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AFL-CIO Presents Resolution at Ralph Lauren Shareholders’ Meeting

Unions, joined by religious organizations, demand Ralph Lauren
Respect the human rights of Bangladeshi Garment Workers

August 7th, 2014 (New York, NY) —This morning, unions and religious organizations rallied outside Ralph Lauren Shareholders’ meeting while inside, the AFL-CIO sponsored a shareholder resolution calling on Ralph Lauren to conduct a human rights risk assessment. The AFL-CIO resolution was seconded by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The AFL-CIO sponsored shareholder resolution was presented by Nazma Akter, President, Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation. Akter, who worked at the Tazreen Fashions factory that had a tragic fire in 2012, pushed for Ralph Lauren to explain why it has refused to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which would help protect the safety of garment workers who produce Ralph Lauren apparel.

Akter called on Ralph Lauren to conduct a human rights risk assessment.

“It is all the more important because Ralph Lauren—an iconic brand in the world of fashion—sources garments produced by women like me in Bangladesh. Human rights risks for companies doing business in Bangladesh have become a central concern after the tragedy at the Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013. On that fateful day, 1,138 garment workers were killed and 2,515 more were injured.”

Akter continued, “Companies and trade unions came together to create the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. More than 180 apparel companies have signed the Accord, a binding and enforceable agreement that represents a new model in supply chain accountability and risk management… But Ralph Lauren—a company that has always stood for the highest quality—has not joined the Accord… I urge you to improve Ralph Lauren’s reporting on human rights risks wherever the company sources goods, and to take steps to mitigate human rights abuses in Bangladesh by signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety.”

The Rev. David Schilling, Senior Program Director, Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, spoke at the rally in support of the AFL-CIO resolution and the broader campaign for international human rights for all workers. Rev. Schilling noted that,

“The Accord on Fire and Building Safety is the best solution to help prevent future workplace disasters in Bangladesh and to foster a culture of compliance and respect for international human rights norms.  The Accord guarantees that global brands and retailers can source apparel manufactured in factories with adequate health and safety standards and where international labor rights are respected.”

103 years later: profits are STILL more important than people

Cartoon refers to the Triangle fire and depicts a woman weeping over a grave, and asks the reader: "How soon will they be all forgotten?"Today marks the 103rd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, when 146 garment workers were trapped behind locked doors.  Some of the young women burned to death; others died of smoke inhalation; still others jumped out of windows to certain death.

The good news is: this year even some mainstream media outlets are remembering the anniversary.

The bad news is: workers are still dying on the jobBangladeshChina … Pakistan … Nigeria… Italy

… even, still, here in the United States.  About 150 American workers die each day from workplace accidents or occupational illness.  (Yes, you did read that right: 150 each day.  But since they don’t die in the same place, from the same thing, these deaths don’t make the headlines.)

When will we stop thinking of profit margins as more important than people?

[Be warned: this video is graphic and may be disturbing]

Labor Rights Are Human Rights (Blog Action Day 2013)

Today is ‘Blog Action Day’.  Once a year thousands of bloggers around the world come together to bring awareness to one common theme in their own special way.  This year the Blog Action Day is focused on ‘human rights’.   Below is my post for this year’s event.

 

Labor Rights Are Human Rights

Everyone should have the right to work in a safe place. Safety in the workplace is one of the biggest issues facing workers around the world.  There are too many examples of workers being hurt or killed on the job.  Unsafe working conditions are just one of the reasons workers have always turned to unions.

In the early days of the industrial revolution corporations were only focused on one thing, profits.  Many of these jobs were in the factories and mills, producing textiles.  They would pack hundreds people in rooms with little to no space to move.  These workers, mostly women and children, would be forced to work for 16 hours a day.

The perfect example of this was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. March 25th of 1911 started like any other day for hundreds of women at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.  Over 500 workers piled in to work early in the morning and began their 16-hour day.

Around 4pm a fire broke out on the sixth floor of the Asch building. The seventh floor was the main manufacturing floor where the majority of the workers were located.  The sixth floor was used to store rolls of fabric.  It did not take long for the entire sixth floor to be engulfed in flames.

