For a Solidarity between workers’ struggles in the United States and Bangladesh

© Abir Abrar

By Tausif Khan and Humayun Kabir

28th November 2014

This is a precarious time for labor across the globe. The dignity and lives of working people are under threat. In the United States leaders from both parties at both the state and federal levels have tried to use the power of government to keep unions from negotiating higher wages for workers and have broken strikes initiated by workers who had demanded better contracts. Furthermore, multinational corporations like Wal-Mart, which oppress workers around the world, profit mightily from such corporate-friendly policies. The working conditions, through which Americans must suffer, such as low wages, long hours and the possibility of being killed on the job, are shared and compounded in countries like Bangladesh.

In the winter of 2012 Americans, along with the rest of the world, witnessed with horror the plight of the female garments workers of Tazreen factory, who were locked in the building with no route for escape as the building burned around them. We could not believe that the basic safety precautions were not taken to ensure the basic safety of the lives of these women and that 112 people died in that fire. At the time of the fire this was one of the worst disasters in labor history. We became even more mortified when news reports presented photographic evidence that the clothes for American retailers, clothes that we wear, were made inside the factory.

Unfortunately, a few months later Bangladesh and the world would see a far more dangerous and devastating event. In the spring of 2013, Rana Plaza, a building housing five garment factories, collapsed and resulted in the deaths of 1129 people and injuring 2515 more people. Such a devastating disaster was wholly avoidable. Due to structural weakness a large crack had appeared in the building, which led the other businesses, shops and banks - also housed in the same building - to send their employees home. Yet garment workers were made to stay and continue to produce clothes, which would be sold in American stores like Children’s Place and Wal-Mart.

In America a few groups, along with South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI), have tried to bring awareness to the perilous conditions of workers around the world and specifically the conditions faced by Bangladeshi workers. A student group, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), has compelled many major universities to divest from corporations who employ factories that do not provide basic safety conditions for their workers. The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has been instrumental in not only supporting the USAS campaign but also organizing protests of clothing companies and businesses, which were found to have employed factories with unsafe working conditions such as Tazreen Factory as well as the Rana Plaza building. In the summer of 2013, SASI members have participated in one such protest with ILRF in which signs were raised and chants were shouted and repeated outside a gathering of the fashion industries leading businesses. Then as a group both SASI and the ILRF walked to a local Children’s Place store and delivered a petition to the manager of the store. Afterwards, we had walked inside the store with the images of the victims of the Tazreen fire and Rana plaza building collapse. We meet young children who curiously looked at the images and then took our informational pamphlets so that their parents could read to them more about the stories behind the images. The manager accepted our petition but then told us to leave quietly. Even though we did not see immediate results, it was good to know that we were able to bring some awareness to the plight of Bangladeshi workers.

In the fall of 2013 SASI organized a convergence celebrating the centennial of the formation of the Ghadar Party, a revolutionary organization that emerged in early 20th century among the people who had emigrated from South Asia to the United States but still wanted to be politically involved in South Asia. Ghadar Party wanted to connect the issues facing South Asians to those facing Americans. We called the event a convergence because in our organization we were bringing together people from different South Asian countries and from academic and activist backgrounds with the aim of making critical left oriented connections between the issues faced by the people in the United States with those faced by South Asians. We invited people concerned with labor issues in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other South Asian countries. They informed us that workers’ wages and safety conditions are terrible all across South Asia. Moreover, laws passed by South Asian governments have made it extremely difficult to organize and properly advocate for workers’ safety and better wages. We were also told that in April of 2012, labor leader Aminul Islam had been killed soon after leaving a factory in which he had been negotiating with the management for better working conditions. His body was found behind a dumpster and to this day, no thorough investigation has been conducted as to how this killing happened and who might be responsible for the death of Mr. Islam.

