Searching for survivors after the Rana Plaza building disaster in Bangladesh. Photo: Qamrul Anam Coordinator, IndustriALL IBC
What can we do about the deaths in Dhaka?
Rosa blogged last week about how the Dhaka textile factory collapse demonstrated the need for strong, independent unions in Bangladesh. Since then, there have been thousands of words printed and broadcast about the disaster and what caused it. A lot of the comments have been more or less anguished concerns that there is nothing we can do about the situation – or, indeed, attempts to blame heartless western bargain-hunters for the 382 deaths – so far – in Dhaka.
In fact, there’s a lot that we can do about what’s happened in Dhaka, even though the real action will be taken – is being taken, despite police brutality – by workers in Bangladesh, just as it was the action of workers in Britain and the USA that led to higher living standards and safer workplaces in our own countries.
You could protest about the companies in Britain and the USA who ultimately dictate the working conditions throughout their global supply chains and profit from them. You can back the call by unions in Bangladesh – textile unions that are part of the Global Union Federation IndustriALL – for stronger labour laws and freedom for trade unions. And, longer term, you can play your part in building union power around the world, persuading fellow workers and thus securing support from the politicians who seek their votes for Decent Work to become the norm rather than a dream.
There have been lots of positive signs that the Dhaka deaths have shifted the terms of the debate over supply chains and workers’ rights, although there have been so many similar occasions in the past. I remember campaigning with Asian unions and western NGOs to get the global toy industry to clean up its act after the Kader Toy Factory Fire that killed 188 workers almost exactly 20 years ago in May 1993.
The International Labour Organisation has announced that it is sending a high-level mission to Bangladesh, led by the former Prime Minister of Togo, now a Deputy Director General of the ILO, to ensure action is taken to prevent further disasters.
Katharine Hamnett – best known for her eye-catchingly radical t-shirt designs – was fantastic on Newsnight last week (still available on i-Player for a few more days) calling for the right to collective bargaining and freedom of association. Labour’s Shadow International Development Secretary Ivan Lewis MP was moved to pledge that:
“Decent work and labour standards will be central to development policy under a Labour Government.”
Even Save the Children’s Chief Executive Justin Forsyth said something similar in the Times (£).
There have been arrests in Bangladesh (unlike in Texas after the recent fertiliser factory explosion, as several people caustically noted on twitter), although there are concerns that this is just the Government protecting the public image of its huge export industry. Probably more important, health and safety inspections have subsequently been ordered in Bangladeshi textile factories. And there have been protests from workers and local communities, as mentioned above.
Nothing will change overnight, and more people will suffer exploitation, injury and even death in the global supply chains for many years to come. But the argument for workers’ rights, and for the core labour standards of the ILO, is now firmly on the agenda, and we need to make sure it stays on the agenda until we’ve won it.