ON MAY 1, 2020, the International Workers Day, frontline workers of some of the largest corporations of the world — Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx, Target, and Shipt — participated in a mass strike in the United States. The workers walked off their jobs and organised a customer boycott in protest of their employers’ failure to provide basic health and livelihood protection during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Targeting specific actors, such as big corporations in this case, has been historically used as an effective labour organising strategy. However, focusing on one particular target in labour organising that involves supply chains with complicated layers of actors, institutions, and various locations often results in fragmented outcomes and the failure to address the root causes of workers’ suppression. In the case of Bangladeshi garment labour organising, there is a historical tendency of taking a spotlight approach (Locke 2013, Kabeer et al. 2019) that targeted one actor at a time. It fails to reveal how global brands, governments, and local suppliers — all play their unique parts in exploiting racialised and feminised labour of garment workers.
Spotlight of the Accord and the Alliance
AFTER the Rana Plaza collapse, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety transferred the historical spotlight on Bangladeshi garment factories as the site of the problem to the responsibility of global brands. Many progressive labour rights circles in North America and Europe widely lauded the Accord for being a ‘major breakthrough’ and ‘game changer’ and sharply criticised the Alliance for merely adopting a corporate social responsibility model. However, both the Accord and the Alliance created a lot of confusion and complications on the ground for garment factory owners, garment workers, and local labour organisers. They relied on a private governance mechanism to exclusively shine the spotlight on a technocratic definition of workplace safety (i.e., building and fire safety), ignoring other forms of safety such as living wage, job security, or safety from sexual harassment. They did not create new legal rights or benefits or labour organising capabilities for workers (Huq 2019). According to the 2018 NYU – Stern Center for Business and Human Rights report, the Accord and the Alliance covered about 2300 garment factories employing two million workers. They left out about 3000 sub-contracting factories that produce for the domestic market as well as pick up subcontracting orders for direct exporters. Bangladeshi labour rights groups, which were affiliated with the global Accord campaign, were usually the ones that speak English, are well-connected with transnational activist networks, or receive transnational funds for local labour organising initiatives. Bangladeshi grassroots non-English speaking, not-well-connected, non-celebrity labour organisers who operate outside the NGOised donor-driven model rarely found a voice in the global Accord campaign.
Brands vs suppliers: the conflict between transnational and local priorities
MANY of these small, grassroots, non-cosmopolitan Bangladeshi labour activist groups focus their organising energy on addressing exploitative practices of the garment factory owners and the Bangladesh government only to find that this is not necessarily the spotlight of transnational labour organising. Transnational solidarity building initiatives must start from somewhere, and the place they usually begin with nowadays is brand-based activism. The global retailers have long tried to avoid their responsibilities by claiming that the local suppliers and the local government should play the primary role in implementing local labour standards. It is crucial to counter this narrative and put pressure on the global brands making billion-dollar profits to take responsibility for ensuring fair labour standards in their supply chains. Nevertheless, international labour rights groups’ continuous tendency to give benefits of the doubt to the local suppliers and the Bangladesh government falls in odds with the approach many local labour organisers take. The inclination of ignoring priorities of local grassroots labour organisers, the practice of working with selective, cosmopolitan, English-speaking labour organisers from well-funded Bangladeshi labour NGOs, and representing these organisers as the voice of all Bangladeshi garment workers obstruct the possibility of building meaningful transnational solidarity.
The 2014 Tuba protest and the latest wage movement are glaring examples of this tendency. In August 2014, hundreds of garment workers occupied a garment factory building in Dhaka. They organised a hunger strike in response to the non-payment of three months’ salaries and allowances owed to 1600 workers by the Tuba Group. The state’s violent suppression of the workers’ protest and the arrest of prominent local grassroots labour organisers did not garner widespread coverage by the global media and international labour rights groups who were enthusiastically supporting the Accord campaign at the same time (Siddiqi 2015). Similarly, garment workers’ mass protests for increasing the minimum wage and the violent repression of the protest by the factory owners and the state in 2017 and 2018 did not receive attention from the international labour rights community in the same way as received by the Accord campaign.
Organising during the COVID-19 pandemic
THE COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis for the global garment industry. According to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, 1150 garment factories reported $3.18 billion worth of suspension or cancellation of orders by the global retailers, which affected 2.28 million garment workers as of May 3, 2020. The international media, such as New York Times, Guardian, Forbes, Fortune, NPR, Reuters, Al Jazeera, and Washington Post, widely covered the plight of Bangladeshi garment factory owners and workers. Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labour Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, and Workers Rights Consortium issued a joint statement urging brands to take responsibility for workers in their supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The international media and international labour rights groups are rightfully questioning the retailers’ decision to cancel or suspend orders. What is striking in the whole narrative is the presumed innocence of BGMEA and the Bangladesh government. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on April 18, 2020, Rubana Huq, the president of BGMEA, asked for ‘a collective response from trade unions, nongovernmental organisations, and academics to make brands aware of their primary responsibility to do what they can to fulfill their obligations to their workers.’ What is mind-blowing is BGMEA’s willingness to accept the ‘collective response’ only when it is geared towards the brands. Responses of the civil society that are critical of the BGMEA itself are not necessarily welcomed.
