“Workers are the best guarantors of their own safety when they are organized”
the January 7, 2022, episode of counter-turn included an archival interview with Barbara Briggs that originally aired June 5, 2015. This is a slightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: If the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had had its proper response, there would never have been a Rana Plaza. But it wasn’t, and there were. More than 1,100 people, mostly women, lost their lives in a factory collapse in Bangladesh, which may seem like a long way off, but they were making clothes you might have on your back right now. We spoke about it with labor rights advocate Barbara Briggs in 2015.
Officials in Bangladesh have filed murder charges against some of those involved in the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory that killed more than 1,100 mostly female workers and injured thousands more in circumstances almost too cruel to understand.
It is not necessary to speak for the deceased to imagine that he hopes not only for justice for himself, but for all the actions necessary to prevent such a disaster from happening to others. Are we witnessing some of these actions? Are we learning any real lessons from what has been called the garment industry’s deadliest disaster?
Barbara Briggs, associate director of the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights – where, I note, I am a board member, joins us now to discuss these issues. welcome to counter-turn, Barbara Briggs.
Barbara Briggs: Good afternoon.
NOT A WORD : We often hear the general term “conditions”, the “conditions” in these factories. The charges here reflect different aspects of these conditions. There is the violation of safety rules; additional floors had been added to a building in a way that was not structurally sound. But the Bangladeshi police report calls what happened on April 24, 2013 a ‘mass murder’, and it’s because of actions that go beyond having workers in unsafe buildings. . Can you remind us what really happened that day?
BB: The story of what happened at Rana Plaza, and which ended in the April 24 tragedy, was truly a crime from start to finish. Like you said, there was too much sand in the concrete. There was poor quality steel used in the rebar. The building had been constructed three more stories out of its permitted five stories. And it was built as a commercial building, not an industrial building. And the weight of heavy machinery and generators from the garment factories on the upper floors was a much heavier load than the building was even designed for.
On April 22, large visible cracks appeared in the building, and the building was evacuated. An inspector was called and declared the building unsafe. The bank and businesses on the first floor of Rana Plaza remained closed. But on April 24, the workers got together, and they came to the factory, not to get in, but to find out when the repairs would be done, when they could expect to get back to work, and also when they would be paid. almost the month they had work.
The response from the owners of the five factories in the Rana Plaza building was that they ordered workers back to work immediately and said that if they did not they would not be paid for the month. They had shipping deadlines; they had to release the product.
For these workers, if you are not paid for a month of work, you are not able to feed your families. Garment workers in Bangladesh then earned as little as 18 cents an hour, or $38.65 a month; they really, literally, lived from hand to mouth. And they still do.
For the workers who still refused to return to the factory, the owner of the building, Sohel Rana, who is also a local strongman, called in thugs with sticks and threatened to break the bones of anyone who didn’t. would not enter the building immediately. So at 8 o’clock in the morning, all the workers went to work. At 8:45 a.m. the electricity went out, which is not unusual in Bangladesh. And simultaneously, the five large generators of the five factories started up. Within minutes, the building began tipping and rocking, and it collapsed with virtually all of the workers inside.
The lesson I draw from this, for us with absolute certainty, is that if the workers in the Rana Plaza building had had a union to represent them, this drama would have unfolded very differently. The workers knew the building was dangerous. There were huge cracks; you could see from the outside to the inside. But alone and without the possibility to come together, to speak in groups and to be represented, they have become victims.
What happened in the following months, first of all, there were dozens of American, Canadian and European companies producing in these factories. Joe Fresh, Walmart, Gap, and virtually every major American and European clothing company produces somewhere in Bangladesh because labor is so cheap.
I think what happened, what happened that day is that the international brands realized that tragedies like the Rana Plaza, which killed over 1,100 workers; fires like the Tazreen factory, which killed 112 people behind locked factory doors a few months earlier; these kinds of accidents are simply too great a reputational risk. And companies don’t want their products associated with workers who have been burned and crushed to death.
And so there’s really been ongoing, systematic effort, and a fair amount of money, on international coordination to see that these factories are inspected and to make sure that they’re at least fundamentally safe. They require, and in some cases fund, the installation of emergency exits, sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers and emergency training. But I must say that other types of abuse continue.
NOT A WORD : It appears that at least some of the transnational corporations involved have made promises, and kept them, in terms of infrastructural improvements. But what must happen that has not happened?
BB: Direct contract factories are really starting to have some of the safety requirements that they have. I mean, there’s training, they’re trying not to lock the doors anymore, there’s sprinkler systems and basic fire extinguishers and that sort of thing, emergency exits.
What we find, however, is that there is still considerable abuse. And we’ve always known that even in the best facilities, the treatment of workers isn’t always good. And the law is not always respected.
So factory after factory after factory, some of them producing for very reputable and progressive brands, we see extraordinary amounts of forced overtime. We see women, when they get pregnant, being pressured and harassed to quit, so they don’t have to pay for their maternity leave. We see workers yelled at and verbally abused.
And really, just about everywhere, we see that workers still don’t have the right to organize, to form an independent union and to bargain collectively. And we know that workers are the best monitors of conditions, and the best guarantors of their own safety, when they are organized and have an independent voice. It is therefore a very big defect, including for the permanent safety of these power stations.
NOT A WORD : In the changes that have occurred, what have been some of the driving factors? Not everything was nobility obliges from companies. There are also organizations on the ground trying to make workers’ voices heard, aren’t there?
BB: Yes, even if the unions are in a real position of numerical inferiority. First of all, there are too many and they are not unified. However, there are very committed organizations trying to help workers. This is not workshop organization. It’s the unions and federations on the streets that help workers know their rights, help them defend themselves and help them, go to the Ministry of Labor, file complaints and that kind of thing.
All is not hopeless, and with international pressure it is possible to push for change. And the Institute, and our partners in Bangladesh, have actually had a series of victories over the last year, starting with exposing the abusive conditions of the Ha-Meem group, a factory called Next Collections producing, in effect, it was for The Gap, a few years ago. We moved on to several groups of factories where we were able to sanitize the conditions.
Our estimate is that at this point more than 70,000 workers are in a better condition now, which means that instead of working until 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. or until midnight, or sometimes until 5:00 a.m. , and to work seven days a week, their hours have been reduced and the overtime they work is voluntary. It is paid correctly. There has been an end to double book runs, where workers are given pay stubs that are meant to be seen by controllers, but have no reflection in reality. Instead, what’s on their pay stub are the hours they actually work, and they get paid properly for the hours they work.
Pregnant women are treated with respect and given their statutory paid maternity leave, which in Bangladesh is supposed to be paid eight weeks before the expected delivery and then eight weeks after. It’s a matter of life and death for the woman, her baby and her family, because when you get paid, at this point, the lowest pay is 33 cents an hour, and the highest is d ‘about 44 cents for a garment sewing operator. time. But when you’re paid so little, you can’t save money to take that kind of leave. These are big differences in the lives of workers, and it’s really international visibility and pressure that can drive these changes.
NOT A WORD : So when we talk about how the media can help, it increases visibility, not just of the issues, but also of the places and situations where responsive policies have actually been put in place and are working.
BB: Yes absolutely.
NOT A WORD : Very well then. We spoke with Barbara Briggs from the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights. You can find their work on the web at GlobalLabourRights.org. Thank you very much, Barbara Briggs, for joining us this week on counter-turn.
BB: Thanks Janine.
FAIR’s work is supported by our generous contributors, who keep us independent. Donate today to be part of this important mission.