Local Struggles Have Global Contexts – How Many People Died For Your Shirt? Towards a Global Unionism

(By: Antje Dieterich)

One year ago, on April 24th, 2013, more than 1,000 people died during the collapse of the factory “Rana Plaza” in Bangladesh. The clothes that were made in the factory were delivered to Germany, to the US, to Mexico, to France —in short words, to every country in the world were you can get your shirts from Benetton, Mango, C&A, Adler and the discounter KiK.

In about 90 seconds the building crashed, 1,134 people died, even more were injured. For a little bit longer that these 90 seconds, the world was shocked. Who is responsible? Who pays for the hospital bill? And by the way – why are so many children in the factory?

The indignation lasted longer than 90 seconds, but it appears it wasn’t long enough to lead to changes. And even if there are a lot of articles today, the day of the event’s first anniversary, short after the disaster, the interest of media and people seemed to go on to a more current topic.

The first wave of indignation seemed to influence the involved companies. Quickly, they promised fast and unbureaucratic help. Then with public interest fleeting, it became clear that the “unbureaucratic” part would not be fulfilled.  At the end, it was the International Labour Organization (ILO) who took the responsibility to organize a compensation fund. Shortly after that, the promise of “fast help” flew quickly out the window. The fund as a structure exists and the numbers are known. It is simply that the money has yet to be paid.

But still, information about the working conditions in most of the textile factories did influence the opinion of the consumers. In a small survey conducted by a German news channel most of the people knew about the problems and agreed they would like to avoid it. Some explained that they decided to buy more expensive clothes, hoping that they are produced under better conditions. But the fact that Benetton and KiK produced in the same factory shows that you cannot avoid anything with this decision.

Another reaction was to not buy anything that comes out of Bangladesh any longer. Even if the intention is a good one, the results are extremely problematic. The campaign “clean clothes” that has been operated since the mid-nineties on issues in the textile industry, made very clear that the boycott of Bangladesh’s factories will destroy the very few sources of income in that country. Aside from that, the conditions in Indonesia or Vietnam are not any better and if you really try to avoid all clothes from Southeast Asia, you might wind up naked.

Buying expensive clothes means that only the brand profits from such a decision decision. Boycotting a specific country leads to factories migrating to a neighboring country, not changing the dangerous working-conditions. Trying to raise the pressure on global companies leads only to short-term changes in that some money will be paid to two or three families, but the public memory is short and no global company will stick to such an expensive promise any longer than needed.

Is there nothing we can do? Not quite. There is something happened in South Asia that signals an exit. It is called “Asia Floor Wage Alliance” an “international alliance of trade unions and labour rights activist who are working together to demand garment workers are paid a living wage.”

The textile industry is globalized – the death of more than 1,000 workers is a local tragedy, but not a local disaster. The disaster is part of a calculation committed by the economic winners of the global industry. The Alliance that unites the workers in South Asia and fights for the same wage in the whole region managed to take one powerful tool from the companies: the benefit of their mobility. “You don’t want to work for that wage? Fine, we go to the next city or country!” Today the local unions can say: “Really? Good luck with building the new factory, you know that the price for the work will be the same!”

This answer to economic globalization seems to be the only one that can offer at least a minimum of protection for the workers in South Asia. Making the transnational union known is important if so many consumers would like to buy “better” shirts. Making the transnational union known is even more important because we can and we should learn from it.

First steps have already been taken: Some years ago, “clean clothes” gave some workshops at different places. What the found was striking. On the one hand workers from KiK in Germany, get extremely low wages and have no job security. On the other hand workers in the textile industry in Bangladesh get extremely low wages and have no job security.result of the workshops was creating the understanding that workers are fighting strikingly similar problems in both Germany and Bangladesh.

Today there will be another step. Under the name: Blockupy Betriebsstörung – Widerstand entlang der Produktionsketten in der Textilindustrie (Blockupy stoppage – Resistance along the production chain of the textile industry) workers and activists from different countries will come together, talk about their fights, and plan how to act together in the future. These are factory workers, retail workers, and consumers who are forced to buy extremely cheap clothes due to their low income.

The understanding that every single worker in these three positions is forced into this relationship based on exploitation by the global industry can lead to a solidarity that is not limited to signing a petition, but based more on a knowledge regarding a collective fight. Therefore it also leads to the knowledge that every oppressed worker is the global textile industry. The globalized industry leads to very similar problems of oppression of workers in Germany as well as in Bangladesh. But that means at the same time, that every worker is a substential part of the textile-indusry. Hence, there is no industry without the workers.

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