TANSY Hoskins, the author of Anti-Capitalist Fashion, addressed the UNI International Union World Congress world Congress in Cape Town on December 7.
She said: ‘When we talk about Rana Plaza we talk about the 1,138 people, mostly young women, that were killed.
‘But when you go to Savar just outside of Dhaka and sit and talk with survivors, or the families of the deceased, you begin to understand that this is a tragedy that has impacted on hundreds of thousands of people.
‘The networks of families left behind, the children psychologically scarred and unable to let their fathers out of their sight, the myriad of villages that lost young women and the mothers that wait in the remains of the collapse clutching tattered photos of children that were never found.
‘The added pain of this disaster was that it was not unexpected.
‘Global labour had been warning that a catastrophe of this magnitude was possible, that the Bangladeshi garment industry was at breaking point.
‘These were warnings that big business ignored, too intent on reaping profits from the Global South. The warnings even went unheeded after fire swept through the Tazreen factory in 2012 and killed over 100 women.
‘In the hours and days after Rana Plaza collapsed, I can only imagine that it must have been anger at being ignored as well as the sickening pain of being right that compounded Union determination for a global response the like of which we have not seen before.
‘How else do you step up to the most powerful people in the world and tell them: this time, you sign our deal.
‘But of course anger and the burning desire to do the right thing do not change the world. Three weeks after the collapse there were no brand signatories, just two who had said ‘maybe’. Even over the bodies of 1,138 people many brands were unmoved.
‘I first heard the inside story of what happened next at the British Trade Union Congress in September 2013. Listening to Philip Jennings speak at the Congress, the excitement and daring of what had been achieved became apparent.
‘He outlined how it was at this point that a combination of organised labour and grass roots activism asserted itself. Using the outpouring of anger at the tragedy, a campaign of media – and social media – pressure was launched against H&M in Sweden. As public pressure mounted H&M came to the table pen in hand.
‘The most crucial power base was however the affiliated unions. As Phillip Jennings explained to the TUC: “We said to our union affiliates in the retail sector, pick up the phone. Every one of you has a collective agreement, some of you are sitting on boards of directors — you get the companies to sign up.”
‘The stories of trade unionists demanding that big retailers like Marks & Spencer and Next sign the Accord to protect their brothers and sisters along the garment supply chain, remain moving to this day.
‘“Our members are the ones that sell these clothes,” Fiona Wilson, USDAW’s head of research and economics, told me later.
“They are linked with workers in Bangladesh; they care about what happens to these people and their families.”
‘The pressure campaign by the affiliates was a success. Within days, 35 retailers signed a legally binding, worker-led agreement that stated in black and white that they now had responsibility for the workers in their factories.
‘Today, the Bangladesh Accord contains the signatures of some of the most powerful brands in the world. The first round of inspections has been completed, eighteen highly unsafe buildings have been closed and many more given strict standards to adhere to.
‘There are three more years of hard work left to do and more campaigning to ensure a decent compensation agreement for families of victims and survivors.
‘It will remain unforgiveable that 1,138 people had to die before big business would take some responsibility for its supply chains. I do believe, however, that in the history not just of the fashion industry, but also of the global labour market and indeed of the world, that the Bangladesh Accord will be judged as a momentous achievement and a testimony to international solidarity amongst organised working people.
‘It was therefore an honour to come and speak with the UNI affiliates in Cape Town – to meet many of the people who stood up to be counted and ensured that we are not gathered here to mourn yet another building collapse, but rather to mark a historic achievement and pledge to keep fighting until the garment industry is made fully fair and safe for its millions of employees.’
• Rana Plaza was the deadliest factory disaster in history. On April 23 last year a shoddily built eight-storey building in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, collapsed.
Inside at the time were some 3,500 garment workers producing top brand name goods for sale around the world. Nearly 1,000 died instantly and the final toll was 1,134 dead and more than 2,000 injured.
It was the Nigerian TB Joshua death toll magnified ten times. And although it did not receive the publicity in South Africa that it deserved, what happened at Rana Plaza should have highlighted lessons for South Africa.
However, the tragedy triggered a global response from the labour movement and human rights groups that resulted in the first ever legally binding fire and building safety accord signed with leading global clothing brand names. It also set up a compensation fund for the families of the dead and injured.
The fact that, 20 months down the line, there are still delays in paying compensation, that inadequate funding exists for building and other safety issues and that 80 000 of these potentially deadly hazards were discovered in the first-ever audit of factories is shocking. As is the fact that the 80% pay rise to many garment workers only brought their monthly pay up to about R700 and that Italian fashion house, Benetton, refuses to support the Accord.
But the lessons for South Africa came to the fore when the spotlight was again cast on the Bangladeshi garment industry during a session at the UNI Global Union world congress in Cape Town this week. In graphic and in sometimes gruesome detail, it also provided a clear answer to the continuing deregulation chorus of local free marketeers.
These are the cheerleaders of what the labour movement rightly calls the race to the bottom. They call for the scrapping of labour laws and denounce trade unions as wreckers.
Yet the anarchy they promote exists in countries such as Bangladesh where people can literally be worked to death in toxic environments.
As Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the IndustriALL Global Union told the Cape Town congress, 700 workers had already died in factory fires in Bangladesh before Rana Plaza drew the world’s attention to conditions in that country.
Raina proudly announced that the T-shirt he was wearing was made in South Africa. What he did not say was that most of our ready-to-wear garments are now imported, many of them from sweatshops such as those in Dhaka.
Just check the label on your shirt, skirt or trousers and look to the footwear you buy. These may carry famous brand names, but, almost without exception, they will have been made in countries where there is little respect for worker rights and for human rights generally.
But there is the prospect of change. Because unions have followed business in ‘going global’. Courtesy of modern communications technology, links are being forged, even to factory level, with workers across continents.
‘We cannot allow business as usual,’ UNI Global’s commerce head, Alke Boessiger told the congress, a statement underlined by speakers from Argentina, Mexico, India and Brazil.
But the difficulties faced are great. And although the congress was generally upbeat about prospects, Raina admitted that the problems ‘are huge’.
In Bangladesh, despite the groundbreaking accord, only 50,000 of an estimated four million garment workers are members of unions. He noted that union organisers have been kidnapped, harassed and fired. Workers were also still labouring for 10 to 11 hours, six days a week.
However, the congress also heard from Colombia — ‘the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist’ — that the battle for human and worker rights was making some progress. Change, it was stressed, is vital.