A 'song of the wage' for Rana Plaza

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A ‘song of the wage’ for Rana Plaza

By Alessandra Mezzadri

ranaplazablog.jpg

© Gordon Welter

Two years after the Rana Plaza tragedy, not much has changed in the clothes industry around the world.

The families of the victims are still waiting for compensation money. And, since April 2013, there have been more, smaller, factory disasters.

But the history of capitalism shows a lot of exploitation of workers. Jeremy Seabrook has written about this in his new book The Song of the Shirt.

Since the 19th century, capitalism has been very bad for the lives of workers, all over the world ‘from Blackburn to Bangladesh’. So one of the best ways to remember the victims of Rana Plaza is to remember all the other workers who have died too.

The clothes industry is very bad at health and safety. And there have been a lot of other tragedies.

The first ‘failure’ of health and safety in industry was The Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911.

There have been some important changes in the industry. But it is still bad.

The New York fire happened when the clothes industry was not very organised. People called tuberculosis the ‘disease of people who make clothes’. But Rana Plaza happened after more than 40 years of trying to improve working conditions.

Rana Plaza is similar to many other tragedies. Laws have become tighter, but they are still not enough.

For example in both the New York and Dhaka disasters, they locked the workers inside the factory. I am sure many factories in Bangladesh today have many more fire exits than the old sweatshop factories in the US had. But if these doors are locked for workers, people will continue to die in factory.

There are new laws – the best is the Accord. But we still need to remember that bad jobs usually mean bad work conditions. And across the world, not only in Bangladesh, jobs in the clothes industry are bad jobs.

Even when there are no disasters, workers suffer. They can only work in the factories for a short time.

In India, by the age of 30, workers usually lose their jobs and go back to their villages. The industry treats them like old jeans or T-shirts.

The maximum ‘industrial age’ for workers is similar in Cambodia or China, and, of course, in Bangladesh.

One main reason for this is not having good enough healthcare. This is because workers usually stay in the same factory only for short periods of time, even when they work in the industry for several years.

In India, most workers stay in the same factory for less than a year. In Cambodia, companies often have ‘maximum two years’ employment contracts. So, if factories did give health and safety benefits – and not many do – workers would have to look after their own health and safety for most of their hard lives.

But the best way to improve health and safety is to pay a living wage. For many workers, wages are the only certainty. And wages are more important when there are no social contributions, or these cannot be easily transferred to the new workplace.

So new laws should work to keep workers alive, and also to increase wages.

People often say the ‘living wage’ is too political. But it is the easiest way to make sure workers are OK.

Does this mean we will not be able to buy so much? Well, yes - there is no ‘right’ to cheap shopping. Workers in the developing world are fighting for increases in wages. But they often stop fighting because of extreme violence from people with power.

The latest example of these violent wage-wars was in Mauritius. This is where Ed Miliband’s infamous feminist T-shirt was made.

We must continue to talk about working conditions, and remember the brutality of capitalism. But we can also sing the song the clothes workers are singing across the world, and fight for higher wages.

I want to remember the day of the Rana Plaza disaster with this new song – the song of the wage.

Alessandra Mezzadri is Lecturer of Development Studies at SOAS and expert advisor to Labour Behind the Label.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/blog/2015/04/24/rana-plaza-minimum-wage/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).