Triangle FireTo protect themselves from theft the mill owners decided to lock all the exits on the manufacturing floor.  This prevented the workers from being able to escape the rapidly growing fire.  To escape the fire, workers jumped from seventh floor windows.  Many of them knew they would probably not survive the fall, but they knew they would never survive the fire.

When the fire was finally put out, 146 people lost their lives in this devastating fire. 

Workers Protest after Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Workers Protest after Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

After the fire, workers in other textile mills joined together with union organizers to fight for better safety regulations.  These regulations mandated maximum room occupancy, fire extinguishers, and escape plans.

Many people know the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  In the United States it became a driving force for labor rights and workplace safety for decades.  Unfortunately the United States cannot regulate other companies.

Hasan Raza/Associated Press

Hasan Raza/Associated Press

In November of 2012 over 100 workers lost their lives in a textile factory in Bangladesh. The fire was eerily similar to the Triangle fire.  Workers were trapped inside with no way to escape.   Fire inspectors actually found that none of the emergency exits opened to the outside.

Once again we see that corporations are more interested in profits than worker’s safety.  It begs the question, what is a human’s life worth?

This is where labor and human rights merge.  Labor has always put workers safety above all else.   Thanks to labor we now have regulations and an entire government agency (OSHA) devoted to protecting workers.

We have much more to do.  Organizations like Global Labor and Human Rights Organization are focused protecting human rights through strong labor rights.

“As workers across the developing world fight for their right to work in dignity, in healthy and safe workplaces, to earn a living wage and to organize independent unions, the Institute will provide solidarity and international visibility to support their efforts, and we will continue to demand that corporations be held legally accountable to respect core internationally recognized worker rights standards.”
From the Global Labor and Human Rights

Workers rights are human rights. Stronger organized labor will lead to higher regard for human rights in the workplace.

 

For more information about Blog Action Day click here

AFL-CIO, United Students Against Sweatshops Establish National Partnership

United Students Against Sweatshops Logo

Building on AFL-CIO Commitment to Broaden Labor Movement

(Washington, September 25, 2013) – With the goal of strengthening workers’ rights and building power for students as well as workers, the AFL-CIO and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) today entered into a new national partnership. The two groups will collaborate on important global solidarity campaigns, from ensuring safe working conditions for Bangladeshi garment workers to protecting the freedom of U.S. workers to organize for better jobs whether they work on campus or for companies with university contracts like T-Mobile.

The new partnership builds on calls for innovation and inclusion at the just-concluded AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, where delegates agreed to open the door to the labor movement and engage with allies outside unions to tackle the challenges confronting working people. Today’s partnership agreement between the AFL-CIO and USAS is the first concrete step since the convention unanimously agreed to expand community partnerships.

“The labor movement shares USAS’s values and vision for global solidarity and social justice. Together, we are stronger and better positioned to meet the mutual goals and objectives of improving the lives of working people,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“This partnership demonstrates the AFL-CIO’s determination to turn commitments on paper into action.”

USAS is the nation’s largest youth-led campaign organization dedicated to building a student-labor movement.  Its affiliated locals on over 150 campuses run locally and nationally-coordinated campaigns for corporate accountability and economic justice, working in partnership with organizations of workers. USAS campaigns expose and hold accountable corporations that exploit people who work on campuses, in communities and in the overseas factories where collegiate apparel is produced.  USAS campaigns employ the unique moral authority, energy, and power students hold within universities, which often act as anchor institutions in communities and the global economy.

“As current and future workers, college students are proud to stand side by side with the labor movement. Whether it’s supporting Bangladeshi workers’ demand for safe workplaces, or opposing Scott Walker’s attacks on public workers, it’s clear that our struggles are bound together,” said Lingran Kong, a member of USAS’s Coordinating Committee and student at the University of Wisconsin. “This agreement solidifies our commitment to building a stronger movement to defend and advance the rights of students and workers across the globe.”

Critical to the success of this partnership is the building of relationships between the student and labor movements at the state and local levels. The agreement outlines new tactics for shared planning, strategizing, and organizing at those levels to strengthen each party’s movements and better advance the interests of both students and workers.

