It's Time to Step Up and Help the Workers of Bangladesh

A planned demonstration at Gap Inc's shareholder meeting in San Francisco aims to get Gap to sign on to fire and building safety regulations in Bangladesh.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in April, the world’s worst garment industry catastrophe which killed over 1,000 people, has sparked intensive debate over who is to blame for the devastation.

Many have pointed the finger at global corporations’ failure to provide adequate fire and building safeguards for factory workers. Such controversy has resulted in pressure upon the major retailers to sign a legally binding agreement aimed to improve conditions in the country, which to date has the support of 19 corporations.

However, only one company, PVH -- which owns brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Van Heusen -- is American. The Gap and Walmart, two of the major producers in Bangladesh, continue to resist signing any agreement that is legally binding or enforceable. Instead, Walmart has said it will conduct its own investigations into its supplier factories.

The question that remains is what can we as consumers do to ensure that a tragedy of this magnitude does not happen again? Merely sitting back as bystanders and depending on the corporate moguls to solve a problem which has been proliferating over decades is not the answer.  

As shoppers, we have an ability and opportunity to honor our values to promote the rights of workers and advocate for change in an effort to ensure that these types of disasters do not occur again. We can do this by joining and supporting a demonstration on May 21 in San Francisco at the Gap shareholder meeting to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. 

Take Action, Be Vocal

According to Liana Foxvog of International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), the most important thing that consumers can do is to get involved and provide a voice. “There are not many sources where workers rights are respected in the global garment industry so we are urging consumers to be more than just consumers and raise their voices,” she said.

Foxvog told AlterNet that it is vitally important that consumers pay attention to how companies are treating workers in Bangladesh and that global companies know that consumers will not accept unsafe practice or the repression of worker’s rights to unionize.  

“Taking action is the most important step for consumers and this can be done either in the form of attending protests, writing letters to store managers and foreign companies and signing petitions,” she said.

A number of petitions calling for better working conditions in Bangladesh have been circulating since the April tragedy. The Gap “death traps” is an example of a petition instigated by ILRF which has been gaining momentum across the US and calling on consumers to take action across the country.

Foxvog argues that it’s time for companies to make a change from the past to work together on programs in agreement with global and Bangladeshi unions in order to protect workers lives and ensure safety mechanisms are in place.

Selective Shopping

As consumers, we have the power to control where and how we spend our money. There are a number of consumer shopping guides that are available in order to search for union-made clothing shops.  

While an outright boycott of the industry seems like an obvious and highly desirable option, unions and activists have expressed reluctance at taking such extreme measures.    

As Muhammud Yanus, Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner explains, such actions would drastically affect the social and economic future of the Bangladeshi workers.

“We cannot allow this industry to be destroyed. Rather, we have to be united as a nation to strengthen it,” Yanus said.

A less radical but equally effective approach consumers can take is to make a conscience effort to shop only at those companies that have agreed to sign the legally binding agreement to improve working conditions in Bangladesh.  

Investing in corporations that support fair working rights rather than companies that are guilty of exploitation, sends a clear message to anti-union corporations such as Walmart and the Gap that consumers will not tolerate unfair labor practices and thus provide some incentive for these corporations to amend their practices.

At the end of the day, we want to generate concrete action so that corporations are pressured to undertake necessary repairs to make these factories safe. For these reasons, it is important the consumers make informed choices about where to shop.

Promote Transparency Through Social Media

Social media is a powerful tool to create change and rally support against unfair labor practices. Through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and news blogs, consumers can increase awareness of the garment industry practices through naming and shaming those guilty of exploitation – whether it be global corporations, local governments or factory owners – while keeping the issue at the forefront.

These measures not only push those culpable in the industry toward affirmative action, but pressure corporations to disclose the locations and addresses of their manufacturers thereby promoting transparency and preventing companies from hiding behind the corporate veil.

Join Civil Action Groups

For those of us who want to get more involved, joining a civil action movement targeted at improving rights for workers is another way to make a difference.  

By campaigning against anti-union companies, it is envisioned that retailers that profit from low wages in Bangladesh will be compelled by consumers to pay high prices to factories and accordingly undertake the necessary repairs in compliance with local building codes.

Such an example of civil action campaigning is evidenced by the efforts of USAS, together with human rights groups and the ILFP who will be holding a demonstration in front of the Gap shareholder meeting on May 21 in San Francisco as a means to call upon the company to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

“The only thing that is going to change conditions in Bangladesh is companies stepping up and deciding to put money on the table to renovate the factories and include workers and their unions as part of the solution…that is why we are asking people to put pressure on the Gap,” Garrett Strain, International Campaigns Coordinator with United Students Against Sweatshops, stressed.

Do Not Turn a Blind Eye

As Angelo Young reported in the International Business Times citing a study into human behavior titled, "Sweatshop Labor Is Wrong Unless The Shoes Are Cute," a major problem with consumers is that despite our strong convictions that we do support fair labor markets, there is a huge disparity between what we say as consumers, and what we actually do.

Young argues that the more desirable an item is the more likely a consumer will cognitively disregard his moral stance on unethical labor practices thereby perpetuating its increasing demand. In this sense, a shopper is able to reconcile the bad labor practices by choosing to ignore the realities of exploitation. Therefore, it is important that we recognize and acknowledge that as consumers, we are both part of the problem and the solution.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.