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Striking Bangladesh garment workers closed 20% of the country’s garment production to achieve victory.

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MARK PROVOST, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Mark Provost in Baltimore.

Garment workers in Bangladesh are poised to receive a 50 to 80 percent increase in the minimum wage following massive protests in September which closed more than 100 factories and caused a 20 percent decline in national production, according to a Reuters report citing the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Joining us to discuss the latest is Michelle Chen. Michelle is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working in These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She’s also coproducer of Asia-Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI.

Thank you for joining us, Michelle.


PROVOST: Can you give our viewers some background behind this movement to raise the minimum wage and these massive outpouring of protests that began in September?

CHEN: Yeah. Well, there’s been labor strikes going on in Bangladesh’s garment industry for a while now because of the horrible conditions that workers are suffering. But the latest flareup of protests have sort of been in response to the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment manufacturing facility. And that was back in April. And that was one of the worst industrial accidents in Bangladesh, and possibly even the world, killing over 1,100 people. And it was primarily due to poor building safety regulation, as well as just the general sort of neglect and mistreatment of workers over time.

And the workers have really risen up in the subsequent months. There have been strikes, there have been protests, and there has been a general sort of sense of real outrage among workers. And there’s also been a lot of international solidarity as well.

I should also add that back in November, there was another horrific factory fire that killed over 100 people. So it was sort of these two disasters together that were sort of the catalyst for the latest protests.

The minimum wage has been increased. You know, it was last increased around 2010. And right now workers have been calling for a more than doubling of the minimum wage, to about $100 a month U.S. dollars. And while that may seem incredibly small to people over here, it would be more than a doubling of the current minimum wage, which should tell you just how incredibly hard it is to survive on these wages in that industry. And there may be a meaningful wage increase this time around, but the strikes and the protests are likely to continue, because it’ll likely still be less than what the workers are demanding right now.

PROVOST: To what do you attribute the workers’ latest success, what particular strategies that they employ to apply pressure?

CHEN: Well, the labor movement in Bangladesh has faced a lot of suppression and a lot of violence over the years. And so it’s a pretty embattled union movement that they have there.

But there have always been workers willing to take to the streets. And you’ve seen clashes in the streets. You’ve seen workers shuttering their factories. You’ve seen workers going on strike in solidarity with fellow workers, not just out of outrage over the unconscionably low wages, but also because of the safety conditions. And I think it’s getting to a point where people really feel like their lives are literally at stake. Every day that they get up to go to work, they could be putting their lives at risk. I mean, we saw 1,100 workers wiped out in a single building collapse. And that’s just how precarious the conditions are. There are–according to some researchers, the majority of factories in Bangladesh are vulnerable to collapse or some other, you know, safety catastrophe like that. So this is a huge problem. And it’s also a real pillar of the economy there.

So you have this combination of sort of a critical mass of people who are really dependent on this industry. There’s also a growing sense of desperation. The workers also definitely feel really insulted by the lack of attention to their struggle after, you know, this horrible industrial accident. And people are very angry at the government right now, and they’re willing to demonstrate that in often bloody clashes in the streets.

PROVOST: So garment workers have received support from around the world. Can you tell us a little bit more about the international solidarity?

CHEN: Yeah, absolutely. Given the primacy of international corporations in Bangladesh’s garment export industry, you see a lot of U.S.-based workers rising up against Walmart and incorporating sort of the message of the Bangladeshi workers into their movement here in the U.S. So at the last Walmart shareholders gathering, you actually saw Kalpona Akter, who is a pretty prominent labor rights advocate from Bangladesh, actually testifying there and taking her grievances directly to the leaders of Walmart and standing in solidarity with American workers who are also fighting their own fight here on US soil against low wages, against degrading labor conditions. And I think you see a lot more unity sort of across Walmart’s supply chain right now among workers who are all seeing some kind of parallel between their struggles, whether it’s here at home, you know, working without benefits, working terrible hours, and, you know, not getting enough, not getting enough to feed their families, and also in places like Bangladesh, which obviously suffer far more precarious living conditions that are nonetheless sort of all implicated in this global supply chain that exploits workers across the world.

PROVOST: Right. And in your opinion, have some of the U.S. and European companies advocated for higher wages and safety standards more than others? And where are they currently on a framework, regulatory framework to improve safety standards? What can you tell us about that?

CHEN: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks to some pretty dogged labor advocacy from international groups, from fair trade groups, from groups that are working against sweatshops around the world, there has been considerable pressure placed on the corporations that, you know, place a lot of their orders for so-called fast fashion, cheap clothes, at these garment factories in Bangladesh. And so you have seen a lot of movement.

For the first time, you have the emergence of this thing called the safety accord, which is sort of a comprehensive agreement to set up safety standards for fire and building safety in Bangladesh that would lock international corporations into some sort of regulatory oversight system with independent auditors rather than the sort of, you know, in-house corporate inspectors that they have now, and it would allow for some sort of accountability. There would be involvement from local unions, as well as international labor bodies, to provide oversight. And you’ve seen a number of European brands sign up for this. I think they just reached their 100 brand milestone last week. So they’ve gotten, you know, scores of brands to sign up.

The two notable holdouts, of course, are Walmart and GAP, which are two of the largest names in cheap fashion in the U.S. The fact that they are holding out, they are refusing to comply with the system, really shows what outliers these U.S. industry leaders are. They’re currently trying to sort of reinvent the wheel and create their own sort of safety accord that would obviously offer a lot less accountability for the corporations.

But so far the other European brands have actually, you know, shown a willingness to participate in a stronger oversight system, and that’s thanks in part to international pressure.

PROVOST: Thank you very much for joining us, Michelle.

CHEN: Thank you for having me.

PROVOST: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.


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