In the past month and a half there have been a total of three collapses of garment production buildings in “developing nations”. In this context, capitalism seems to be a veritable race to the bottom. Where governments are on the take and in the pockets of corporations, they will inevitably sacrifice the well being of citizens on the altar of the God of Profits.
The first took place on April 23rd in Bangladesh, killing a total of 1127 ad injuring over 2400 garment workers (and hundreds still “missing”) of the Rana Plaza complex, many of them young women, making as little as US$ 10c per hour (US$ 1.2/1.3 per day – US$ 38 per month) for an industry run by western companies and that makes billions of sales worldwide, mostly in the “developed world”. In Bangladesh alone the garment industry exports $20bn (£13bn) of clothes each year.
This incident came only a couple of months following a fire in another Bangladeshi garment factory which killed 112 workers. The building was old, did not match building codes, and was poorly maintained.
The second took place in Cambodia on May 16th, when the collapse of the roof of a shoe factory ended up killing two and severely injuring seven others.
The third took place in Rwanda, where a four-story building has killed six and injured over thirty as the owners of the buildings were attempting to bypass regulations to cut building costs.
In addition yesterday (June 6th, 2013) about 600 garment workers fell ill as the result of a suspected water contamination after drinking water from their well at the building at the Starlight Weather Factory in Gazipur.
These are but three of the daily and recurrent abuses and negligence of over-exploited workers in the developing world. These horrors are not the product of a “few bad apples” but are the direct result of a socio-economic system which is founded on the exploitation of an underclass. These are also exacerbated by processes of globalization which allow for the distancing of that underclass far from the eyes of the consumers who, should they be in direct contact with the suffering that their excessive consumption causes, would not be as eager to own an iPhone, a blood diamond, a pair of Nike shoes, or some cheap Primark apparel.
As a remedy to the most damaging of these incidents, the factory collapse in Bangladesh, a large number of companies who are involved in the garment industry in the country have signed a treaty to guarantee safe and decent working condition for garment workers, now commonly referred to the “Bangladesh Safety Accord“.
However, this seems to largely be an attempt to whitewash the crimes their are complicit in and maintain their reputations, and to prevent from taking any real commitments that may force them to establish proper working conditions in factories and provide reasonable wages, and consequentially erode their profit margin. As a matter of fact, there already exist numerous treaties and accords that stipulate companies’ responsibilities towards their workers. Amongst these, the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (ICESCR) which has been ratified by 160 states – including Bangladesh – and has been in effect since 1976, as well as the conventions and decrees of the International Labour Organization (ILO):
“If a country signs up to a convention of the ILO – for instance the convention prohibiting forced and child labour – they have to regularly report back on their progress. In case of complaints, the government is forced to give a formal answer… the organization is then forced to act if negligent, systematic and persistent violations come to light. “Then a commission can be set up which would closely examine the case and submit a case study.” – DW.DE
It is not surprising that such a bureaucratically intensive complaint process, and one which relies on the country’s own reporting, is largely ineffective especially in those nations which are unwilling or unable to enforce it. Furthermore, the process allows for a de facto partnership between government officials – often owners of garment factories and/or with close ties to the garment industry – and the Western firms who are responsible for the abuses.
This is exemplified by the heavy repression and police violence that the garment workers experienced during their demonstration on June 4th, 2013. Workers, friends, relatives and supporters of the recently collapsed Rana Plaza factory gathered in Savar to protest the failed devolution of back-pay and compensation to the workers.
Police opened fire with live bullets and tear gas when the protesters failed to clear the highway at the end of the three-hour concession time allotted for the protest. Although the police stated that they intervened to prevent damage to public transportation vehicles by the protesters many witnesses, including the protesters themselves, insist that any damage caused was an unfortunate by-product of the defensive violence that resulted after the police’s attack.
Although this action was committed directly by Bangladeshi police forces for which they, and the political system that controls them, should be held accountable and were not taken by the corporations involved in the garment factory in Bangladesh one must not decouple the relationships that link the two entities and that make the entities responsible for these actions, corporations and government officials, one and the same.
The exploitation of workers in the developing world is often seen, and understood to be, the byproduct of corporate greed. However, most do not take a step further into realizing the infiltration of virtually all aspects of government and civil society, by international corporate forces with no allegiance or purpose beyond the accumulation of capital and the rhetoric of share prices, dividends and profit margins.
So, should one be under the illusion that a “commitment” such as the Bangladesh Safety Accord taken by firms who are legally required to maximize profits will have no other rationale than that, and that the governments involved are serving as facilitators for the enormous corporate powers in play for the exploitation of their own populations. We need to remember that, while the police may get kittens out of trees and enhance public safety, their social control function has been at the heart of the job from the beginning and should thus be seen perceived as a security force for the corporate/governmental elites and whose salaries are paid by the very people whose faces they are not afraid to trample under their boots.
Ruben Rosenberg Colorni.
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