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As Bangladesh Toll Hits 400, Calls Grow to Grant Workers the Same Protections as Labels They Make

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Today’s global May Day actions include a march of thousands of workers in Bangladesh demanding workplace safety following last week’s factory collapse that left more than 400 dead and 150 missing. The collapse is now being described as the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry and marked Bangladesh’s third industrial accident in five months. The building’s owner has been arrested, and a Bangladeshi court has frozen the assets of the owners of the five garment factories that were inside. Most of the workers reportedly earned an average annual salary of $38 a month — roughly 21 cents an hour — to make apparel for a number of Western companies. We’re joined by leading labor rights activist Charlie Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. “The companies, the corporations, they’re hiding behind these phony codes of conduct that are meaningless. They’re just paper. What the workers want are legal rights,” Kernaghan says. “We need to stand up and just say, 'You can bring anything you want into the United States, but you're not bringing it in if it was made by children or the workers are denied their right to organize.’ The lift that would give to the Bangladeshi labor movement would be enormous.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Today is May 1st, celebrated around the world as May Day or International Workers’ Day. In Bangladesh, thousands of workers marched through central Dhaka earlier today to demand safety at work following last week’s factory collapse where more than 400 people died, mostly female garment workers. Hundreds of more workers remain missing, buried in the ruble.
The collapse of the building is now being described as the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry.

Amirul Hoq is a labor leader in Bangladesh.

AMIRUL HOQ: We are actually celebrating this May Day with sorrow, because just few days ago, in a building collapse, on which there was five factories, we actually lost 400 garment workers. And already some of the owners arrested; we demand the other owner and other responsible people also should be arrested. And there will be the example of punishment of these factory owners as well as the building owners.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, was arrested Sunday, and on Monday a Bangladeshi court ordered the government to confiscate his property. The New York Times reports today that Rana is one of many powerful men in Savar, a suburb of the capital of Dakha, who own flimsy buildings where factories produce clothes for leading Western brands. The Times described Rana as, quote, “untouchable as a mafia don, trailed by his own biker gang. Local officials and the Bangladeshi news media say he was involved in illegal drugs and guns, but he also had a building, Rana Plaza, that housed five factories,” end-quote.

On Tuesday, another court froze the assets of the owners of the five garment factories and ordered the money to be used to pay the salaries and benefits of their workers to their relatives. Most of the workers reportedly earned an average annual salary of $38 a month, roughly 21 cents an hour. Anger over the disaster has sparked days of protest, and some factories have been forced to remain closed. This is a factory manager.

FACTORY MANAGER: [translated] Our factory was running as usual today. Workers were working, when suddenly some miscreants came in from the outside and attacked our factory, wanting to keep it closed. But our workers opposed and created resistance, and now they are protesting against that.

AMY GOODMAN: Western clothes companies linked to the Rana Plaza factory so far include The Children’s Place, Cato Corp., Joe Fresh, Papaya Denim, “Free Style Baby,” Benetton, the Irish company Primark’s Denim Co. and Cedarwood State, and others.

Last Wednesday’s building collapse was Bangladesh’s third major industrial accident in five months. Last November, a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory killed 112 workers. The company’s garment industry employs about 3.6 million people.

For more, we go back to Charlie Kernaghan in Pittsburgh, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

Charlie, welcome to Democracy Now! Just to go through this one more time, before this building collapsed, the workers left work the day before because they saw a massive crack in the building. They were told if they didn’t return the next day, they would lose their jobs. You were on with us talking about the bank on the first floor. They closed. They didn’t have their workers come in because of this crack. They all came in, and the building fell—400 people dead, more than a thousand wounded. What is the latest, Charlie?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, don’t forget the workers were also forced to go into work because there were gang members there from Rana Plaza who were ready to beat the workers with clubs if they didn’t go in. It wasn’t just that they wouldn’t receive their wages for the month of April—they would starve—but they would also be beaten if they didn’t go into the factory. When they went in at 8:00 in the morning, of course, the factory collapsed at 9:00.

This toll right now, our folks are saying there’s 421 confirmed dead. The police are still saying, and so are the universities saying, that there are as many as a thousand people missing. The stench from—they have cordoned it off about 50 yards around the building. They say the stench of the bodies is so overwhelming, you can’t stand it. Parents, thousands of parents, are still there holding up pictures of their sons and daughters, begging people, “Find my daughter, find my son.” It’s a very—it’s a horrific time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to some more voices in Bangladesh. This is a Red Crescent volunteer named Taufiq, followed by a girl who lost her mother and her sister.

