Experts: Bangladesh Accord Is a Game Changer

Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia Region Director, sends us this report from the AFL-CIO quadrennial convention in Los Angeles.

In a dramatic demonstration of how deadly the global supply chain really is, Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), opened a panel on worker rights in Bangladesh with this observation: “Of the four deadliest factory disasters in history, three of those four happened in the last 12 months.” He cited the Baldia factory fire in Pakistan, which killed 347 workers, the Tazreen Fashions fire, which killed 112 workers, and the Rana Plaza building collapse, in which more than 1,200 workers lost their lives. To find another industrial disaster of that proportion, you have to go back to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911. This was a pretty shocking thought to me and underscored  how the global garment supply chain is increasingly dangerous to workers and why they need to redouble their efforts protect their rights.

Nova gave his remarks at the panel discussion, Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord: A New Standard in Global Framework Agreements? Some 30 participants attended the workshop, which presented a truly new approach to framework agreements and protecting worker rights. Ben Davis, international director of the United Steelworkers (USW) moderated the panel, which included Nova; Kalpona Akter, director of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS); Owen Herrnstadt, international director of the International Association of Machinsts (IAM); and Garrett Strain, international campaign organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

Nova outlined the Accord on Building and Fire Safety, a new and binding agreement that 87 clothing brands have signed. The accord covers 1,800 factories in Bangladesh, mandates that both brands and the companies they source from fix building and fire hazards and ensures unions are a key part of this process.

“Workers’ justice starts for me with workers’ safety,” Akter said, and called the accord important for workers to provide activists the political space to organize and to interact with company managers to improve conditions. She also emphasized that although Bangladesh labor law is “decent” compared with some other countries, the law is not enforced. If the accord works, she said, “This could be a historical turning point.”

“Why are U.S. unions interested in the accord?” asked Owen Herrnstadt. “First, workers all over the world deserve safer workplaces,” he said. The IAM, an affiliate of the global union, IndustriALL, is bringing together workers from many industries, including the garment sector and is looking for “innovative tools to change corporate behavior.”  Herrnstadt called the accord “one of the most significant breakthroughs,” one that is “radically different” and that needs to be emulated.

Strain discussed a delegation he led to Bangladesh with six USAS student activists to find ways to coordinate public campaigns in the United States with Bangladeshi labor union activists on the ground. In the coming weeks, USAS will encourage a Global Day of Action at the six-month anniversary of Rana Plaza on October 24. November 24 is the one-year anniversary since the Tazreen fire, and USAS is encouraging more actions on that day.

Most important, all the panelists encouraged the support of the democratic, independent unions in Bangladesh, which now have a chance to organize unions for the first time in the past 20 years.