See the AFL-CIO Convention Resolution: Building Enduring Labor-Community Partnerships
http://www.aflcio.org/About/Exec-Council/Conventions/2013/Resolutions-and-Amendments/Resolution-16-Building-Enduring-Labor-Community-Partnerships

See the AFL-CIO, USAS National Partnership Agreement:
http://www.aflcio.org/content/download/102711/2716051/file/USAS-AFLCIO_PartnershipAgreement.pdf

 

Terrorism in the Workplace

By David Patten

David Patten is an award-winning history teacher, college lecturer, and the author of twenty-one articles published in various magazines, including History Today, Military History, Man at Arms, Arms Collecting, Medal News, and, most recently, the Journal of the Orders and Medals Society of America.

Strikers in Ludlow, Colorado, 1914. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Strikers in Ludlow, Colorado, 1914. Credit: Wiki Commons.

In Bangladesh, more than six hundred workers died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza with hundreds more still missing and presumed dead. We must be shocked by this tragedy, but not at all surprised.

For years we have heard the terrible stories of working people in China, Bangladesh, and a host of other emerging nations around the world. Everyone expresses dismay over the working conditions and now we mourn for the victims of this latest in a string of industrial tragedies. The elites running these sweatshops of the world, through a maze of contractors and plausible deniability, add to the chorus as well. They will announce pledges of improvement, thorough investigations into the plight of the workers, and they will pay appropriate lip service to those so cruelly victimized. Scant change will actually occur and those changes that will actually be made will unfold at a glacial pace. The world will eventually look away until the next tragedy or the next horrible revelation occurs. But, as bad and as patronizing as all this seems to be, there is an even more insidious condition governing the situation. It stems from a philosophy of historical determinism and that very philosophy lies at the root of the problem.

We are told, and most people tacitly accept, that the factory conditions in the emerging industrialized nations are a natural outgrowth of the free market system where intense competition forces owners and investors to cut costs and shave safety standards all in the name of profits and jobs. How else after all can a business thrive in a free, intensely competitive worldwide market? Consumers demand goods at low prices. Meet the demand or lose the business and, even more importantly, the jobs it creates. History tells us that tragedies will occur as the price of growth. Every nation which sought to industrialize and amass wealth went through these brutal conditions and the deaths of its workers.

In a sense, those who put forth this argument are right. We have seen this many times before throughout history. But, in another sense, their words tell us something far greater and far more frightening. They are demonstrating through both words and actions that we are the prisoners and not the beneficiaries of historical instruction. The unrelenting history of free markets, imposing its will upon us, becomes the rationale for deplorable conditions and for the semi-slave labor in the marketplace of today. That is the way it was and therefore, that is the way it must now be.

In truth, there is no historical or biological law that mandates horror in the workplace as the price to be paid for economic growth. History is indeed replete with examples of horrible working conditions and terrifying tragedies that occurred in Britain, France, Germany, and of course, the United States during the time period of industrialization. Examining the Bangladesh tragedy and then peering through the not so distant window of America’s industrial past is like venturing into de Tocqueville’s art gallery of history. We see plenty of copies, but few originals. Given that, the real question becomes, why do we not learn from the past and avoid the mistakes our ancestors surely made?

In America’s period of industrialization, we witness stories of darkness beyond belief where labor was cheap and life even cheaper. In the coal mines, for example, safety standards were virtually non-existent and workers died by the tens of thousands during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Northeast Pennsylvania alone, it is estimated that between the years 1870 and 1897, 32,000 workers lost their lives in the coal mines. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 3,242 such deaths occurred in American coal mines in 1907 alone. Safety standards cost money and workers were responsible for their own well being. Such is the stuff of profits. But beyond the outright deaths in those cruel pits, how many workers had their lives shortened by decades because safety was ignored?

When not dying in the mines, workers in virtually all other occupations faced similar hazards. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed 146 women and men. They died because the employers demanded that the doors to the factory be locked from the outside, thus giving them complete control over the workers inside. Building safety standards were ignored as well and when the factory caught fire, the only escape was out windows located on the eight and ninth floors. As a reporter named William Shepard who witnessed people jumping to their deaths remarked, “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture: the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.” I could go on and on with tragedies and statistics, but do we really need a remake of The Jungle when the historical facts are there for all to see?