TAUFIQ: [translated] We, the members of the Red Crescent, are waiting here while the operation goes on. The moment rescue workers find any body, then we will carry it away from here.

BANGLADESHI GIRL: [translated] I lost my mother and my sister. There’s no one to take care of me and my brother.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Charlie Kernaghan, can you talk about what the situation is of the survivors, of the victims? There have also been reports of apparently two pregnant women who are still in the rubble, one of whom has apparently given birth?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: It’s understood that those two women are now dead. They couldn’t get them out. And the child—at least one child was born. Because they didn’t have maternity leave, they were forced to work. The child is also dead.

And I think the trade union movement in Bangladesh, their May Day today, after two or three decades of these phony codes of conduct and the miserable working conditions and the unsafe working conditions and the starvation wages of 12 cents an hour to 22 cents an hour, the workers are marching for their rights, so that they can have collective bargaining, they can have unions. Nothing is going to change in Bangladesh until the workers have the right to organize. And it would be amazing if our government had the guts to stand up and say, “The workers in Bangladesh have suffered enough. They deserve the internationally recognized worker rights to freedom of association, the right to organize a union and to bargain collectively.”

If that doesn’t happen, these deaths are just going to continue and continue and continue. They’re torturing these young women. Eighty percent of the workers in the garment industry are young women. They’re torturing these people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Charlie Kernaghan, can you explain—you’ve said that workers need laws comparable to those that protect trademarks. Can you explain what Western companies who employ such labor in countries where labor is not protected, what steps they can take to ensure the safety of their workers?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, the companies, the corporations, they’re hiding behind these phony codes of conduct that are meaningless. They’re just paper. What the workers want are legal rights.

And just as an aside, when they found—we found dogs and cats were being killed in China for fur collars in the Burlington Coat Factory company. They were putting nice fur collars on their jackets, and the fur came from dogs—killing dogs and cats in China. The U.S. Congress went berserk and passed a bill that nobody is going to kill dogs and cats on our watch. You can’t import dog fur or cat fur to the U.S. You can’t export it. You can’t sell it. So, there’s a precedent there. Our Congress had a backbone to protect dogs and cats. We need the same backbone to protect the rights of workers.

We have—there’s no reason in the world why the American people and the people in the United—Europe and U.K. and Australia or in Canada—there’s no reason that we can’t stand up and say, “If we can protect dogs and cats, we sure as heck can protect the rights of human beings,” and we give these workers the rights—not setting wages, wages set in Bangladesh or they’re set in Cambodia or Vietnam or anywhere, but workers will have their internationally recognized worker rights so that they can organize a union and protect themselves. And Barack Obama, or then-Senator Barack Obama, endorsed this. So did Hillary Clinton. So did Joe Biden. We had about 27 members in the Senate. We had up to 170 members in the House—until the corporations found out what we were doing with the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act. Nothing is going to change until there’s laws. The codes of conduct are so ridiculous. And it’s—people should be embarrassed talking about these codes of conduct. We need laws.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the companies whose labels were found in the ruins of the collapsed building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories was Joe Fresh, which is a brand of clothes sold by the Canadian firm Loblaw and found in U.S. stores like J.C. Penney. They said, quote, “We will be providing compensation for the families of the victims who worked for our supplier. We are working to ensure that we will deliver support in the best and most meaningful way possible, and with the goal of ensuring that victims and their families receive benefits now and in the future,” unquote. Charlie Kernaghan, if you could respond to that and also talk about the other companies that you know were making clothes there?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Yes, and the Joe Fresh label also said that there is nothing they can do in Bangladesh because they’re not allowed to pressure Bangladesh. They can’t make up decisions for Bangladesh. It’s completely a lie, because the corporation, the Joe Fresh label, is protected, so they can demand that their label is protected in Bangladesh. And so, if they can protect the label, they can protect the workers, as well. So, the fact that they’re innocent and they don’t have any leverage is untrue. They have plenty of leverage; they just don’t use it.

