A recent Wall Street Journal editorial, American Unions vs. Bangladesh's Workers (subscription only), dismisses poverty and workers' rights in a country where devastating garment factory fires have killed 119 people in recent months, which the Journal has reported on. The editorial makes several erroneous points about garment workers in Bangladesh, and the threat to remove the country's duty-free status because of workers' rights violations.
The first point the editorial makes is that the Bangladesh economy is growing by 6% and that is mostly because of the garment industry. The economy is growing, primarily on the backs of poor women workers in the garment industry whose real incomes are not improving. With an inflation rate of nearly 9% last year, with more than 40% of the population underemployed and with nearly one-third of the population living beneath the poverty level, the gains made by the industry on a macro level have meant little to the average worker in terms of the ability to earn a living and to survive a shift in ever precarious factories.
The Journal states Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is reconsidering Bangladesh's Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) privileges because it is not paying enough attention to workers' rights. The USTR is one of many agencies in the U.S. government that believes that Bangladesh is not taking steps under the GSP statute to afford workers their internationally recognized labor rights. This includes the Labor Department, offices in the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh. In addition, the International Labor Organization has criticized law and practice in Bangladesh. The U.S. government is obligated, by law, to act when governments fail to comply with GSP eligibility requirements. The Bangladesh government is ignoring its own laws.
The editorial also states that the "only winners" would be unions such as the AFL-CIO if GSP privileges are removed. Actually, the winners would not be America's workers or their unions (who do not compete with Bangladesh workers), but vulnerable workers, the majority of them women, in Bangladesh and other countries who are caught up in the race to the bottom in terms of labor conditions. If the Bangladesh government and manufacturers made improvements, then the U.S. government could rapidly restore benefits. History shows that the AFL-CIO has, in the past, acknowledged improvements in labor conditions and has withdrawn GSP petitions when conditions for workers on the ground have changed.
The Journal claims the GSP petition is only about letting workers unionize—this is untrue. The petition is about the right of workers to have dignity on the job and that includes wages that allow workers a minimum standard of living, freedom from sexual harassment and safe working conditions. History shows that where there are unions, workers lives are improved in all three areas.
There is no reason that democratic or representative unions cannot function in Bangladesh, assuming the government is willing to enforce its own laws and protect the workers' right to organize. The fact is that employers break independent unions because they would have to negotiate with actual representatives of workers, and the government is unwilling to respond because it, as well as the opposition parties, use political fronts to seek advantage outside the workplace. Workers want real unions and are eager to form them. By not enforcing the country's labor laws, the government is violating the GSP statute. Meanwhile, Bangladesh's establishment of an industrial police force—instead of systems that protect citizens and their rights, including their right to a safe workplace and to speak freely—is evidence of a great unwillingness to follow the law.
There have been 38 factory fire incidents in Bangladesh since the November 2012 Tazreen factory tragedy and not all of them are in subcontracted and/or unregistered factories. The Tazreen garment factory was registered but not in compliance with government safety codes. Most factories outside the export processing zones have a range of compliance problems, which points to a lack of regulation and enforcement, and they switch their status from prime to subcontractor at times. The root cause of the fires is the disregard for law (and human life) on the part of factory owners—and the inability of the poor and vulnerable workers to complain that doors are locked, flammable materials are improperly stored and that there is only one way out of their multistory and shoddily constructed factory.
Finally, the Journal editorial made the claim that prosperity will bring better labor conditions to Bangladesh. When and at what cost? There is no evidence that Bangladesh garment factory owners are willing to share income gains with the workers making them rich and powerful. Many garment factory owners sit in Parliament or have family members there. Yet widespread poverty, underemployment and dangerous working conditions face millions of average Bangladeshis.