America’s past experience with industrialization is a dirty story as far as labor is concerned. But, there are, after all, lessons to be learned from our experiences and these lessons can well apply to the emerging economies. Dr. Martin Luther King told us, “We know, through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor: it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Extending his sage remarks to the workplace, power elites rarely cooperate with their workers since the individual voices of working men and women do not even constitute a whisper. Only when workers band together is attention paid to their conditions and complaints. Collective bargaining made the American workplace safer and created a vigorous and prosperous middle class. That is the pathway the workers of the emerging nations must follow. If history has determined they must suffer and die on their jobs, then surely it follows that they must organize in their own defense — just like the workers of the established industrialized nations once did.

But, as history has been made complicit in worker deaths and horrifying working conditions, so it will become complicit in the response the power elites will make in regards to workers organizing unions. We saw it dreadfully play out in American history and so it shall be elsewhere. In our free republic, workers faced violent opposition encouraged and subsidized by the wealthy industrialists. It became a fight to the finish and it played out for more than a century.

Just a few examples should suffice:

In the Lattimer mine strike of 1897 near Hazelton, Pennsylvania, Sheriff James Martin and one hundred fifty of his deputies turned the countryside into an outdoor abattoir when they fired upon a group of three hundred to four hundred miners. The unarmed miners were conducting a peaceful march when the massacre occurred. Nineteen miners were killed and approximately forty-nine wounded. Of the nineteen dead, all had been shot in the back. Martin and seventy-three deputies were put on trial for the murders. All were acquitted.

Ludlow, Colorado was the site of a tent city erected by miners striking against the Rockefeller family owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Nearly twelve hundred miners and their families lived in the makeshift “town” and it was there that the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company guards decided to break the strike. At their disposal was the “Death Special,” an armored car equipped with a machine gun. The attack occurred on April 20, 1914. Most of the miners and their family members were able to flee to the surrounding hills, but two women, eleven children, and as many as thirteen men were not so lucky. Among the dead was the leader of the Ludlow camp, Louis Tikas, who had tried to negotiate with the attackers and was beaten down with a rifle butt and then shot in the back. His body and the bodies of two other dead miners were hauled from the smoldering tent city and dumped alongside the Colorado and Southern Railway tracks. For three days, their bodies were viewed by the people aboard passing trains just so everyone could absorb the sinister message: this is what happens to union organizers. Twenty-two National Guardsmen including their commander Lieutenant Linderfelt were court martialed. All were acquitted except for Linderfelt who was reprimanded for his assault upon Louis Tikas.

Bisbee, Arizona in 1917 was the scene of a mass deportation of thirteen hundred striking miners. The strikers were set upon by a gang of two thousand vigilantes in the employ of the company. At gunpoint, the strikers were forced to board manure carpeted cattle cars and then taken on a two-hundred-mile rail journey. No food was provided and only once was water granted. They were unceremoniously dumped into the town of Hermanas, New Mexico. The victims of this monstrosity demanded federal government action. The government did not disappoint. Twenty-one company executives and several elected lawmakers and police were arrested and brought to trial. The federal government lost the case at every level and the state of Arizona refused any prosecution.

One would think that the end of anti-union violence would have come with U.S. government recognition of collective bargaining and the right to join unions under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Unfortunately, no one seemed to consider Henry Ford. He hated unions with a passion bordering on the pathological. When dealing with unions, he and his security chief Harry Bennett utilized only the most sublime goons, each well trained in the art of inflicting pain. Their careful selection was well in evidence at the 1937 Battle of the Overpass. Leaders of the United Auto Workers, after obtaining a legal permit, arrived outside the Ford Motor complex to pass out leaflets encouraging the workers to join the union. They were met by Henry Ford’s “security agents”. Among these “agents” were the leader of the “Down River Gang” Angelo Caruso, wrestlers Warshon Sarkisien and Ted Gries, and professional boxer Oscar Jones. In spite of the presence of reporters, the thugs launched an attack upon the UAW leaders. Every one of the union organizers was severely injured. Richard Frankensteen’s coat was pulled over his head. He was then kicked in the head, kidneys, and groin. For good measure, they ground their heels into his stomach as he lay helplessly on the ground. Richard Merriweather’s back was broken and Walter Reuther’s face was turned into pudding.

