– Bangladesh: The human cost of cheap clothes
– Migrant labour blood running in the veins of Greece’s crisis-ridden economy
(AWTWNS 29 April 2013)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 29 April 2013 contains two articles. They may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as they are credited.

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–        Bangladesh: The human cost of cheap clothes
–        Migrant labour blood running in the veins of Greece’s crisis-ridden economy


Bangladesh: The human cost of cheap clothes

29 April 2013. A World to Win News Service. Bangladeshi garment workers have suffered yet another tragedy and outrage, this time in the industrial suburb of Savar, 30 kilometres outside of Dhaka. Those who first arrived on the scene could see mangled body parts amid the mangled metal and concrete and hear calls for help from those trapped in the ruins. As of 29 April, the bodies of more than 380 people have been found in the ruins of the Rana Plaza. Most were crushed to death by the collapse of the building where they worked. Several hundred people are still missing. Over 1,200 have been injured, many with loss of limbs. Four days after the collapse a fire broke out on one of the floors, putting an end to the barely audible voices still crying out to be saved. Rescue workers wept after coming so close but ultimately failing to save a trapped woman they had been talking to. After days of working through the rubble with bare hands and small tools, and with the passage of time dimming hope, the heavy construction machinery brought contributed to sharply deducing hopes for finding more survivors.

Officials noted a crack in the walls of the eight-storey building on 23 April, and people were evacuated. The shops and a bank on the ground floor stayed closed on the next day. But factories owners threatened their employees to go back to work or face being docked a day’s pay or worse.  At 9 am, one hour into the day’s start, a huge noise was heard as the back end of the building caved in and the storeys collapsed one on another, burying more than 3,000 workers, mainly women.

Over the next several days, racing against time, relatives and local residents helped rescuers sift through the mountains of unstable rubble as the voices of buried survivors became increasingly faint –  tugging, pulling and easing out bodies as the death toll mounted. Thousands of local people rushed to the inundated hospitals to donate blood for the survivors.

Occasional moments of hope would occur when rescuers tried to smash through a slab of a concrete wall, and heard a voice call out: “‘Help, get me out, cut off my legs but just get me out of here.’ The woman’s desperate voice was later joined by dozens more – up to 40 men and women who had been trapped together in the corner of a third floor room which had somehow survived the collapse of four floors on top of it.  As they were led out of their tomb some wept and shook.”  (25 April 2013, Telegraph)

As the death toll rose hundreds of thousands of furious workers went on strike. They blocked major motorways outside Dhaka and laid siege to the main manufacturers’ association demanding that those responsible be punished. In some areas cars were set on fire and factories forced to shut down. Demonstrations spread as far as the port city of Chittagong. Part of the intense outrage stems from the frequency with which lives have been snuffed out by the dangerous working conditions that are business as usual in the Bangladesh garment industry. When the police fired rubber bullets at the demonstrators, the crowd became even more outraged at being attacked for their righteous anger.

The Rana Plaza was constructed on marshy land in violation of zoning regulations, with improper foundations. It had been constructed with eight floors and a ninth floor in the building stages, despite only having permission for six. But enforcement is lax. Although the law includes the possibility of jail for violating workplace health-and-safety provisions, infractions mainly result in paltry fines or nothing at all. The Rana Plaza’s owner, caught trying to escape to India, has been arrested along with other individuals, among them factory owners who forced employees back to work and engineers responsible for the building’s poor construction.

In the face of continued anger among Bangladeshis, Home Minister Alamgir sought to quickly turn the page on this disaster. He claimed that rescue team did ”better than the average international effort in such cases” and emphasized the number of people pulled out of the rubble, not the dead and missing. But the building’s collapse was not a natural disaster. It was the result of a murderous conspiracy to disregard the potential cost in human lives in keeping the international profit machine humming.

In November of last year, a fire at Tazreen Fashions killed 121 workers and injured 200. Despite government and employer promises to rectify the situation, nothing ever came of it, and no one was ever charged. Since 2005 and before this latest disaster – the Rana Plaza collapse is considered one of the countries’ worst industrial tragedies – more than 1,000 textile workers have died in fires and collapsed buildings. According to an AFL-CIO account, since the fire at Tazreen 41 other instances of fire have occurred, killing  nine workers and injuring 660. (cmc.ca/news/world/story)

Among the businesses in the Rana building were Phantom Apparels Ltd and the New Wave group which on its website named 27 main customers, including some of the biggest clothing brands such as firms from Britain (Primark), France (Carrefour),  Spain (Mango), Italy (Benetton) Canada (Loblaw) and the United States (Wal-Mart). Labels of many of these companies were found strewn among the broken bodies and broken concrete.

