The deadly collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory building may have sparked a flurry of fire and building-safety reforms, but garment workers continue to struggle to be heard, according to a new report by the International Labor Rights Forum, a nonprofit advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. Drawing from interviews with more than 70 people, Our Voices, Our Safety: Bangladeshi Garment Workers Speak Out depicts a “chilling web” of intimidation and violence that spans the South Asian country’s billion-dollar apparel industry. “We set out to talk with workers about fire, electrical, and structural safety issues,” said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, whose staff conducted most of the worker interviews for the report. “But almost all workers wanted to talk to us about more than the necessary technical repairs and renovations in their factories.”
Workers spoke of production targets and workloads so high that managers prevent them from taking restroom breaks, drinking water, stopping work at a reasonable hour, or seeking leave to attend to their own or family members’ medical emergencies.
They also described wages so low they only served to trap them in abusive conditions, as well as the sexual harassment and abuse that routinely take place.
“Fire, electrical, and structural safety in garment factories is essential and will save lives,” said Bjorn Claeson, the author of the report. “But these renovations and repairs must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety.”
Future remediations, he added, must factor in worker input.
“A next phase of reforms must instill the lessons that respect for workers is as important to safety as are fire exits, that workers’ perspectives on safety are as important as the findings of building engineers,” Claeson said. “Without it, workers’ lives and health will continue to be in jeopardy.”
ALLIANCE VS. ACCORD
Another salient topic broached by the report is the different approaches the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety take regarding social relations.
While the Accord, which counts more than 40 of the world’s leading apparel brands, including H&M and Inditex (Zara), among its signatories, enables worker organizations to “engage as equals” in solving safety problems, the Gap– and Walmart-led Alliance does not.
“The next phase of safety reforms should build on the progress achieved under the Accord,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum. “The goal should be an end to the reprisals against workers who make their voices heard, and a safe working environment where factory owners and managers engage with workers with mutual respect.”
Not only should the Bangladesh government register unions according to the law, Gearhart said, but it should also investigate and publicly denounce factory workers who silence workers through violence or intimidation.
Factory owners and industry associations must also adopt a zero-tolerance policy for individuals who threaten or inflict violence against workers.
“Apparel brands and retailers must reform their purchasing practices to cease commercial demands that contribute to the silencing of workers, committing instead to prices and delivery times in line with the cost and time of producing goods in compliance with all safety and labor regulations,” she added.