These few examples are merely a snapshot of what union organizers and members faced in the land of the free. How, I wonder, will it play out for those who live in lands not so free? The unions in America eventually won recognition — even against the troglodytic Henry Ford. It will be much harder but it must be no different in the emerging nations. Work place hell is not so easily conquered. But, conqueror it they must. The road to that objective for the workers in the Far East and, for that matter, everywhere else, will be long, hard, and far more dangerous and violent than the tragedies we experienced. But, the hope of “pie in the sky when you die” is no option for the living. They can wait no longer for pledges and promises to someday come true. They must take matters into their own hands. As the brilliant leader of the Ladies Garment Workers Union Rose Schneiderman said, “The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.” Her words were spoken in 1911, but they could easily have been said only last week. Unjustly convicted of murder and executed by a Utah firing squad, martyred union leader Joe Hill gets the last word: “Organize!”

The tragedy in Bangladesh and the tragedies that have occurred in other emerging nations have greater applications for all of us. They serve as dire warnings not just for their own workers but for all workers. In America, we have steadily turned our backs on unions and we have done so at great risk. The hard won gains and the violence inflicted upon working people have been largely forgotten in a land grown fat off labor’s success. History may not repeat, but as Twain noted, “…it rhymes a lot.” Business owners, aligned with political leaders have steadily and stealthily eroded unions and union power, thus turning back the clock. We are not seeing the violence of the past — instead we see a more subtle and, thus far, successful methodology. Union membership has steadily fallen to rates not seen since before the 1930s. At one time, 35 percent of American workers were unionized. Now, less than 11.4 percent of Americans are. In the private sector, a mere 7 percent can claim union membership. How has this been accomplished? Words in this case matter and they matter a lot. Instead of “union busting” we are subjected to the far more attractive “right-to-work laws” or “freedom-to-work laws”. Many states have put these concepts into effect. These laws are merely one step above “yellow dog contracts” and they have a similar effect. We should abandon the euphemisms and label these laws for what they are — the right to be an indentured servant and the freedom to live in squalor. According to the Bureau of Labor and the Economic Policy Institute, unionized workers in America earn 15 to 20 percent higher wages and salaries than their non-union counterparts.

But it goes far beyond dollars and cents. Work place safety is far greater among union workers. In mining, for example, the number of deaths in the tunnels has increased coincident with the movement toward non-unionized mines. The Sago disaster of 2006 took twelve lives, the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in 2007 killed nine, and the 2010 Massey coal mine tragedy at the Upper Big Branch killed twenty-nine. All were nonunion mines. I don’t think the families and friends of the victims took much comfort from learning that all those lives had been sacrificed for the greater good of the quarterly report. Each one of those disasters could have been prevented or at least mitigated had the proper and more expensive protocols been followed. But, let us face the inconvenient truth: what price human life when coal pays the bills?

We ignore historical lessons at our own peril. We see so clearly the terrible plight of workers in emerging nations, yet we fail to acknowledge and inspire the solution. If that is not bad enough, we fail to see the deteriorating treatment of our own workers and flee from the solution. The contemporary examples of Sago, Crandall, and the Big Branch immediately pass into distant memory and are soon forgotten as we bash the unions through our laws and speech. What happened in Bangladesh and elsewhere must be remembered vividly and the circumstances which caused these horrors addressed through strong unions. We would also do well to reapply the hard fought, hard won lessons of the past to our own nation.

Originally published on History News Network

Walmart and GAP Bangladesh Safety Alliance: Weak and Worthless

Joint Statement by Richard L. Trumka (AFL-CIO) and Joe Hansen (ChangetoWin)
July 10, 2013

Int Sol USA Tringle 25 03 11

Photo taken by Derek Blackadder in 2011.
Hundreds of Bangladeshi garment industry workers have died since this photo was taken.

