The governments of Mexico and the United States have supported the growth of the Mexican berry sector by creating conditions for a cheap supply of labor and profit growth. Mexican field workers receive an estimated 12 cents per pound of strawberries sold in U.S. grocery stores, which amounts to 4 percent of the retail price, with the remainder divided between the production company and retailer.
A 14-year old girl was among the 28 garment workers killed in a factory disaster in Tangier, Morocco, this week. Her mother says she had worked at the factory, an illegal sweatshop, for three years.
The workers were drowned or electrocuted after a flood caused a short circuit. Seventeen others were injured. The facility operated in an underground garage in a residential area with 130 workers, most of them women. A nearby resident rescued some of the workers by throwing a rope into the flooded factory.
“How could this factory have been a secret? Where were the labor inspectors? Where were the local government authorities? Where were the investors?” asked Amal El Amri, a representative in Morocco’s upper house of Parliament and Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) member.
Residents in the area say the sweatshop operated for more than 20 years.
“We must ensure a voice for these workers who have died, and for the many thousands more women workers who toil under the same dangerous conditions,” El Amri said. In January, a fire at another illegal textile factory in Tangier injured one person and destroyed the factory, where 400 people worked.
The UMT and Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT), both Solidarity Center partners, demanded an immediate investigation into the tragedy, and the CDT said in a statement that it holds the state, the government and the employers fully responsible for the workers’ deaths.
Fast Fashion Industry Spawns Illegal Factories
Across from Spain on Morocco’s northern coast, Tangier is a key hub of Morocco’s textile manufacturing. Countrywide, official statistics show 1,200 textile companies with 165,000 workers—27 percent of the country’s industrial employment.
Yet many factories in Morocco’s textile and leather industry—estimates range in the thousands—operate illegally, forcing workers to labor long hours for low pay in often dangerous conditions. A 2012 investigation revealed that workers in illegal Moroccan textile sweatshops work, on average, 55 to 65 hours per week—11 to 21 hours more than the legal limit.
Operating outside national labor laws or standards, illegal factories are a direct response to the demands of the fast fashion industry, in which large brands demand quick response to fashion changes and customer demands and so draw on subcontractors whose workforce is cheaper and its work arrangements informal.
With no job stability and few social protections, garment workers in the informal economy are subject to exploitation and abuse, with no health coverage, pensions or other social and legal protections. Some one-third of Morocco workers are in the informal economy, which accounts for 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
‘Companies Must Be Held Accountable’
As the global labor movement joins in calls for accountability in a supply chain where workers pay the price for cheap production, the Morocco Contribution Forum is urging the government to close all workplaces without health and safety protections and establish a policy to ensure severe penalties for companies operating outside the law.
Public officials must “improve the rights and living standard of marginalized people who are victims of oppression and violence, whether it is on the way to work, or in the workplace, and to provide them with the minimum conditions of human rights,” the Forum, a Solidarity Center partner, said in a statement.
“Now more than ever we see the need to organize across borders to tackle corporate global supply chains” that keep workers from retail and farms in low wages,” says Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer and chief officer of the California Labor Federation.
“We need to learn from each other to learn to organize more.”
Pulaski helped open a day-long conference, “Realizing a More Fair Global Food Supply Chain,” which gathered farm worker activists and food justice advocates to explore farmworker organizing strategies, alliances to support worker rights across the food chain, legal initiatives to ensure decent work and the importance of workers in the advancement of sustainability and justice as our food moves from farm to table.
“We are talking about a whole distribution system that is based on low-wage work, an economic model that relies on low wages in restaurants, retail, farms,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Today is about changing that.”
Bader-Blau and Kent Wong, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Labor Center, joined in launching the event, sponsored by the Solidarity Center, the Food Chain Workers Alliance and UCLA Labor Center.
One way to improve worker rights in global supply chains involves workers coming together to demand their rights, and union activists from Mexico, Morocco and Washington state shared their successful strategies organizing farmworkers.
Speaking on the first panel, “Build Real Voice and Real Work for Workers,” Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Washington state, described how he joined with co-workers on farms in Washington state for a two-cent an hour raise in 2013. They went on to champion laws that ensured farmworkers would receive their wages from employers who he estimates engaged in wage theft totaling $850,000.
“One thing I want to emphasize is how important it is for us to organize,” says Torres, speaking through a translator. “I am proud to represent workers.”
In Morocco, where the Democratic Labor Federation (CDT) organized more than 1,000 farmworkers on a large agro-industrial complex, the union focused on empowering women throughout the process, says Saida Bentahar, a member of the CDT executive committee.
“For women working in the agricultural fields, women started to learn about their rights and how to discuss and negotiate,” says Bentahar. “Women also managed to have their voices heard during negotiations” and as a result, they won first-ever health care and education opportunities for their children and can work in higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs previously open only to men.
“Now women benefit from many advantages they would not have had without the collective bargaining agreement,” she says.
