During the holiday shopping season, women’s opinions matter: we account for 80% of consumer spending in the United States. A new report, Our Voices, Our Safety, published this week by my organization, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), describes how women garment workers in Bangladesh - who account for 80% of the apparel industry workforce there - are unable to speak up at all or make their voices heard when they feel unsafe or unfairly treated. This is a problem for apparel workers, most of whom know all too well that several women were hit, pushed or threatened with the loss of a month’s pay when they tried to resist entering the Rana Plaza factories the morning before they collapsed, killing 1,134. For them, safety is about more than putting in a fire escape, it’s about being heard.
Our Voices, Our Safety was a significant undertaking: 70 long-form interviews, 57 of those with garment workers. It builds on a decade of research about the flaws in apparel industry compliance programs (the deadliest tragedies occurred in factories that had been inspected directly by apparel companies or by third-party social compliance auditors). ILRF has previously argued that brands’ voluntary codes of conduct and confidential supply chain monitoring programs have failed to include a meaningful role for workers. What our new research helps illuminate is the extent to which these programs can undermine workers’ ability to speak up at work to ask for safe and decent working conditions, because they fail to address the barriers to workers being able to speak out: the pervasive violence and sexual harassment in their lives and the retaliation workers face when they seek to join together in a union to make their voices heard.
One initiative, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, has sought to overcome the deficiencies common in the multi-billion dollar auditing industry by creating a power-sharing agreement between global brands and unions, thereby setting an example for local employers about how worker organizations can be full partners in industry improvements. The Accord has been challenged, however, by Bangladeshi government and employer representatives for trying to defend workers who have spoken up about fire and safety concerns. They have made clear in the press that they do not see the value in defending workers who speak up about factory safety. Meanwhile, their testimony to the U.S. Trade Representative often highlights the industry’s success in ‘empowering women’ by creating so many jobs for them.
Some workers whom we spoke with said they have already seen fire and building safety improvements in their factories. Most of them, however, said their ongoing fears stem from an inability to communicate productively with management. Women workers especially described detailed examples of how they are surrounded by a web of violence that silences them in their communities, their homes and at work. Workers who try to organize unions tell how they are harassed and threatened at work and then beaten, often brutally, outside of work or in their communities by thugs hired by their employers. This intimidation is then compounded by workers’ desperate need to keep their jobs. While wages increased in late 2013, employers raised production quotas and landlords increased their rent, keeping them working longer hours under more pressure and still financially dependent on the industry - too afraid to speak up or they’ll starve. One woman said: “We have to save our stomach.”
We need policy-makers and apparel brand executives to fully ‘hear’ the voices of these workers, the majority of them women, and to support programs that protect workers’ rights to safe and decent work and to organize and bargain collectively - to sit at the table as equal human beings with management and negotiate solutions for the industry as partners. The entrenched disregard for garment workers’ rights - in Bangladesh and around the world - is fundamentally a women’s rights issue. We cannot secure workers’ rights in the industry as long as the majority female workforce continues to be silenced by the violence in their lives. And we cannot change the status of women in society if we don’t address the repression of their voice at work, starting with the industries where women make up such a large majority of the workforce.