Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Changing the way business gets done: An interview with Arif Ullah, petition organizer and advocate for Bangladeshi workers' rights

Picture of Arif Ullah. (Reused
with permission from Arif Ullah).
After witnessing endless media coverage of worker abuse in Bangladesh and the failure of major U.S. and European retailers to stop it, Arif Ullah decided that something had to be done to protect Bangladeshi workers' rights. He has launched a petition on, calling for major U.S. and European retailers to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. Here, Arif Ullah elaborates on the situation of worker abuse in Bangladesh, and the changes he wants to see in the garment industry.

1. How does it feel to read about these human rights abuses happening in your home country?

Arif: I'm both heartbroken and infuriated. Since 2005, at least 1,800 workers have been killed in Bangladesh garment factories. All of these deaths, including Rana Plaza, could have been prevented.

If international companies that source from Bangladeshi garment factories enforced basic safety standards, garment factory owners would have no choice but to acquiesce, however morally bankrupt and inhumane they may be. They're entirely dependent on their contracts with these companies, and would not risk those relationships. 

Foreign companies are entirely aware of this, but they've done next to nothing to pressure the factories because of fears that safety standards would cut into their already massive profit margins--it would cost companies ten cents more per garment to make improvements. Instead, they hand-pick auditors to inspect factories, which is similar to hiring a fox to guard the hen house. The message that they're sending is clear: Bangladeshi lives are expendable. 

Last week, mounting pressure from human rights organizations and the public, as well as negative media coverage, led 18 major companies to sign the Accord on Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety, including H&M. American companies are conspicuously missing from the list of signatories. Walmart and Gap have instead expressed concern about the safety plan. They don't like that it's enforceable and legally-binding. And they want to continue to self-monitor with impunity. Other North American companies that have refused to sign on are: Target, Sears, JC Penney, Kohl's, North Face, Children's Place, Macy's, American Eagle, Nordstrom, and Foot Locker. 

2. In addition to signing the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, what other measures do you want major U.S. and European retailers to take to protect Bangladeshi workers?

Arif: Unfortunately, safety is not the only problem in Bangladeshi factories. Workers are often made to work 12 to 16 hours a day, if not longer, or risk losing their jobs. Wages have not kept up with inflation, and the minimum wage is barely enough to make ends meet (which, to be fair, is not dissimilar from the United States). And, there is no such thing as health care for the 3.6 million workers--mostly young women--employed in the industry. Sexual coercion is also not uncommon. 

As well, the Bangladeshi government has made it nearly impossible for workers to unionize, requiring union organizers to present the names of those interested in joining unions to factory owners for their approval. This week, the government announced changes to this and other policies that would increase workers' rights. I'll believe it when I see it. All the major Bangladeshi political parties--the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Awami League, Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP)--are in bed with the garment industry. 

International companies that source from Bangladesh can pressure both factory owners and the Bangladeshi government to make improvements in all of these areas, and of course, they should help to fund them. The $20 billion garment industry accounts for approximately 80 per cent of the country's exports--factory owners and the government would not jeopardize this cash cow.

3. What is your message to the major U.S. and European retailers who are guilty of abusing Bangladeshi workers, and for people who continue to defend worker abuse in Bangladesh?

Arif: International companies are in Bangladesh because it is lucrative for them. Cheap labor affords them wide profit margins. However, cheap labor must not come at the expense of people's lives. Companies have a responsibility to ensure safe work places, livable wages, and healthy working conditions.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Americans last year devoted just 3% of their annual spending to clothing and footwear, compared with around 7% in 1970 and about 13% in 1945, according to Commerce Department data.” But there is a high cost for cheap labor, and we are reminded of this all too frequently. 

I would like to thank Arif Ullah for taking the time to share his insight about workers' rights in Bangladesh, and for advocating for Bangladeshi workers' rights. 

To sign Arif's petition, please visit:

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