Bring workers' rights back into fashion
Bring workers’ rights back into fashion
by Mari Marcel Thekaekara Italic text
Relatives have put up photographs of people missing after the Rana Plaza disaster Sharat Chowdhury, under a CC License
It’s May Day today as I am writing. A few days ago, the Bangladeshi writer Rahnuma Ahmed made many people cry across the world. She wrote about the latest tragedy in Bangladesh: ‘The Stench of Rotting Corpses’('the terrible smell of dead bodies').
Rahnuma wrote about the Rana Plaza – it was an illegally built, eight-storey building, and it totally collapsed on the morning of Wednesday 24 April. Thousands of workers in the five garment factories in the building died. Thousands escaped. But the latest reports say more than 400 people died. The people who died immediately were lucky. The others died terrible deaths. They couldn't move under the bricks and they knew they would die. Many people volunteered to help, trying desperately to save people. They were crying, Rahnuma writes, as they brought each body out and mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and children looked at the dead bodies, hoping desperately it was not their loved one.
Rahnuma gave these people a human identity. Most of them are statistics with no face; no-one but their families seriously cares about their deaths. Life is cheap in our countries, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Africa. Five months ago, 112 people were killed in another Bangladeshi clothes factory. There were no fire escapes and the gate was locked. It was impossible to leave the burning building. The Bangladeshi government promised to improve conditions for workers, but they did nothing. These workers earn as little as $38 a month to produce clothes for top international companies. But in Bangladesh people think they are lucky to have a job. Their kids have food.
There have been many articles written about this. Some writers criticize the transnational companies. Some criticize the nasty Southern governments and their corrupt, greedy businesses that exploit workers. Primark said they will pay compensation, because it buys clothes from a factory that collapsed. Most other transnational companies are not saying anything. They hope the scandal will stay away from them.
I think Bangladesh, India and Pakistan should take responsibility for their own problems and tragedies. The problems are caused by corruption. And this is inside the system.
We could blame everything on globalization. We could look at some of the effects this has had on our economies. Unions belong to the past. They have been destroyed everywhere, so there is no-one to control the companies. Contract work is more popular than pensions and benefits.
In today’s economy, it is better if workers don’t complain. If one person asks difficult questions and loses his or her job, there are 10 unemployed people who want the job. Everyone has to welcome investment from other countries and transnational companies. So if workers say they have bad safety conditions, it is easy to fire them. People don’t like it if farmers protest that their land has been taken away for mining, or for large Indian companies who will give jobs to people in their area. The government has the right to take away their land at very low prices to offer it to huge companies very cheaply, simply to improve the economy.
But we are not allowed to ask: ‘who is this wonderful economy for’? It is not for the tribal people being moved from their land and destroyed by Vedanta in Orissa. It is not for the farmers and fisherpeople, whose jobs are taken away for factories or a nuclear plant. The Narmada dam forced tribal people and farmers to move; now they are very poor and the water goes to city apartments of rich people. But the farmers, fisherpeople, adivasis and dalits who are being forced to move are most of our population. If you ask relevant questions, this means you are anti-national and dangerous to the country.
So if we want to stop more disasters like 400 garment workers dying while Bangladeshi factory owners and branded companies make so much money, we need to return to protecting workers’ rights. This is now out of fashion because of the new work culture of, ‘ask no questions, just thank god you have a job.’ We’ve returned to the Industrial Revolution when workers had no rights. It seems that people have forgotten the reason for May Day, International Workers’ Day – winning the right to an eight-hour day, enough money, safety at work. This started in the US, not the USSR. That’s the biggest tragedy, as workers of the world unite… or not, for 2013.