of perfectly valid human interest stories around the world on any given day. Why are you opening to door to diluting MW’s message and mission? You will lose readers and certainly not help the original MW mission and vision.

      There are plenty of fora that would publish James North’s important article. MW is not the place for it.

  5. gamal
    gamal
    April 29, 2018, 12:10 pm

    for the sake of completeness, giving credit where it is due on the matter of Jihad in Bangladesh and that is one word,

    HuJI, Bangladeshi Jihadism is, in the literature traced to one source, HuJI a wholly owned brand of the Brezinski, Harakat ul jihad al islami, who participated in the defeat of Russia, went home in to the crucible of Bengal, and after the genocidal Pakistani war ’71 and salvation at the hands of Indian Army, they were still strung out in Bangla, Brezinkis boys came home with predictable results, it used to be the richest place on earth according to Chomsky, then Britain made landfall,
    the rest is history we need not know anything about that as Islam like the nut flush trumps everything.

    They had a cotton superior even to Egyptian, like silk they say, Britain made it extinct, what will American corporations gift them, suicide, like the Indian farmers?

    by the way Dissident Voice have a review you might think is worth a look

    https://dissidentvoice.org/2018/04/commercializing-peace/

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