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:

Hameem 3

Hameem PM pic 3

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.

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Talking Union

 by Paul Garver

Insuregency Trap cover image

Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China is indispensable for anyone trying to understand what is happening with hundreds of millions of internal migrant workers in China today. Postsocialist China has become the world’s largest manufacturing center and exporter to the rest of the world, and the future of Chinese society and of the global economy hinges on whether the new Chinese working class remains excluded from its social and political system.

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the back office

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Listen Girlfriends!

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches using scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik. Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches upcycling scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

When designer Kahindo Mateene came to the United States at the tender age of seventeen to attend college, her classmates couldn’t stop asking where she got her clothes. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who had also lived and traveled extensively in Africa, Europe, and North America, the global nomad was a little taken aback by the attention she received for her vibrant, multi-cultural hand-made designs. After studying fashion at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, Kahindo was finally able to pursue her dream of creating a line that would fuse her African heritage with western design sensibilities. In 2009 she launched Modahnik, a sophisticated, sexy couture collection that features bright colors and bold prints for the every-day, modern woman. Besides earning her respect in the fashion industry…

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CompendiumOfSocialDoctrineThe last week saw a watershed moment for Catholicism in the Anglosphere: the Catholic Bishops Conference for the U.S. state of Maryland endorsed the political objective of raising the minimum wage.

Why is this a big deal? For decades the Church’s hierarchy in the USA have been more inclined to speak out on personal morality issues. Pundits might attribute the shift to the Pope Francis effect but really it’s a moment that had to come sooner or later as the American Dream is manifestly not working out and the majority of the country is seeing their living standards go backwards.

What it draws attention to is just how anemic English-speaking Catholicism is on economic matters. Other than the Maryland bishops, who is seeking to apply the clear words of the Gospels or of papal and conciliar documents into specific, present-day proposals?

I was pleased to learn that a French author Antoine R. Cuny, a layman, has written a book called Finance Catholique; a wholesale critique of the existing system of global finance in the light of Christian values (alas it has not as yet been translated into English). He sets out in pretty direct language what financial practices are and aren’t acceptable to Christian morality. What a refreshing change from the timid, oblique suggestions English speakers have become accustomed to. This is his list of eleven ‘financial sins’:

  1. Price volatility due to speculation
  2. Wage inequality
  3. Excessive use of leverage
  4. Commodification of workers
  5. Short-termism
  6. Losing sight of non-economic values such as scarcity & productivity
  7. Failure to share the profits from an enterprise
  8. Anonymity and disempowerment of investors
  9. Tax havens and tax avoidance generally
  10. Adverse effects on the environment
  11. Lack of transparency

In the employment relations field, there used to be an entire confederation of trade unions active in Latin America and Continental Europe which promoted Christian social doctrine in economic matters, the World Confederation of Labour. It merged with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (now ITUC) in 2006 and its voice disappeared into the secular arguments used by the larger organisation. Nothing against secular arguments, but there is definitely a loss of synergy with the pulpit, the result being that churchgoers waste time fretting about cultural trends that they can’t influence while not looking too closely in the mirror when they go to work.

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Greetings from Bogor, Java!

I’m attending the conference of the Asian Transnational Corporation monitoring network. Listening to the country reports yesterday there was a pretty clear consensus on what are the most pressing issues for labour across the region. They are:

  1. Living wages In the majority of countries in the region, the minimum wage is not enough to live on.
  2. Subcontracting An employer ploy to avoid labour regulations. The good news is that determined organising can counteract it despite the complete lack of legal levers to pull. I found it interesting that the representatives spoke of the disadvantages exclusively in relation to the loss of social welfare benefits and not at all about two other reasons I’m familiar with in Australia: difficulty in collective bargaining and the work/life balance problem of losing control over working hours.
  3. Union busting – Ranging from its most blatant forms of disappearances of union activists in the Philippines and Bangladesh through imprisonment in China to sacking and retaliation against union members (a method used nearly everywhere) to more subtle methods used in Malaysia and Korea of setting up toothless unions and/or denying registration of legitimate unions on spurious technicalities.
Indonesia seems to be making the most progress. So much so that businesses have been putting signs outside their factories advertising that they do not use contract labour. The thought crossed my mind that if they succeed in formalising the workforce and having a powerful labour-political nexus that will bring problems of its own. Then again, which would you prefer? A politics dominated by a compromised but still effective labour movement or a politics dominated by the close friends of capitalists? I know which I’d rather have.
One observation that remained with me was Hilmar Farid’s comment that Indonesia will work out differently to the Anglo nations because here the waves of economic change that took a century in Australia or the USA are all happening at once. People are coming in off the farms and finding themselves in advanced industries like electronics whose management have equally advanced anti-union strategies. Yet another reason to think twice before proffering advice.

Photo: Chinese Wal-Mart activist

Indonesia Pavilion at Expo2010

Indonesia Pavilion at Expo2010

This is where I was on this day three years ago: the Indonesia Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

Indonesia is Australia’s largest neighbour but I knew embarrassingly little about it and it was only by random chance that I visited their pavilion at all (it happened to be located near the main axis).

If you ever get a chance to attend a World Expo, do! The next will be held in 2015 in Milan. It’s like being able to visit all the countries in the world at once. After I returned, what passes for ‘big issues’ in the daily papers have seemed incredibly trivial. It also sparked a desire to do something more meaningful with my spare time, which eventually took the form of this blog.

Conscious of the widespread poverty in Indonesia 482469_4532530598733_388566560_nI figured I could best assist by donating my knowledge on labour relations. With some research I discovered that there is a small office in Jakarta called the Trade Union Rights Centre and I travelled to Jakarta to meet with them in late 2010. Fair For All kicked off soon after. While the site is not country-specific, Indonesia has been covered frequently.

Looking back, you can see how it has gradually sunk in with me that Indonesians can look after their own. Moreover, they should look after their own. To have someone ride in and purport to fix things is problematic on two levels: Firstly, no matter how well-intentioned, that someone will carry their own cultural assumptions which will make the work more difficult than it needs to be. Secondly, the whole purpose of labour rights is empowerment and having someone else do it for you undermines this.

You can see the turning points in hindsight:

  • My very first post was about light manufacturing on Batam Island – drawn largely from the bleak portrait painted in the newsletter of the IMF (now part of IndustriALL)
  • About a year later after I had the opportunity to travel to Batam Island and see it for myself … and it’s not nearly as horrible as I expected. Moreover many of the island’s one million workers belong to the highly active manufacturing union FSPMI which has been winning double digit wage increases.
  • A few months later I learned that Indonesia’s three peak labour organisations – representing divergent ideological approaches – worked together to stage the nation’s May Day rallies. Who am I to lecture them, then? We can barely manage that here in Sydney!
  • Lastly in this post I recognised that Indonesia’s primary market is its own domestic one so, even if foreign multinationals could be forcibly signed on to better labour conditions, it still wouldn’t go a long way in raising overall living standards.

In short: Indonesians have their own thriving movement for progress which doesn’t need my help, not in a direct sense anyway.

  • You can read more on the website of the journal IndoProgress although if you don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia you’ll need to use translation software to follow it.

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