When the world woke up to the horror of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory on April 24th 2013, it naturally wanted to know who was responsible. The answer to that turned out to be more complex than we might have hoped. The truth, of course, is that everyone – the factory owner, the supervisors, the builders, the Bangladeshi government, brands who sourced from the factory – even us as consumers – had some responsibility for what happened on that fateful day. But more interesting than the question “Who is to blame?” might have been “Why did it happen?” In other words, what were the underlying causes of the disaster?
These are no doubt many and complex but underlying them all will be one major cause – inequality.
When the workers in the Rana Plaza factory said they were afraid to return to the building – which workers in other businesses on other floors had refused to return to – they were told by their supervisors they had to go back in. Consider the power that those supervisors must have had over the workers to make them knowingly go back into a building that they feared would collapse and kill them. It says a lot about the inequality of the power relations between workers – many of them poor migrants from rural Bangladesh – and management.
Most of those workers were women. Most of the supervisors were men. Another layer of inequality overlaid over the workplace hierarchy in a culture which conventionally demands that women obey men unquestioningly.
And when you scratch the surface of all the less dramatic but no less heinous abuses of human rights that happen in factories and farms all over the world, again you will see inequality. Workers who are forced to work either in conditions of slavery or because of historic debt. Workers who are paid such low wages that they have to work excessive overtime hours, send their children to work, work two or even three jobs... and sometimes still can’t make ends meet. Workers working and living in dangerous and unhygienic conditions. Workers who are insulted and abused verbally or physically. And who are unable to fight against these abuses because they do not belong to a union or committee which management will listen to.
The lowest paid and most exploited workers are often the weakest and most vulnerable. They may be migrant workers, or members of a community that is considered to be of a lower status because of their race or caste. But mostly their inequality is based on the fact that they are simply poor (and because of their low – or non-existent – wages, remain poor in work).
And among all these groups are women who suffer a second layer of inequality because of the cultural bias towards men. The inequality of women in the world of work exists across the globe – it is not just a problem of developing countries. Women all over the world are consistently paid less than their male counterparts, have more vulnerable jobs, are in greater danger of abuse, and are less likely to reach the higher echelons of management.
Governments, brands, suppliers, producers, trade unions, NGOs and we ourselves as consumers need to be doing our bit to end the abuse of the rights of the workers who produce everything we wear, eat and use. Consumers need to show that we are willing to pay decent prices, brands need to be insisting on good working conditions in their supply chains and supporting suppliers to achieve them, employers need to be supporting workers to have collective bargaining platforms.
But above all, we all need to strive to end the inequality that underlies the abuse of workers’ rights. And ensure what we at the Ethical Trading Initiative have as our strapline – Respect for workers worldwide.