What International Solidarity Looks Like

Western solidarity campaigns with Bangladeshi workers can help build worker power and prevent another Rana Plaza.

(writer_dad/ Flickr)

Last Saturday afternoon, hundreds of students, organized by United Students Against Sweatshops, protested at more than thirty REI stores over the company’s complicity in sweatshop labor. In Rockville, Maryland, twenty-one activists were arrested after linking arms and blocking the store’s entrances, temporarily shutting down the business.

The students are demanding REI, an outdoor recreation cooperative, live up to its progressive reputation by cutting ties to North Face. North Face is a subsidiary of VF Corporation, the world’s largest producer of branded apparel, which has refused to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Enforced by international contracts, the Accord is a safety standards code that local unions and international labor allies pushed garment suppliers to accept after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing over 1,100 garment workers.

Thus far more than 175 apparel brands have signed onto the Accord. After numerous vigils, rallies, and sit-ins at universities across the country, USAS has pushed seventeen collegiate brands, including Adidas, Fruit of the Loom, and Knights Apparel to add their names to the agreement. Yet in the face of a nine-month long campaign, VF Corporation still has not budged, instead supporting to the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a non-binding corporate pact supported by labor standard-bearers like Walmart and GAP.

Despite such entrenched opposition on the part of retailers, many observers on the Left have also expressed concerns about the Accord campaign. In a recent Jacobin piece, “After Rana Plaza,” Colin Long, president of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, critiques the movement for its potential to “alleviate concerns about fire and building safety, while doing nothing to prevent the continued exploitation of workers in other ways — over-work, low pay, violence.”

Long claims the Accord movement “has largely been pushed by organizations in countries that are buyers of Bangladeshi goods rather than Bangladeshis themselves.” For Long, this supposedly humanitarian Western mission cannot make up for the inherent fragility of the Bangladeshi labor movement.

In his visit to Bangladesh, having spoken with a few workers and seen some rubble, Long claims, “the facts of Rana Plaza demonstrate the weakness of the workers’ movement,” and he questions “whether much real organizing was going on at ground level — organizing workers in their workplaces or communities to build their power and fight for improved terms and conditions.”

To conclude, Long declares, “what the brave and committed organizers of real unions need is assistance to build the kind of worker power that can transform the position of Bangladeshi garment workers.”

This kind of analysis presents a false dichotomy between international solidarity movements and shop-floor radicalism.

On the one hand, Long ignores the organized role Bangladeshi unions and union activists have played in pushing the Accord movement forward abroad, reducing them to objects of international charity. On the other hand, his characterization of the Bangladeshi labor movement fails to recognize the unprecedented power Bangladeshi unions seized from factory owners in the Accord, and preemptively strips workers of their ability to capitalize on such victories.

In reality, the Accord campaign, jointly pushed for by Western students, global labor federations, and Bangladeshi unions, is a pragmatic manifestation of international solidarity, using civil disobedience and advocacy to shame one end of the supply chain into alleviating the brutal repression used to prevent organizing on the other.

Long brushes off the Bangladeshi labor movement’s response to Rana Plaza, despite the mass demonstrations in the wake of Rana Plaza, boss-nappings, and strike waves of last September, which galvanized tens of thousands and ground 20 percent of Bangladesh’s 3,200 factories to a halt. Incredibly, he bemoans “the fragmentation of the labor movement and lack of clear leadership” — at a time when Bangladeshi labor leaders are routinely beaten, tortured, and killed by company thugs and state police.

The Bangladeshi labor movement is not “weak” because it does not attempt to build power. Political repression is to blame. While Long claims “workers here are united only in death,” the murdered corpses of Bangladeshi organizers tell a different story: they are united in struggle.

The Accord does not provide workers protection from state police, and the violent repression of unionization will continue with or without it. The movement has, however, won unions the right to access factories, to establish workplace safety committees, and to form garment worker centers to foster safe spaces for organizing and mutual aid. Such organizational measures, while certain to elicit state opposition, have nonetheless been crucial in building Bangladesh’s labor movement post-Rana Plaza.

Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker and currently the director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, noted the positive impact the Accord’s provision for worker safety committees had on shop floor militancy.

“The Accord provision to include workers during factory inspection and going back with follow up report[s] has helped to get workers unionization at [the] factory level,” Akter told me via email. “They get [a] chance [to] give their voice which was totally absent in previous and this way they are organizing among them[selves] and joining [the] union.”

The explosion in unionization rates seems to back up this observation. In the two years before Rana Plaza, only two new unions officially formed in the garment industry. In 2013, after the Bangladeshi government was pushed to open the garment industry to unionization, at least ninety-six new trade unions formed — a direct path to improved day-to-day working conditions, led by workers themselves.

Another glaring problem with Long’s piece is factual inaccuracy regarding the Accord’s basic design. Citing a “young American woman,” Long declares several times that the agreement has no provision for follow-up inspections to ensure that repairs, once demanded, are actually completed, rendering initial inspections useless.

This is simply not true, as evidenced by its legally mandated follow-up inspection process, which outlines “progress on remediation to date for all factories at which inspections have been completed.” More importantly, sixteen factories in Bangladesh have been temporarily shut down since Accord inspections began for failing to renovate according to independent inspection assessments. Thus far, seven have reopened in compliance with the requisite safety standards, protecting thousands of garment workers from potential factory collapses.

Long’s error is also important in that it misses yet another victory Bangladeshi unions have extracted from factory bosses — the power to shut down a factory without relying on the Bangladeshi state, which Long rightly points out is more or less an arm of the garment industry.

“When Accord finds the overload or minor structural problems they share this [with] all relevant bodies including the union,” Akter explains. “The Accord and factory work together to fix the problem and we and unions . . . follow-up with workers whether a repair or real improvement has happened.”

If brands themselves are unwilling to comply after inspector assessments, unions can take them before an arbitrator, whose decision is legally enforceable in the brand’s home country. According to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, not a single garment supplier has attempted to fight through the entire arbitration process.

Long’s inaccuracy is significant because the Accord’s unique enforcement mechanism represents an alternative governance structure, one that actually incorporates local unions as equal players in the investigation. Such an independent structure, outside the purview of the Bangladeshi state, is a serious political gain.

Still, such restorative remedies are much harder to extract when Bangladeshi unions can’t back up their presence in the street with a voice at the table. Furthermore, though unions may target individual factory bosses, garment suppliers can always abandon a factory contractor (or country) at a moment’s notice. Thus, for Long to assume that labor militancy alone could score similar achievements ignores the incredible speed with which the modern multinational firm can transport capital and find new labor pools.

Hence the importance of the Accord movement’s Western front, led by students and labor solidarity organizations. By shaming corporations, Western activists can threaten their consumer bases and push them to sign the Accord, giving Bangladeshi unions greater opportunity to seize, expand, and build power.

Unfortunately, for years many companies like VF have contracted with factories without the shutdown mechanisms outlined in the agreement. The results have been devastating.

In December 2010, VF’s “That’s It Sportswear” factory burned down. Twenty-nine workers were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Some trapped on the top floor jumped to their deaths.

And on June 20, because of VF’s unwillingness to sign the Accord, at least fifty workers were injured in a stampede that began after one of their factory went ablaze. The factory fire was caused by a defective electrical system that short-circuited, despite VF’s claim as recently as June 4 to have “completed 100% of its inspections at Bangladeshi factories where VF product is sourced.” The success or failure of the movement has real human consequences.

Long is correct that no progress can be made without organization from Bangladeshi workers themselves. And the way in which twenty-one arrested American students put their bodies on the line cannot compare to how Bangladeshi workers, struggling to unionize against brutal police repression, do so everyday.

But fighting for the Accord in solidarity does make a difference — not by giving power to Bangladeshi workers, but by giving them a greater spotlight from which they can more safely seize power for themselves.

“Students in US are in solidarity with our struggle,” said Tania, a factory worker in Rampura, Dhaka, “which means we are not alone.” For in the struggle against global capitalism, being alone is not an option.