Strong unions key to preventing another Rana Plaza

The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh has horrified people all over the world. Everyone wants to see something done about us, to ensure that it never happens again.

But not everyone agrees on what needs to be done.

Last week, at the request of the IndustriALL global union federation which represents textile and garment workers around the world, LabourStart launched an online campaign. IndustriALL’s text, which came in part from their affiliate unions in Bangladesh, demanded that the Bangladeshi government “take urgent action to guarantee freedom of association and improve building and fire safety and the minimum wage for the more than 3 million garment workers in Bangladesh.”

The campaign pointed out that “Working for a minimum wage of US$38 per month, less than one percent of garment workers in Bangladesh are represented by a union. The Labour Law leaves workers unable to join a union and fight for safe workplaces, improved working conditions and better wages.”

It put the right to join a union at the centre of the campaign.

Tens of thousands of people learned about our campaign due to a promotion on Facebook and thousands of them signed up. But many of them posted comments which typically asked what we, as consumers, could do.

Many people wanted an online campaign to put pressures on those huge Western clothing chains like Primark and Walmart. Others talked about boycotting those shops. Many argued that the problem was cheap clothing – only if we paid more for clothing could people in Bangladesh have a decent life. Some proposed that we only buy fair-traded clothing.

The focus of many of these comments seemed to be entirely on how through our shopping we could make the world a better place.

This strikes me as well-intentioned but also patronizing – and ultimately ineffective.

A decade ago I worked for an NGO in London that had been asked to do a campaign to promote mine safety around the world. They did a beautiful poster with a slogan that I’ve never forgotten:

“The stronger the union, the safer the mine.”

It’s a simple idea, but an enormously powerful one.

The workers in Bangladesh need better laws to protect their health and safety at work, they need labour inspectors to enforce those laws, and we in the West can of course help pressure their government and employers.

But above all, they need the only tool that workers have ever discovered that really does protect them at work: trade unions.

Strong trade unions will ensure that health and safety laws are passed and are enforced. Strong unions can compel an employer to reduce risks in the workplace.

I’m very skeptical about the idea that we can shop our way to a better world by “buying ethically”. It certainly feels better to buy a fair-traded product, but in the end, is that all we can do? Just make ourselves into nicer, more caring consumers?

The terrible tragedy at the Rana Plaza should remind us that we are far more than consumers – we are workers, members of a huge and powerful global movement that when united and focussed on a goal can change the world.

Solidarity – not ethical shopping – is what the garment workers of Bangladesh are demanding.

This article appeared in Solidarity.