What can we do about it? That question came to almost disturb me after public screenings of a film documentary we made a few years ago called Race to the Bottom , which sought to show why so many mostly women workers were burned to death in factory fires in the Bangladeshi garment industry.
People were very moved by what they had seen on screen and really wanted to so something. But the answer we gave to that question never seemed to impress anyone because we could not advocate consumer boycotts, and for a very good reason – the women garment workers we featured desperately needed these jobs and told us bluntly not to advocate such action because it did more harm than good.
Indeed, on the first day of filming in Dhaka I remember trade union leader Nasma Aktor telling us if the women lost these jobs they had only two options: virtual slavery in domestic service or the sex industry. Of course they would rather starve than contemplate the latter but without any social safety net they were extremely vulnerable.
It is easy to see why companies such as Walmart and Irish-based Primark, a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, get away with sourcing garments from Bangladesh without having to worry about any serious adverse bottom-line reaction in the US or Europe given that boycotts are off the table.
Or is there a form of boycott that would make these companies think twice about fulfilling their obligations to some of the world’s worst paid and most vulnerable workers, and help rather than hurt these exceptionally hard working women?
These questions have again come to the fore in light of the collapse last week of the illegally constructed, eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh while thousands of people were working inside in garment factories that supply leading western brands.
Shareholders in the major international retailers and big brands are ultimately the real beneficiaries of the gross exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh. And in that context all of us to a greater or lesser degree if we have any kind of pension scheme are probably culpable. Because these household names, or “iconic brands”, are in almost every pension portfolio on the planet.
Even more significantly, the incredible bonuses that the chief executives and top management of these companies are linked to the share price of these businesses to a greater or lesser degree.
It seems clear that the most effective action we can perhaps undertake is as direct and indirect shareholders in these major international companies, unless they move proactively to improve safety to stop the deaths in the sweat shops as well as improving wages and conditions.
In other words, immediately move to get our pension fund managers to take steps to divest shares in the Walmarts of this world unless they give verifiable undertakings to grant workers their basic human rights.
That idea came to me reading a Reuters background piece about the Rana Plaza catastrophe: “Analysis: Bangladesh still works for retailers, despite disasters.” The report said Walmart shareholders had voted 50 to 1 to reject a proposal to require suppliers to report annually on safety issues at their factories.
If churches, universities and charitable trusts with funds under management gave instructions that until companies such as Walmart became proactive in protecting the mostly women workers making their garments, and helped to ensure their basic human rights are respected, that they too would sell their shares – would that inevitably change the company’s policy?
Closer to home Primark is headquartered in Ireland and it sourced goods from the Rana Plaza complex. And while it is good to see that the factory owners, government inspectors and other locals who betrayed the garment workers have been arrested, is it right that Primark should be absolved of all responsibility?
We must welcome Primark’s decision to pay compensation to victims of the collapse and their families, but it beggars belief that the company continues to resist signing the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which would prevent such tragedies in future.
The Clean Clothes Campaign has a petition seeking to pressure the company to do so.
Primark says it has signed up to an equivalent action plan on fire safety endorsed by the Ethical Trading Initiative, a UK-based group of which it is a member. But if one major pension fund with a significant shareholding in Associated British Foods, Primark’s owner, announced that it would divest its shares unless ABF signed the fire and building safety agreement, would the company have a change of heart and sign up to it?
What if all of the churches, charities and even trade union pension funds with shares in ABF took similar action, would Primark still resist such a potentially life-saving measure?
Ronan Tynan is co-founder of Esperanza Productions. He is currently making Will the Race to the Bottom Ever End? and his latest film documentary with Anne Daly, Mothers against the Odds , will be screened at the Fingal Film Festival on May 10th.