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Women Garment Workers of Bangladesh Seek U. S. Support

Michelle Burton Brown - November 2004

Members of the Bagladesh Center for Worker's Solidarity (BCWS), along with representatives from the National Labor Committee, (NLC) met recently in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania to bring attention to work conditions in developing countries. The Bangladeshi garment workers spoke at Duquesne University and then marched, along with supporters, to Freedom Corner, a historic civil rights landmark and rallying place in Pittsburgh's African-American Hill District.

Bangladesh is a South Asian country that once formed part of Pakistan. The country gained independence in 1971, after a nine-month civil war between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. In 1991 and 1996, despite on-going political upheaval and corruption, Bangladeshi voters elected two female Prime Ministers into office. The Republic of Bangladesh developed its apparel industry as a direct result of the Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA). International trade in textiles and apparel is governed by the MFA. The agreement was designed as a short-term measure to give industrialized countries time to adjust to competition from developing countries. The agreement created Free Trade Zones by eliminating import/export taxes on fabric and finished apparel for major labels and retailers in the United States and Canada. In Free Trade Zones, factory owners are not required to pay taxes or adhere to minimum wage requirements. Twelve-hour shifts are common and trade unions illegal. Clothing is the main export of Bangladesh and accounts for more than half of the countries export income.

Two speakers at the Pittsburgh Forum, Robina Akther and Ms.Maksuda are approximately 18 years of age. There are no birth certificates in Bangladesh so many people are unsure of their exact age. Maksuda began working in garment factories when she was 11 years old. Robina has worked in factories for the last two years. The women say that they cannot afford basic necessities. They say they are unable to buy milk, meat, vegetables or fruit. Their diet consists of mainly rice and lentils and they are unable to purchase supplemental vitamins for themselves or their children. Ms. Maksuda was seven months pregnant and working in the factory when she began to feel sick and had to stop working to wait for the nausea to pass. The manager saw that she was not working and told her to get back to work because she had a quota to meet. Ms.Maksuda asked if she could rest a few moments. She called the manager's attention to the fact that she was seven months pregnant. The manager said her pregnancy was not his concern and before she could protec or defendt herself, the manger kicked her in the stomach and she fell to the factory floor. "I felt my baby shift in my stomach when he kicked me," Ms.Maksuda told the audience through an interpreter.

Despite harsh opposition, garment workers in Bangladesh have had some success unionizing. Workers shut down production on May Day in 2001, winning their first paid holiday. In July of 2004, through strikes and publicity, workers won an unprecedented four-weeks paid maternity leave. Increasing public awareness of sweat shop conditions in developing countries have led to the creation of coalitions and alliances among clergy, universities, union leaders and activists. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), the largest organization of union women in the United States, pledged to support anti-sweatshop campaigns and initiatives as priority action issues. Sweat Free Communities, a network for action against sweatshops, issued the following statement on their website:

Most clothing and footwear sold in this country are made under highly abusive conditions in factories that can only be described as sweatshops. Workers in these factories earn poverty wages for long hours of work while being denied the right to freely form or join unions. Apparel workers in the U.S. also face sweatshop conditions, as do workers in an increasing number of manufacturing and service industries.

In Pennsylvania and across the United States, hundreds of thousands of garment workers stand to lose their jobs if the majority of apparel assembly is exported to other countries. In an effort to address growing concerns over the exploitation of garment workers and the impending loss of industry, Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell signed an executive order to aid garment workers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere by ensuring that Commonwealth agencies do not procure uniforms and apparel from sweatshops. UNITE, one of the nations largest apparel and textile unions, view the governor's decision as a step in the right direction.

"I applaud Governor Rendell's strong stand in support of workers rights," said Lynne Fox, UNITE Vice President and Manager of the Philadelphia Joint Board. "This executive order will help Pennsylvania's economy by giving the many responsible factories in our state a fair chance to compete for Commonwealth contracts, without being undercut by sweatshops where workers are abused." New York, California, New Jersey and Maine passed similar anti-sweatshop legislation.

During the Uruguay Round negotiations with the World Trade Organization (WTO), an agreement was reached to phase out the MFA through the implementation of the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC). A timetable was set for phasing out the MFA beginning in January 1995, with full phase out by January 2005. Friends of the Earth International, an advocacy organization that opposes the negative effects of the global free trade system, predicts that, once quotas are removed, Bangladesh is expected to suffer from its lack of textile industry and poorly developed infrastructure. Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Philippines may also lose since all three depend on imported fabric and on marketing/buying groups over which they have little control. The impact of the MFA phase-out is likely to result in loss of employment. If countries like Bangladesh are no longer able to compete in an open market, factories will shut down and re-open elsewhere.

