Health and Safety

Your Shirt Off Their Backs: The Consequences of Sweatshop Labor

September 16, 2014
By Marc Bussanich

New York, NY—An impressive panel of labor leaders and workers advocates, and the New York State comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, convened at 32BJ SEIU last Thursday evening to speak about the consequences of sweatshop labor that major retailers such as H & M, the Gap and Levi Strauss & Co. rely on to stock their stores.

The Sidney Hillman Foundation, which supports and fosters investigative reporting and disburses grants for scholarships, research and lecture series on college campuses, hosted the event. Anna Burger, former secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, moderated the panel.

In the accompanying video, Ms. Burger first asks Kalpona Akter about what has happened in the garment industry in her home country, Bangladesh, since the tragic Tazreen garment factory fire in November 2012. Ms. Akter is the executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity.  

“What has escalated these fires and building collapses to happen in Bangladesh was a series of fires that have killed over 1,800 workers between November 2012 to October 2013. It happens because of ignorance. These workers have been ignored by the factory owners, the state, retailers, who have responsibilities but don’t fulfill them, and of course the consumers. If I were to place blame, I would blame everyone in the supply chain,” said Akter.

New York’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, spoke about his experiences when he visited with survivors in Bangladesh soon after the Tazreen factory fire in November 2012. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, implored Mr. DiNapoli to tour the factory with him because as manager of the state’s $180.7 billion pension fund he is in a unique position to pressure apparel companies to make changes in their factories overseas.

“We were able to meet with victims of the Tazreen fire and the Raza Plaza collapse; it was a very emotional moment to be around the table with survivors and family members who loved lost ones. There was one young woman who described the moment of working at her job and moments later being under the rubble. She got out, but the people around her did not,” said DiNapoli.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occurred on March 25, 1911, the deadliest industrial accident in New York City history. Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said that working conditions soon began to change in the city after the fire because unions were getting stronger and the suffragists joined them.

But she said the important question to ask today is how do workers’ advocates broaden their campaigns so that they resonate with a wider audience. She said she was dismayed when she protested recently at The Children’s Place outside Washington, D.C.

“There were moms going by and they’re not looking like they’re very well off, they’re looking for a deal. They can’t really afford to shop somewhere else. Where is our economy going if Bangladesh will never be importing our goods because we’re keeping them really poor because of the supply-chain model,” said Gearhart.

And Jeff Hermanson, director of global strategies for Workers United, an SEIU affiliate, talked about Cambodia’s tragic history, as well as being an important source of creating the world’s wealth.

“In spite of its small size, it produces tremendous wealth. Cambodia exported $5.5 billion last year worth of apparel, most of it to the United States. 400,000 workers in Cambodia create all this wealth. There is a race to the bottom. That’s the fundamental problem, that’s why trade agreements without serious labor rights conditionality can’t do anything about it,” said Hermanson.

He told the audience that if they were interested in reading a good book about trade policy, they should pick up “The Making of Global Capitalism” by Messrs. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin because the authors write poignantly about how American, European and Canadian companies are knocking down trade barriers around the world.

@marcbuss marc@laborpress.org

September 16, 2014

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