In April of 2014, SASI commemorated the tragedies of the Tazreen factory fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse. We organized the commemoration to take place in two different sections of New York. The first was in Union Square of Manhattan, a central of hub of transport by train. Of the two places chosen for commemoration this area is more open and had more of an opportunity for the more affluent people to take notice of the people who are making their clothes through our display of images of the victims of the two tragedies and our loud chanting. Like the previous protest with the ILRF, who had also provided us with signs and images, plenty of people stopped and looked at the images we had presented and became aware of the tragedy of the Bangladeshi workers and the plight they face. We wanted to make noise to alert the world of what had happened. We invited Bangladesh news organizations to our event in the hopes that people in Bangladesh would also know that Americans had not forgotten what happened only a year before, the most devastating tragedy in labor history. We pointed out that we were only a few blocks away from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which about one hundred years before had produced a horrific tragedy that was very similar to tragedy of Tazreen factory. We reminded people that the Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza Building collapse were not just Bangladeshi tragedies or even labor tragedies but human tragedies. We reminded people that the actions of the business owners of Tazreen and Rana building were both, in fact, criminal. We reminded people that Aminul Islam had been killed two years before and no one had thoroughly investigated the crime. Even in the face of such tragedies we did not want the event to be dour. People recited poetry and we invited people to sing songs. A Bangladeshi-American singer celebrated the life of the laborer by singing the song of “John Henry” in Bangla. With the uplifting feeling of hope we received from such artistic contribution we went to our second location of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York. Jackson Heights is primarily composed of South Asian residents. We gathered for our commemoration in an area called the “Diversity Square”. By the time we reached Jackson Heights, the sun had already set and the weather had become much colder but we still carried on. We placed the images of the Rana plaza victims and information pamphlets around across the square and gathered in a close circle so that heat would not escape. In the center of the circle we laid down a banner in which people could sign their names along with messages of solidarity for the workers who experienced such tragedy. During our time in “Diversity Square” many different people from different backgrounds spoke. We were fortunate to collaborate with the Taxi Workers Alliance as well as Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and to hear their members speak with messages of solidarity and remembrance. “Diversity Square” truly lived up to its name. We not only heard speeches in English and in Bangla but also in Urdu, Hindi, and Spanish. It was so good to know that so many people from all over the world now know the stories of those affected by virulent labor practices and policies.

Even though so many words have been written about the tragedies at Tazreen and Rana Plaza, words cannot convey the full complexity of the horrors faced by laborers in Bangladesh. Yet, there exists intense anti-union and anti-organized labor opinions and sentiments, in Bangladesh as well as in America, which make fighting for fighting for working class interests extremely difficult. The power of the corporations to exploit and oppress workers globally is increasing daily. Mainstream political parties, no matter what they are called, continue to pursue policies to help maximize corporate profits. Efforts in America to organize people and laborers around issues of better working conditions and higher wages have been met essentially with indifference or hostility. So workers and those who are in solidarity with workers do not have very many alternatives but to take to the streets. However, in both Bangladesh and the United States, the sentiment exists that protests essentially mean too much disruption to daily life are potentially violent and could lead to destruction of life and property. We must challenge this sentiment. Sure, protests necessarily disrupt the flow of everyday life but they need not be violent and they are not the source of problem. Non-violent protest may help bring attention to important issues, events and the conditions that have made such protests necessary. In the case of the protests and rallies organized by SASI and other organizations here in solidarity with workers’ struggle in Bangladesh, we sought to argue that the people who make the things we use in our everyday lives should not be forgotten but should be remembered, valued and thanked every time we use one of their products.

Much can be done to bring awareness to plight of workers around the world. People need to know more viscerally how cheaply their clothes and other products are made. People need to know how little people are paid to produce these products. Only by continuing to talk about tragic events and the suffering of workers can we truly move people to do what is right and ensure the safety and well being of workers around the world. Conversations need to take place not only person to person but also in the global media. We need to talk more about the dangers and violence faced by labor leaders for simply trying to make workers lives better. We need to write more about the true working conditions laborers face and how these conditions impact the ability of the workers to sustain their lives on a day-to-day basis. Not only do we need to talk and write about these issues but also we need to amplify the voices of those who are suffering. This can only be done by relentlessly organizing workers and others, who want better lives for all people. This will require us not only to lobby our politicians or write petitions to cooperate bosses but also to take to the streets and shout slogans, read poems and sing songs expounding on the conditions workers face around the world. We must take to the streets and tell the world that people should not die or be ill-treated just so another person can wear a comfortable pair of jeans. We must move together in solidarity across the world decrying the conditions that workers face in American and Bangladesh, if we want to see that our fellow human beings are treated with respect and that they have the ability to live lives are long, healthy, and dignified.