Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bangladeshi workers brutal conditions: The market at work

garment workers in Bangladesh
by Richard Mellor

If there is one simple thing we should think about when some workers attack Chinese workers or any workers in other countries for taking “our “ jobs it should be that the US corporations that shift production abroad don’t do it to raise the wages of workers in other countries but to brutally exploit them.    So obviously we have a lot in common with these workers; our problems are the same no matter what language they speak, what their religion is how they look or what food they eat.  It’s just a matter of degree and in most cases they receive far worse treatment than we do.  No dictator or regime is unacceptable to the global capitalists as long as Labor comes cheap and Unions are out of the picture and profit margins high.

Chinese workers have fought huge battlers of late, which have resulted in surging wages.  Couple this with inflation and that hurts profits.  Consequently, factories like Foxconn are shifting production to Vietnam.  Militarized borders and 20-foot walls don’t stop capital from traversing the globe.

Escaping rising costs, much of the apparel manufacturing industry has pulled up roots and landed in Bangladesh.  As I write this I can’t help thinking of the Caterpillar plant in London Ontario that did the same thing when the workers refused a 50% pay cut.  The plant moved abroad where wages were half what they were in Ontario and Unions were more cooperative, Joliet Indiana in the good old USA.

So Bangladesh now has an $18 billion apparel manufacturing industry that has “sprung up” says Bloomberg Business Week.  The problem with the “sprung up” method of producing human needs is that the facilities and structure for absorbing all this labor power is inadequate. It is not unlike the development of capitalism in Britain when the peasantry were thrown off the land but industrial society was not yet mature enough to absorb them.

More than 700 Bangladehsi garment workers have died since 2005according to the Labor Rights Forum.  There have been some horrendous factory fires, 112 workers died in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh in November last year and 262 workers died in a garment factory fire in Pakistan last September. A recent ILRF report also claims that these apparel companies are, “Putting workers’ lives at risk by covering up fire safety hazards and other dangerous working conditions using confidential audits and ignoring known solutions.”  The truth is that these workers were murdered.  Then we have the workers that have been shot on picket lines and during protests about the inhumane conditions in these plants.

And it is not simply the suppliers.  The western retailers are also murderers.  Because corporations have the same rights of people here in the US we hear only that Wal Mart said this or Target says that.  Caterpillar says it had to move the plant etc. etc.  The human element is removed, there’s never a guilty party.

One of the ways the western retailers add to the problems the suppliers complain is the demands the retailers pout on them.  They often change the design or request changes to their orders with very short notice forcing the suppliers, with already antiquated infrastructure, no meddling Unions and generally a repressive regime in power, to intensify already brutal working conditions.  The problem is that, “The American consumer wants the widest variety possible and they want it now”, Nate Herman, VP of the Association that represents the interests of the apparel capitalists.  The retailers are only responding to consumer demand.  So it’s our fault. The Walton family that runs Wal-Mart and has more wealth than 90 million Americans is in business out of their humane desire to clothe the masses in the way we want to be clothed.

I watched about two hours of TV this evening and I faced an assault of advertisements reminding me what I need to do on February 14th to show my partner how much I love her.  It was nonstop and will get even worse the closer we get to Valentine’s Day.  I urge people not to buy any of their stuff on Valentine’s Day.  Don’t let an advertising pimp determine when and how you show your partner you love them. In addition, I was told a few times to call my doctor and ask him if “Crestor” is right for me, that I can be happy if I buy a Honda and other useless bits of information.

So I challenge the executive who is head of the group that represents apparel capitalists.  I do not believe that the consumer drives this train. The owner of capital does. Scott Nova, CEO of the Worker Rights Consortium agrees, it’s not that the consumer is hooked,  “It’s an expectation retailers have created”, he tells BW.  The way young people dress, what we buy and what we think we need, is very much influenced by the media through ads, shows that are directed at young men and women, and movies. And the reason fashion is what it is and the consumer “wants it now” or is convinced to think they need it now or need it at all, is that wealth is created through the process of producing these items, added value above that spent on their production but only realized through their sale.  The producer needs the consumption, it cannot slow, and it cannot cease otherwise society for them ceases also.  Chaos ensues.

The piece in Bloomberg BW that spurred me to write about this points out that the largest of the buyers of Bangladeshi garments “posted” margins of 50% for the past ten years. The Gap and Urban Outfitters posted margins of 40%. I am not familiar with this economic term to explain what it means, all I know is that it puts a lot of money in some coupon clippers’ bank account, probably part of that more than $26 trillion stashed away in tax havens.

There are numerous non-profits and social justice organizations like the ones referred to here that speak out against these injustices and the inhuman conditions that people work under.  But their approach is to appeal to the retailers, the Wal-Marts and Targets and other global giants to change their behavior, to be nice. “If they can allow some sort of margin (added payments) for the improvement of working conditions and some other things, maybe that can help us.” says Bangladesh Commerce Minister, Ghulam Muhammed Quader.

The worker advocate groups may be full of well-intentioned people and their cause just.  But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is interesting that Unions are not mentioned in this article in BW. Independent Unions are the first step in changing these conditions and Bangladesh and there are Unions there but Union leaders risk their lives and have lost them.   Workers on strike have been shot and killed including children. The minimum wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh is $37 a month it is no wonder they fall prey to labor traffickers and end up doing slave labor under even worse conditions in places like Dubai as we pointed out in a previous blog.  Appealing to the suppliers and more so the retailers to change this situation is pointless. These conditions are not a product of bad individuals but a rotten social system.  Caterpillar moved to Joliet Indiana, GM moves to China and FoxConn moves to Vietnam because they are driven to by the laws of the system, it is a market necessity----it is capitalism. 

It is in all workers’ interests to build links with workers in Bangladesh, Bolivia and throughout the world.  To compete with each other in order to assist our own bosses’ drive their rivals from the global marketplace is against our self-interest, makes solidarity virtually impossible and is a race to the bottom.

Socialist globalization is what will change these conditions

Global Unionism to fight global capitalism. Divided we fall, united we stand it’s that simple. 

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