The so-called Global Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, announced today by Walmart, Gap and the Bipartisan Policy Center, was developed without consultation with workers or their representatives and is yet another “voluntary” scheme with no meaningful enforcement mechanisms. Companies that sign onto the alliance but fail to meet a commitment face no adverse consequences beyond expulsion from the scheme. Instead, workers will continue to pay.

In stark contrast, more than 75 corporations from 15 countries, including the United States, have signed the binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety negotiated with Bangladeshi and international unions. The Accord has rules to make real improvements in the safety of garment workers. Workers, unions and worker rights organizations negotiated this agreement with employers and integrated worker safety efforts by governments and the International Labor Organization (ILO). The AFL-CIO and Change to Win, along with global unions IndustriAll and UNI and numerous organizations representing Bangladeshi workers, also endorse it. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win reject the Walmart/GAP plan as a way to avoid accountability, limit costs and silence workers and their representatives.

Rather than sign the binding Accord, Walmart and Gap are pushing a weak and worthless plan that avoids enforceable commitments. The Bipartisan Policy Center, which has clear financial and political connections to Walmart, is releasing the document, which is the product of a closed process and has been signed only by the same corporations that produced it.

The Accord departs from the broken system of voluntary corporate responsibility in supply chains that has so often failed to protect workers. It makes a clear commitment to worker safety and rights, and to transparency. It expresses values that most countries uphold.

The Accord has been endorsed by the United Nations, the ILO, the government of Bangladesh, both the parliament and commission of the European Union, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Members and leaders in both houses of the U.S. Congress have also endorsed the Accord.

In the last eight years, more than 1,800 Bangladeshi garment workers have been killed in preventable factory fires and building collapses while producing mostly for European and U.S. markets. This tragic loss of life requires more than a wink and a nod from two of the richest corporations in the world. It means taking responsibility for the safety of workers by entering into a legitimate, binding process that will save lives. Seventy-five brands have taken that important step. It is time for Walmart and GAP to join them, rather than trying to undermine those efforts and maintain a system that has a long and bloody record of failure.

———————

Watch this new video from the American Federation of Teachers:


Visit: go.aft.org/GAP to show your support for the AFT campaign to force the GAP to sign the international fire and building safety accord.

 

AFT Applauds President Obama Suspending Trade Privileges To Bangladesh

WASHINGTON—Statement of AFT President Randi Weingarten on the U.S. suspension of preferential trade privileges for Bangladesh.

“The American Federation of Teachers applauds the announcement that the United States is suspending preferential trade privileges for Bangladesh. Since 2007, we have joined with others in the U.S. labor movement in calling for the withdrawal of such preferences until Bangladesh makes real advances in workers’ rights, health and safety issues, and the ability to form and join independent trade unions.

“More than 1,100 workers died in the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in April, and the death toll in such incidents over the last eight years exceeds 1,800. This action by the U.S. government is an important step toward ensuring that those lives have not been lost in vain.

“But other actions are needed to enforce international standards for factory safety and labor rights in Bangladesh. The major U.S. garment brands and retailers that work with Bangladeshi suppliers must take steps to make sure the goods they sell are produced under safe conditions. This is why I have called on the directors of Gap Inc. and other U.S. companies to sign the international accord on fire and building safety to protect garment workers in Bangladesh.

“Those workers must have a voice in shaping the reforms that will be required before trade privileges can be restored. And U.S. trade officials must continue to press the Bangladesh government for the political and economic follow-through necessary to implement needed changes. Workers in Bangladesh—so many of them young, poor women—deserve good jobs, a voice in the workplace, and safe working conditions.”

Richard Trumka Is Glad The President Is Doing Something On Bangladesh

The AFL-CIO welcomes news that the U.S. government will suspend Bangladesh’s trade benefits granted under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP).  Bangladesh’s egregious labor practices have been under review for more than six years now, and the Bangladesh Government has repeatedly failed to comply with the minimum GSP requirements to afford internationally recognized labor rights to its workers.

The decision to suspend trade benefits sends an important message to our trading partners:  Countries that benefit from preferential trade programs must comply with their terms. Countries that tolerate dangerous – and even deadly — working conditions and deny basic workers’ rights, especially the right to freedom of association, will risk losing preferential access to the U.S. market.

