June-July 2013


By Eric Lee

The deaths of more than 1,000 workers in the Rana Plaza building collapse in April provoked a flurry of activity among campaigning organizations around the world. In particular, the online campaigners - groups like Avaaz, Change.org, and the relatively new SumOfUs.org - rushed to get out campaigns in response. These were all roughly along the same lines: we Western consumers must pressure the companies that make our clothing to behave better in the future.

This is all very well meaning, but the problem is that by focussing completely on our roles as consumers, they neglected other, potentially more important, roles we may play.

When the Bangladeshi garment workers decided to campaign, they did so through their global union federation, the Geneva-based IndustriALL. And their focus was not at all on the Western clothing manufacturers but on the Bangladeshi government, demanding that it reform the country's labour laws to make it easier for workers organize.

Using LabourStart as its platform, IndustriALL campaigned on this issue and, in just three weeks, over 14,000 people sent off messages. In addition, IndustriALL brokered a deal with leading clothing companies for a massively improved program of health and safety in Bangladesh.

The LabourStart/IndustriALL campaign was significant in that it appealed for support on the basis of solidarity, with a focus on the importance of trade unions in the workplace as the only real guarantee of health and safety.

I was reminded of a decade-old campaign that one of IndustriALL's predecessors ran for many years. Its slogan was "The stronger the union, the safer the mine." The same is true for garment factories.

Part of the problem with the consumer focus of many of the campaigning groups was that it encouraged a form of nationalism. One email I received in response to the LabourStart campaign said that the lessons of the Dhaka tragedy was: "Make clothing in Canada." That only made sense if you were a Canadian, and even then it is wrong.

A lot of this was posturing by people who are convinced that we are all to blame because we want affordable clothing. It's not the fault of the local employers in Bangladesh, or of the country's anti-union government, but the fault of us all.

The British Trades Union Congress effectively demolished that argument with an advertisement that recently went viral. They were able to prove that doubling the wages of garment workers in Bangladesh would add only one penny to the cost of a t-shirt.

It's not just that the campaigning organizations got it wrong by focussing entirely on "our" responsibility for the Rana Plaza disaster. They also showed, in some cases, a remarkable lack of judgement.

One group announced it was raising $20,000 to support a local workers' rights centre in Bangladesh. But, in very small print, it said that any money raised above that amount would go into the organization's own budget, to pay its staff salaries in the U.S. Another group did a mass mailing telling people that if they felt angry at the tragedy in Bangladesh, they should show that anger by donating money not to help the victims, but to support the Washington-based organization making the appeal.

The union fundraising effort run through IndustriALL was different. It was coordinated with the garment workers unions in Bangladesh and the money went straight to them.

It's not entirely fair of me to say that there is no role for consumers in all this. While it is most important to build solidarity with workers on the ground and to strengthen their unions, that's not all we can do.

Attempts to create independently verifiable certifications that goods are ethically produced have failed so far. Groups like the Rainforest Alliance have come in for severe criticism from unions for certifying some products and not taking workers' rights into account. Several years ago, the International Union of Foodworkers exposed Tetley, a British tea company and proud member of the "Ethical Tea Partnership," for its unethical practices.

The only guarantee that workers will have a voice on the job, and that health and safety issues will be properly addressed, is an independent union in the workplace. The only guarantee consumers have that the products they buy meet the ethical standards promised by groups like the Rainforest Alliance is a union label.

The union label was first adopted in 1874 by carpenters in San Francisco and later became widespread as unions grew and became more powerful in North America. Not long ago, you could find union labels on clothing, printed goods and much more. As unions have grown weaker, the union label has begun to disappear. But the deaths of so many garment workers in Bangladesh should prompt a rethinking. Maybe it's time to revive it.

Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.

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