Food justice advocates shared how they incorporate the rights of workers along the global agricultural supply chain during the second morning panel, a strategy session on models of cooperation.
“When we say agricultural food chain workers, we mean farm workers, fish workers, meat processing and poultry processing workers, those who truck the food and workers in grocery stores, retail chains, restaurants, and street vendors,” says Joann Lo, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance in Los Angeles.
Lo says her organization forrmed as the sustainable food movement took off and consumers began asking how far their food traveled and was it fresh and sustainable—but left workers out of the conversation. “We need to ask: Are the jobs sustainable for workers in the global supply chain?” she says.
“The power of procurement most powerful tool we have,” says Clare Fox, executive director at the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Fox described how her organization successfully moved the LA Unfired School District—which spends $150 million a year on food—to commit to ensuring 15 percent of the food it sources meets a baseline of fair labor, animal welfare and nutrition.
The panel also included moderator Robert Eggers, president of the LA Kitchen and Ryan Zinn, regenerative projects manager at the family-owned organic, fair trade company, Dr. Bronner’s.
Stop back for more coverage of the afternoon sessions!
Approximately 1 in 5 workers worldwide are employed in global supply chains. Millions of them do not have access to decent work and must endure long hours, low wages and hazardous working conditions.
The majority of people working for the world’s biggest multinational corporations are ‘hidden’ in subcontracted work around the globe. Without global rules governing supply chains, multinational corporations are rarely held accountable for violating worker rights in places around the world.
The Solidarity Center partners with unions and other organizations to educate workers about their rights on the job and to empower them with the tools they need to improve their workplaces together.
IN THE NAME OF FASHION
DISASTER STRIKES TAZREEN
Poverty isn’t the only problem for garment workers. Hazardous working conditions and poor safety measures put the lives of millions of garment workers around the world at risk for the sake of fashion.
On November 24, 2012, a massive fire tore through the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 100 garment workers and gravely injuring thousands more.
Just five months later, more than 1,000 garment workers were killed and more than 2,500 were injured when the Rana Plaza garment factory building collapsed outside of Dhaka.
A structural engineer had already declared the building structurally unsafe and had demanded it be closed, but workers were told to show up anyways or else risk losing their jobs.
While the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza collapse were catastrophic, they are not isolated incidents.
In the four years following Tazreen, fires, building collapses and other tragedies have killed or injured more than 4,800 garment workers in Bangladesh, according to data collected by the Solidarity Center.
The invisibility of garment workers and their struggles makes it difficult for them to hold big clothing brands accountable.</p> <p>The subcontracting process in global supply chains obscures human rights abuses and distances workers from the multinational corporations for whom they produce.
WORKERS STAND TOGETHER
Worker disenfranchisement also isolates individual workers and makes it harder for them to stand up for their rights. Garment workers who try to speak out about unsafe working conditions often fear retaliation from their employers, including violence, threats or even being fired.
Unions have helped to change that.
UNIONS SAVING LIVES
Worker voices have yielded real results. The 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh provides legally binding means for unions to hold multinational clothing brands accountable for protecting the lives and rights of workers in their supply chains.
The Solidarity Center also provides training for workers, union leaders and factory managers to learn about fire and building safety codes, practice emergency response procedures and gain hands-on experience using fire extinguishers and other tools for saving lives.
INVISIBLE NO LONGER
As workers strengthen their collective voice in their workplaces and beyond, their hard work, their lives and their humanity become visible once more.
To learn more about garment workers in global supply chains and how the Solidarity Center supports them, visit solidaritycenter.org.
I am Khadiza Akhter, vice president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), where I have worked since 2008.
I started to work in a garment factory at a very young age. My family was poor, so I did not have the luxury to continue my education. One day I came to know about a federation (BIGUF) which was led by women. As women leaders were rare I went to attend one of the sessions of that federation. There, for the first time, I heard about labor law.
Factories did not follow Bangladeshi labor law. When I tried to raise voice against malpractices, my supervisors threatened my job. Our factory did not have an active union so I could not take any legal action against such abuse, but I received training in labor law from my federation. Eventually I was blacklisted in the garment sector for my union work, but BIGUF offered me a job and I worked there for six years as an organizer.
In 2008, I joined Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF). And I did try to unite workers to form an active union for a factory in Dhaka, but the government rejected the registration of the union.
The Rana Plaza disaster changed perspectives. The entire working community realized that same kind of disaster could have happened to them, so they became more focused on a safe working environment. Many workers came to Ashulia to protest.
SGSF started to work with union members to identify unsafe buildings. Our trained organizers conducted fire and safety training for educating general members. They were interested to come to our training so that they could understand legal requirements for ensuring the safety of the factories.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (the Alliance) contributed to ensuring the safety of the factories but there is lots more work to be done. For instance, no routine or monthly check up is done in most factories. Additionally, fire extinguishers and other equipment are not maintained by the management. Here, almost all the safety committee exists only on paper. We are now working in this arena for maintaining the standard of fire safety. This is a big task in the future.