Under Pennsylvania's executive order, bidders on Commonwealth apparel contracts are required to meet anti-sweatshop standards in order to do business with the Commonwealth. The executive order applies to the manufacturing and laundering of uniforms and apparel contracted by Commonwealth executive agencies. Pittsburgh Anti-Sweatshop Community Alliance (PASCA), cofounder Kenneth Miller, told Women's Independent Press:

City and state laws that demand wage disclosure from all apparel manufactures can create a strong response to Multi-Fiber expiration from citizens of Western Pennsylvania. The people of this region have high standards for women's rights and civil rights.

Celeste Taylor, PASCA organizer and NAACP co ordinator, expanded upon PASCA's stand on wage disclosure:

In PASCA's disclosure demand we want to know where these factories are and how much the workers are being paid. It is probably the case that the workers are not receiving pay stubs with their checks. They don't know what they are being paid per hour. Nor do they know what they are being paid for overtime or what deductions are being taken from their paychecks. PASCA is demanding certified payroll for the workers in developing countries who sew apparel for the Pittsburgh Pirates. We cannot have Pirate Gear sewn by workers who are denied their own basic wage information.

Being denied basic wage information is only the tip of the iceberg according to War on Want, an international organization that fights poverty in developing countries affected by globalization. War on Want General Secretary, Amirul Haque Amin, blames Multi-National Corporations for the conditions in Bangladesh:

Multi-national corporations (MNCs) are responsible for these bad conditions. MNC's sell Bangladesh T-shirts for $20 to $25 in USA or other developed countries, but they buy these T-shirt from Bangladesh at just $2. International companies sell Bandladesh denim shirts for $30 to $40 in USA or other developed countries, but they buy these shirts from Bangladesh for only $4 or $5. This is not fair trade or a fair price. This unfair and unjustified trade of international companies is responsible for the bad conditions of the Bangladeshi garment workers.

Charles Kernaghan, Executive Director of the National Labor Committee, is traveled across the United States with the Bangladeshi garment workers. Kernaghan condemns U.S. corporations that exploit workers in developing countries.

Wal-Mart is the largest company in the world. Wal-Mart's annual revenues are $258.7 billion dollars. What many people don't know is that Wal-Mart is also the largest sweatshop abuser in the world. When Wal-Mart advertises with that little bouncing ball that they are going to Roll Back Prices, what Wal-Mart is really doing is slashing wages and benefits and rolling back respect for women's, workers' and human rights all across the developing world. Wal-Mart is pitting workers across the world against each other, competing over who will accept the least pay and benefits and the most miserable living and working conditions. Workers in Bangladesh sewing Wal-Mart garments are earning just 13 to 17 cents an hour, leaving the workers and their families trapped in utter misery.

Educational opportunities are practically non-existent. Most of the workers drop out of school at an early age to help support their families. The women work 12 to15 hours per day. There is no time to pursue an education.

Duquesne University professor and PASCA organizer, Michelle Gaffey, called on Governor Rendell and the city of Pittsburgh to enforce sweatshop legislation:

The state of Pennsylvania and the city of Pittsburgh have both passed anti-sweatshop purchasing legislation that remains un-enforced. Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University are members of the Workers Right Consortium affiliation campaigns in the area. The members of PASCA have been talking to baseball fans and urging the Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball Club to help us lead the Major League sports industry in sweat free initiatives.

The goal of organizers is to connect efforts to end exploitation of garment workers in developing countries to the exploitation of workers in other countries. Mongezi Nkomo, South African native and founder of Azania Heritage International, the sponsoring organization for PASCA, said, "The anti-sweatshop movement in the USA, Africa, Asia and Latin America is a part of the global human rights movement for democratic freedom, economic justice and social peace in an era of global neo-liberalism---where the primary agenda is corporate greed for private profit at the expense of the majority of the human race."

Before leaving Pittsburgh for Boston Sheikh Nazma, president of Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity and former factory worker, told supports at Freedom Corner:

We seek your support to win worker's rights. All we want is one day a week off. No physical abuse in the factories. Overtime pay and maternity leave. We want to be treated with dignity and like human beings.

To learn about national and international anti-sweat-shop initiatives contact Charles Kernaghan, at (212) 242-3821 or visit the National Labor Committee website at nclnet. If you are interested in hearing more about work conditions in Bangladesh and other , contact Rifiqul Alam at [email protected].

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