In interviews conducted by the British charity War on Want (waronwant.org), women describe working conditions in the factories that are not only dangerous but also degrading. They tell of being slapped or beaten if they try to refuse overtime. Shifts last as long as 15 hours. Some relate that pay cheques always fall behind and when they are finally paid it is never the correct amount due them. They compare the luxurious living conditions of the factory owners to the cramped one-room shacks where they live. Their shacks are in close proximity to the multi-story factory buildings where you can see steel-reinforcing rods poking from the rooftops in preparation for the addition of that yet another floor of sewing machines.

When the U.S. instituted quota restrictions on the importation of apparel from countries like China, Indonesia, Malysia and Thailand, the growth of the garment industry in Bangladesh was given a boost. As a “least developed country” Bangladesh received preferential access to the U.S. and European Union markets. The traditionally large clothing producers relocated ready-made garment (RMG) factories to countries that were free from quota restrictions and had enough trainable cheap labour. Bangladesh was seen as a promising place for the industry to invest. Since the 1980s the RMG industry went from 4 percent of the country’s total export earnings to 80 percent today.

While that preferential treatment lasted only until 2004, the garment industry in Bangladesh became a favourite production site for many big brands. The less-than-a-living wage is $38 a month. The vast pool of available workers are mainly women, often part of a newly arrived and huge influx of people from the countryside desperately searching for whatever work they can find to support their families. In addition to the super-exploitation, the women are often sexually harassed. Despite laws against it, in the smaller sweatshops where local factories outsource work, often child labour is used.

Now Bangladesh is the world’s second largest clothing exporter, after China. Almost 4 million people are employed in more than 4,500 textile factories. The government of Sheik Hasina works hand in hand with an association of clothing manufacturers whose members include Bangladesh’s most prominent families. Her job is to protect the status quo so nothing is done that might frighten away the major clothing brands. That includes turning a blind eye to the hellish conditions created by the local factories owners who extract only a small part of the wealth generated by the super-exploitation of the garment workers. The situation in the Bangladeshi garment industry is not a throwback to the past but a defining feature of where the world is going today as globalized cheap manufacture plays an increasingly major role in the international process of capital accumulation.

Different ideas have been put forward about who is responsible and how to resolve the intolerable working conditions for garment workers. Calls have been made for more corporate responsibility, more government intervention, more fire and building inspections, more audits, more unions. Union organisers are often arrested and sometimes brutally killed. Some measures have been taken with little progress. Some NGOs and union organisers made attempts to call together the clothing industry importers to form an independent organism to monitor the various garment factories to improve safety conditions but no agreement could be reached. Now with the shame of the world cast on the name brands they have shed crocodile tears and offer some food to families of the victims.

John Hilary, executive director at  War on Want, told Reuters, ”What we’re saying is that bargain-basement (clothing) is automatically leading towards these types of disasters.” He said that Western clothing retailers’ need to undercut rivals has translated into increasing pressure on foreign suppliers to reduce costs.”If you’ve got that, then it’s absolutely clear that you’re not going to be able to have the right kind of building regulations, health and safety, fire safety. Those things will become more and more impossible as the cost price goes down.” Hilary said the push for lower costs inevitably led to factories cutting corners. “As a result of that, we see the sort of disaster that happened yesterday,” he said.

The brand name companies see the obstacles as too many and too costly to solve. Their bottom line after all is profit. If they don’t maximise profit by cutting costs one company will be devoured by another. And if profits are not made in Bangladesh, which is now part of the world imperialist market, then the companies will move to another oppressed country where they can find a suitable workforce to super-exploit. By the internal logic of capitalism, where profit and competition rule over everything, each player at every level of the trillion dollar garment industry must keep costs to a minimum to effectively beat out competitors. Further, to remain competitive and profitable today clothing retailers must be able to change styles quickly and often, with tight deadlines adding to the intense pace imposed on garment manufacturing. These economic necessities translate into the destruction of human lives and potential on a mass scale.

The deaths and injuries at Rana Plaza are not an aberration but part of the workings of a ruthless system. The sorrow and righteous anger of the Bangladeshi people is a world wide wake up call. The next time you don your clothes, look at the label and remember there is blood on it that you don’t see.

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Migrant labour blood running in the veins of Greece’s crisis-ridden economy

29 April 2013. A World to Win News Service. On 17 April the story broke that Greek foremen had fired shotguns and pistols at 200 mostly Bangladeshi immigrant strawberry pickers in the village of Nea Manaloda who were demanding six months back wages. The fruit has been re-dubbed “blood strawberries”, a reference to the “blood diamonds” of Sierra Leone. The vicious armed response that landed 29 in hospital, some critically wounded, shined a spotlight on conditions for migrant labour in modern Europe.