It’s not just—it’s not just Joe Fresh, of course. It was Cato. It was Primark in the U.K. It was just a whole slew of labels, from Spain, from Italy—I mean, high-end, high-end clothing. This group, this five factories, produced seven million garments a year. This was a big operation. And only now—I mean, the place, you can’t get into the crumbled factory, but eventually all of these labels are going to come out, and these companies are going to be held accountable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, according to a Harris poll taken in 2006, 76 percent of Americans said they agreed with the statement that, quote, “I believe that America should work to extend the same legal protections that are currently afforded to corporate trademarks and products to the human being who made the product,” end-quote. Charlie Kernaghan, do you think the response would be the same today? This poll was taken in 2006.

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: I think it would be more so. We have an economy where, since the Great Recession started in December of 2007, we still are almost three million jobs short of what we were in 2007 in December. We’re going backwards. We’re losing jobs. It’s going to be until 2017 until we get back to the level of jobs we had—it was 138 million jobs—back in 2007. So, I think the American people know that the middle class is being destroyed. The average CEO makes 380 times the average worker. They’re going after the unions. They’re trying to kill and strangle unions, which are the basis that we need to survive with. And so, what they’re saying is the workers, they need to have their right to organize. They have to have a level playing field. And this—it’s just a situation that—you know, it’s devastating right now. The union workers make $10,000 more a year, 27 percent more a year, than non-union workers do. And that’s why these right-to-work states—Michigan now, Indiana—they are going to go after the labor movement to try to just kill it.

And this is going to be the fight for our lives now. We need to take back our country, take back our economy, take back our values. Labor Secretary Rice recently said we have never seen—the American people have this shared experience, these shared values, but we have never seen the conditions so radically poor and bad for working people. Something has to give. We have to be set for a movement, a big social movement, to take back our country and to take back our rights. And if the unions go under, we are finished, because they are the bedrock that’s keeping us alive.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie, this issue, the link between what’s happening in, for example, Bangladesh and what’s happening in the United States is rarely made. The issue of if workers can get—what is it? something like 21 cents an hour in Bangladesh, how can workers in the United States compete? And then you see the price of that. You see 400 people dead last week and more than a thousand injured. If you could just summarize by laying out what you feel needs to be done right now, if you were in charge in this country, if you were President Obama?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, like I said with the legislation, it’s not our job to set wages around the world. That’s up to the people in their individual countries. But what we can do is we can demand that if you want to bring the products into the United States, that these workers must have their legal rights. They must have the right to organize, to bargain collectively, to have a collective contract, to have decent working conditions, no child labor. The whole world agrees with this. So, if you want to bring your products from Bangladesh—the way we can help the Bangladeshi workers, if they want to bring their garments in from Bangladesh to the United States, we’ll welcome it. We want those garments. But you’re not bringing those garments in if they’re made by children or, you know, the workers who are denied their rights. We have these stupid codes of conduct for the last 30 years. It’s the biggest scam going. So we need to stand up and just say, “You can bring anything you want into the United States, but you’re not bringing it in if it was made by children or the workers are denied their right to organize.” The lift that would give to the Bangladeshi labor movement would be enormous.

Right now—you know, we found documents in a garbage dump for Nike, and it was children’s sweatshirts. And the sweatshirts sold for $22.99. This was in the Dominican Republic, and we bought it in Macy’s in New York City. Do you know what the workers got paid to make that sweatshirt? Eight cents. So, the workers’ wages in the Dominican Republic were three-tenths of 1 percent [0.3 percent] of the retail price. This is what’s going on. They’re just crushing people and sucking really the blood out of people. Eight cents to make their garment. What would happen if they tripled it to 24 cents? That would be less than 1 percent of the retail price for the garment. In other words, there’s plenty of room here. But this is the science of exploitation and misery. And we have to stand up and push back against these corporations.

And the American people now are really suffering. And, you know, it could go either way. Either people are just going to be so frightened that they’re going to keep quiet, or there’s going to be some sort of an explosion. The middle class is being destroyed. And we have to fight for our own middle class just as we fight for people in Bangladesh or in Honduras, where workers are getting, you know, miserably—have miserable conditions in Lear—in a Lear factory, which produces auto parts. All over the world, this is going on.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Charlie Kernaghan, for being with us. Charlie Kernaghan, speaking to us from Pittsburgh, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, on this May Day, on this May 1st.

Coming up, gay in the NBA. We’re going to be talking about Jason Collins coming out, and we’ll speak about his action with his hero, with the tennis legend Martina Navratilova. Stay with us.

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