For example, in an op-ed published in a national daily on April 13, 2020, Nadine Shaanta Murshid, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Buffalo in the United States, was critical of many burning issues related to the global COVID-19 pandemic including global capitalism, the limitations of social distancing protocols, the preparedness of Bangladesh’s medical and healthcare infrastructure, class and gender oppression of workers, the Bangladesh government, and BGMEA. The president of BGMEA, wrote a response accusing Murshid of ‘maligning the formidable reputation of BGMEA on a national and international level’ (The Daily Star April 22, 2020). Murshid accused BGMEA of not following the government’s shutdown protocol and forcing workers to walk back to the city on foot. BGMEA, in response, said ‘joint decision was taken to keep factories open’ in a meeting attended by representatives from the ministry of labour and employment, FBCCI, BEF, BGMEA, and BKMEA. It also stressed that the government instructed to keep factories that were running purchase orders and making Personal Protective Equipment open if need be. Apparently, it seems like BGMEA’s line of defense was they did not make the decision alone — which the author accused them of — but were complicit and a mere participant in the whole decision-making process as if being complicit and a participant is not problematic. What this line of defense ignores is the long history of BGMEA’s strong influence over the government, BGMEA leaders serving as government representatives, close financial ties of members of the national parliament with the garment industry, and BGMEA’s legacy of serving the interests of factory owners. Rubana Huq further wrote, ‘Accusing BGMEA of neoliberalism is capricious and ill-conceived.’ The very forces of neoliberalism — economic liberalisation, free-market capitalism, deregulation, structural adjustment policies, and multinational corporations’ endless global race-to-the-bottom for the cheapest labour — have kept BGMEA and the Bangladeshi garment industry alive and thrive since the 1980s. The stark denial of this reality by BGMEA makes us question the tendency of the COVID-19 transnational labour organising of letting the Bangladesh government and factory owners off the hook and focusing exclusively on the brands.
To elabourate on the role of the Bangladesh government during this pandemic, it is worth bringing in the insights shared by Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua in a live-streamed discussion on ‘Rana Plazar shat bochor: Koronar jhuki ebong sromiker obosthan (7th Anniversary of Rana Plaza Collapse: Risk of Corona and Workers Condition)’ organised by Bangladesh Garment Sromik Shanghati on April 23, 2020. According to Barua, the problem started when the government announced a ‘general holiday’ without specifying whether the ‘holiday’ falls under ‘The Communicable Diseases (Prevention, Control and Eradication) Act, 2018’ or the Disaster Management Act 2012. India, for example, invoked the lockdown under their Disaster Management Act which officially barred factory owners from laying off workers. A vague declaration of a ‘general holiday’ with 31 directives from the prime minister including an even vaguer clause saying industry owners should continue production while providing health protection (without specifying what adequate health protection should look like) in consultation with workers created the scope for factory owners and BGMEA to effectively use the directive to serve their interests and strip garment workers of the rights and protections granted by the labour law of Bangladesh. Those intricate layers of local politics are rarely considered in the transnational labour organising narratives making the singular and simplistic demand that Western brands should take responsibility for the Bangladeshi garment workers.
What will happen, hypothetically, if brands decide to take responsibility for garment workers and pay the suppliers? Will it end the concerns of garment workers during this pandemic? Who will make sure that the money will actually trickle down to workers and be used to pay their wages, benefits, sick leave, and hazard pay on time?
On the one hand, it is good news for international labour organising bodies and local suppliers that orders from Asian buyers who reopened their economies have slowly started to rise (Financial Times, April 30, 2020). Around 2000 factories reopened last week. Few more hundreds will open in the next few days (The Economist, April 30, 2020). On the other hand, 39 garment workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March 25, 2020 and several died (Kaler Kontho, May 3, 2020). On May 1, the International Workers Day, hundreds of garment workers in Savar were screened and fifty of them were chosen for COVID-19 testing. Seven out of eight positive cases were garment workers (Prothom Alo, May 1, 2020). The community transmission rate is increasing since the factories reopened. The law enforcement authority locked down the neighbourhoods where the diagnosed workers lived. Ironically, the factories where these workers worked stayed open and continued production, obstructing the possibility of quarantining those who were exposed to the virus.
The initial COVID-19 transnational organising initiatives failed to foresee the aftermath of reopening factories in the name of protecting jobs and workers’ livelihood. They repeated the familiar trend of shining the spotlight on one actor at a time, global brands in this case without paying attention to how the local actors such as Bangladesh government, BGMEA, and garment factory owners played distinct roles in exposing garment workers to unprecedented livelihood as well as health crises.
Nafisa Tanjeem is an assistant professor of Global Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Lesley University in the United States.
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