Photos posted on the Web showed the plastic sheet-roofed shelters without running water or electricity where migrant labourers from Asia and Africa sleep ten by ten. Ordinarily these structures normally “house” strawberry plants. The workers have to drink from a water hose and use a barrel for bathing. Out of the 22 euros ($29) per day they were promised for  7-8 hour shifts (which in reality are often twice that long), farmworkers have to pay “rent” to the strawberry plantation owners; they told human rights groups they must also pay the local mafia for “protection”, and have no choice but to shop for food in employer-owned small  stores. Reportedly their real earnings are reduced to 5 euros a day. Others say they must dish out part of their wages to pay back the transporters who got them to Greece.

Why would Bangladeshis risk their lives to enter Europe to work as poorly or unpaid wage slaves in the fields and be treated savagely by bosses who want to exploit them and by neo-Nazis who want to deport them? Because instead of earning 38 dollars a month in a Dhaka garment factory, they are told they will make fourteen times more in capitalist Europe than at home, where imperialism has dominated and twisted those economies, plundered resources and kept wages too low to live on. They go through this usually in order to be able to send small remittances back to their families. They also may fall into the clutches of a thriving multi-billion human trafficking business in Europe that helps to lower the ‘risk’ to employers’ networks importing cheap labour.

This is modern capitalist Greece, an entryway to modern Europe, preying on the labour of very poor and mostly undocumented foreign workers. The industry calls strawberries “red gold”, but the gold comes from this exploited labour not from the fruit.

In 2008 migrant farmworkers in Manolada organised a strike protesting their conditions and demanding more money. They were violently repressed. In 2012 two plantation goons were finally arrested after they brutally beat up a 30-year-old Egyptian who had demanded to be paid his wages. They jammed his head in the window of a car door and dragged him through the village. There are also allegations that municipal officials had been selling false identity documents to migrant workers. The purpose was both to keep foreign workers in the local fields instead of moving elsewhere or going home, and let farm owners off the hook for hiring “illegals”. Some had been prosecuted for that offence rather than for paying slave wages in inhuman conditions backed by violence.

A columnist from Multicultural politic described Nea Manolada as a small village situated on the Peloponnese peninsula with “a local population of around 3,500 people, including approximately 1,500 foreign-born migrants… not only from Bangladesh, but since the 1980s also from Pakistan, Egypt, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and other Balkan countries. While most of rural Greece has been crippled by the economic depression, this town and the wider region has been going through an export boom. Nea Manolada is responsible for 90 percent of Greece’s national production of strawberries which is predominantly sold in Switzerland, Germany and Russia. The incomes for local farmers have known to have grown by 30 percent in a single year.”

In 2011 the former social democratic prime minister George Papandreou praised the Manolada “miracle” for its agricultural innovation and intensive exploitation at a Ministry of Rural Development conference, asking how it could be replicated elsewhere in Greece’s sagging economy.

Greece is “at the sharp end of the eurozone crisis”, as one report put it, and the government has been trying to fulfil conditions set by the European Union for a nine billion euro international bailout.  Although it hasn’t “fallen over the cliff”, one broadcaster stated, already one in three Greeks are living below the official poverty line and unemployment is at 27 percent officially, with many working very irregular jobs. The informal sector functions according to different rules and the rural economy in Greece is known for circumventing labour laws. More than 40 percent of workers in this sector are migrants. With little or no access to basic rights, they are easy targets for merciless exploitation. This latest attack in Manolada has fanned further social outrage against the government among the already politically aroused and angry Greek population.

But at the same time, within this severe recession affecting nearly all sectors of the middle and lower strata, ultra-rightist politicians and their vigilante groups are actively spewing anti-immigrant racist venom, with open references to Hitler’s ovens. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party holds 18 seats in Parliament and vows to take political power. The rise of racist and fascist ideologies during capitalist crisis is hardly new. Targeting migrants for losses of jobs that Greeks or other Europeans often won’t perform becomes a spontaneous and malevolent reaction of those seeking an explanation and way out of the crisis but not seeing or refusing to see the system as the cause.

Despite its sharpness, neither the financial crisis nor official reactionary policies against poor immigrants that encourage popular support for racism and fascist ideas is a Greek “problem”.  The UK is full of migrant cleaning women earning miserable wages; in the Netherlands the government formed a coalition that included the extreme right-wing anti-immigrant party; and France’s previous president Nicolas Sarkozy expelled 700 Roma back to Romania, although that country is a member of the EU. Spain has what are called “salad hothouses” employing vulnerable migrants, and Italy is known for its “tomato slaves”: both countries are active enforcers of the ugly, repressive blockading of large numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats to seek a better life and be exploited in the imperialist “North” that has played such a key role in skewing the development of the countries they come from.

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