The events in Bangladesh last week illustrate the appalling consequences of trade unions not being able to speak up for workers' safety. The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh on 24th April claimed 380 lives, according to the latest estimates.
Many of those killed were workers. The building contained six garment factories which, reports suggest, were supplying some of the largest Western retailers such as Primark.
IndustriALL, the global union federation, has reported that the day before the Rana Plaza building collapsed, cracks could be seen in the building – which had been built illegally. However, workers were so worried that they would have their pay docked for failing to turn up, that they continued to work in the factories on the 24 April until the building pillars gave way, crushing hundreds under the rubble.
The IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC) is asking for a Judicial Commission to investigate the incident, punishment of the owners of the building and the factories for criminal negligence and compensation for the families of the victims.
Crucially, they are also calling for all factories to guarantee a safe working environment and respect workers' rights to form unions and collectively bargain. The pressure to do this must come from the large retailers who source from Bangladesh as well as the Bangladeshi government to provide more worker protection in their labour law.
The call of IBC for the trade unions to be key partners in improving safety standards was supported by a report published by the TUC’s sister union confederation, the AFL-CIO, last week. Titled ‘Responsibility Outsourced’, it states:
‘…when workers have a voice at work, preferably a union, they can make sure dangerous conditions are improved by making employers and the state do their jobs.’
‘Responsibility Outsourced’ immediately made a splash online when it was released as it holds no punches criticising a number of American CSR initiatives for being too reluctant to advocate for workers rights, failing to properly involve unions and not being transparent in their reporting processes.
It was good to see ‘Responsibility Outsourced’ make special mention of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) due to the fact it has trade unions represented at board level, along with NGOs and companies. Indeed the TUC was a founding member of ETI The involvement of trade unions from the outset in ETI mean that its guiding principles – laid out in the ETI Base Code – include the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. By supporting freedom of association, ETI encourages structures where workers in factories can raise concerns with management to improve poor labour conditions.
TUC Aid is currently supporting programme work by ETI to promote worker participation in factories in Vietnam. The TUC will work to make sure this worker involvement is genuine and has the support of local unions.
Encouraging workers to get involved in collective bargaining is a far more effective way of identifying and dealing with problems in workplaces than using social audits, as many companies do. Audits can be poorly conducted and often do not pick up on poor worker rights, which can prove fatal– this was shockingly exposed last year in Pakistan, where fire claimed over 300 lives in a garment factory that had been given a clean social audit.
The loss of hundreds more lives in Bangladesh has focused the eyes of the world on the working conditions in which so many of the clothes we buy are manufactured. This must prompt corporations to genuinely involve unions, so no more workers have to die and suffer to produce goods in their supply chains.