The past few days saw the coincidence of two events relating to Bangladesh factory safety, the latest developments since the April 2013 Rana Plaza disaster that resulted in the death of over 1,000 workers who were making clothes destined for the shelves of American and European retailers.
The first is the 2000-person World Congress of UNI Global Union, one of the global union federations (GUFs) behind the Bangladesh Accord, which is still underway in Cape Town. The second was the 3700-person Dhaka Apparel Summit and associated International Trade Expo for Building and Fire Safety, held in Dhaka. The latter were held with the involvement of the Bangladesh Alliance, the rival, employer-led response to Bangladesh factory safety.
The two events illustrate the difference in the two approaches, which could be characterised as bottom-up versus top-down. The GUF-backed Accord regards independent trade unions as the optimum solution. However there is a catch: unionisation in Bangladesh’s garment sector is almost negligible and neither the government nor employers encourage their formation. The Accord’s backers are of the view that the workers of Bangladesh may be waiting around forever if fully-fledged unions were seen as the ‘only’ solution and have accepted the proximate goal of establishing work health and safety councils in the various factories who sign up to it. Such councils are not the same as independent unions but at least, it is hoped, they don’t displace unions.
Other than completing many safety inspections it is difficult to measure what the Accord has accomplished. At least there has not been another Rana Plaza so that is something.
What bothers me about it is that there is a garment workers’ union in Bangladesh, the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF). This is them:
Curious what the guy with the microphone is saying? Yeah, me too. Something tells me he isn’t talking about how great the factory conditions are but rather voicing grievances about wages that are too low to live on, wage theft and recalcitrant employers. Unfortunately we aren’t hearing his voice, we are hearing from the Global North staff doing the much narrower work of the Accord, telling us how much progress has been made.
The problem is, the NGWF has only a very small number of members in an industry with 4 million workers. Yes it’s legitimate and democratic but it does not have the reach to make a significant impact. What does one do, stand by and wait for it to scale up, which may never happen? Essentially the GUFs are doing nothing different to what many NGOs and UN bodies do: intervening to prevent disaster rather than waiting for local organisations to develop the capacity to do it themselves. That’s fine as long as there is a real plan to hand over but I’ve not heard that there is one, only a hope that it will be possible at some point in the future.
In fact there is no guarantee that unions in the developing world will ever “grow up” into mass-membership organisations that practice a congenial form of tripartism (co-operation between workers, employers and the state), as the affiliates of the GUFs do. I am not convinced that the twenty-first century economy will be structured in a way that will allow that to happen. Rather than looking at developing world labour movements through the lens of the twentieth century we should accept that the developing world of today is not going through the comparatively gently staged process of modernisation that happened in Europe and the United States. People are moving directly from their parents’ farms to a first job in workplaces with inscrutably complex ownership structures (see related post). Perhaps those of us in the Global North should spend more time learning how people are grappling with this reality on the ground and ask how we might assist them to win power in their workplaces before rushing at short-term but possibly unsustainable fixes.
Still … it’s better to get most of what you want than hardly any of what you want
The limitations of the Accord’s approach should be kept in context. Total inaction was a real possibility, which would have resulted in no improvement at all. However we also have an example of how not to do it; the Bangladesh Alliance who are behind the Dhaka Apparel Summit who obligingly drew attention to the difference this past weekend.
The industry groups backing the Alliance make themselves the subject rather than the object of the process. They proactively ‘sell’ safety and training products to businesses operating in Bangladesh. One has to wonder just how beneficial this really is to Bangladeshi workers. A bunch of white expat workers fly in and sell products to other white expat workers. The money probably doesn’t even change hands in Bangladesh. I smell opportunism. Meanwhile the Bangladesh government, rather than actively directing what is going on, stands back and watches.
As I learned earlier in the year,
What would have been really good for Bangladesh as a country would be to establish an internal market for higher-end manufacturing of this sort, creating higher-paying employment for Bangladeshis. Alas it appears the opportunity has been missed and the Alliance’s net contribution to the situation is to make people in the Global North even richer. Meanwhile, street demonstrations over wages will continue in the streets of Dhaka.