Since 2005, over 1800 workers have died in preventable factory fires and building collapses in the Bangladesh garment industry, including the most recent collapse of the Rana factory. Workers died because the government and industry violated safety standards to cut costs, while global apparel brands demanded production at the lowest prices in the world. The suspension of GSP benefits, together with the binding commitment made by over 50 brands to improve fire and building safety in factories, are important steps to improving dangerous working conditions. The global workplace cannot be a deathtrap for poor workers producing products for the global economy.

Bangladesh’s workers, many of them young women, need good jobs with strong worker protections, a voice at work and safe work places.  The AFL-CIO hopes that the suspension of GSP benefits will be a catalyst to accelerate an effective process involving the government, employers and workers of Bangladesh to achieve these goals. International trade with strong labor rights enforcement plays a key role in ensuring that workers as well as their employers can benefit from increased prosperity and transnational trade and investment. With a demonstrated commitment to defending workers’ rights and improving working conditions, Bangladesh can earn reinstatement of GSP benefits.

AFT Calls on Gap Inc. to Sign Bangladesh Safety Accord

“Our members require better practices from those companies in which they are invested, not only for themselves, but for the children they teach and the parents and communities they serve.”

WASHINGTON—The American Federation of Teachers president and several AFT affiliate leaders, whose members have more than $500 million invested in Gap Inc. through various state teacher and other public employee retirement funds, called on Gap Inc.’s board of directors Monday to sign a fire and building safety accord regarding worker protections for garment workers in Bangladesh.

“By failing to sign the accord, and instead seeking to develop alternate plans through the Bipartisan Policy Center, Gap is sending a strong message to other companies that wish to write their own rules, weaken the agreement, and return to the same self-policing policies that have failed in the past,” the teachers union leaders said in a letter.

More than 1,100 mostly poor women were killed when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh in April. Forty international firms have signed the multi-stakeholder Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Along with Gap, other U.S. companies refusing to sign the accord include Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Sears and the Children’s Place.

“Our members require better practices from those companies in which they are invested, not only for themselves, but for the children they teach and the parents and communities they serve,” the letter states. “We call on Gap and all U.S. companies that work with garment suppliers in Bangladesh to commit to improving worker protections by signing the accord now.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten signed the letter, along with the following union leaders whose members have retirement funds invested in Gap:

Melissa Cropper, president, Ohio Federation of Teachers

Andy Ford, president, Florida Education Association

Dr. Calvin Fraser, secretary general, Canadian Teachers’ Federation

Richard Iannuzzi, president, New York State United Teachers

Jerry Jordan, president, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Ted Kirsch, president, AFT Pennsylvania

Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer, Texas AFT

David Quolke, president, Cleveland Teachers Union

Brenda Smith, president, AFT Colorado

Even more workers die behind locked doors

A blaze at a locked poultry slaughterhouse in northeast China has killed at least 119 workers.  Read the Reuters story here.

Photo from US Fire Administration Report

Aftermath of the 1991 Imperial Foods chicken processing plant fire.

Does this sound just a little too familiar?

Two decades ago, 25 workers were killed in a fire at a poultry processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina.  Several exit doors were locked, trapping workers inside.  “Reports have surfaced that workers inside the Hamlet Plant were afraid to say anything about safety conditions due to fear of being fired.”  Read the FEMA Report on that fire here.

How many times is history going to repeat itself?

  • November 2012: 112 workers died behind locked doors in a garment factory fire outside Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • September 2012: 258 workers died behind locked doors in a garment factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan
  • December 2010: 25 workers died behind locked doors in a garment factory fire outside Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • March 2010: 21 workers died behind locked doors in a garment factory fire outside Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • April 2008: 55 workers died behind locked doors in a mattress factory fire in Casablanca, Morocco
  • September 2002: 45 workers died behind locked doors at a plastics factory fire in Lagos, Nigeria

(How many other workers’ deaths didn’t make the headlines?)

Corporations look after their profits, not their workers.

Read “How Unions Make Workplaces Safer” here.

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