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Vol. 76/No. 47      December 24, 2012

Factory fires in S. Asia show
need for union in safety fight
(feature article)
Recent factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan have put the spotlight on working conditions in the centers of world garment production, as well as the need for labor unions that can fight to wrest higher wages and safety concessions.

The Militant addressed this question in an editorial two weeks ago following the fire that killed 120 workers at the Tazreen Fashions factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh: “Only workers themselves have an interest in safe working conditions. Only their organization and use of union power—including the ability to shut down production—can enforce it.

“Safety inspectors, whether from capitalist government agencies or from so-called nonprofit NGOs … end up serving as cover for the bosses unless and until the fighting union of workers is brought to bear.”

As it turns out, the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan, was certified as safe by a highly regarded nonprofit organization based in New York just a couple of weeks before Sept. 11 when 289 workers there were killed in a fire.

Survivors reported that plant managers locked the doors to save the company’s stockpiles of jeans. Windows were iron grilled. At least 65 workers were injured from jumping out of windows on the upper floors of the four-story building.

For the past 15 years retail giants like Walmart and Carrefour have created numerous factory inspection systems, said to monitor safety in the plants where their products are produced. Ali Enterprises received a SA8000 certificate Aug. 20 under the auspices of Social Accountability International, saying it ran a model business. The SA8000 certifies factories in relation to eight areas, including health and safety, wages, working hours and child labor.

In a Dec. 7 article, the New York Times characterized Social Accountability International as “a respected, nonprofit organization based in New York.” It receives funding from retail giants like GAP, Gucci and H&M, in addition to labor unions, governments, foundations and NGOs. It has certified 3,083 factories in 66 countries.

“The certificates are fake, they don’t follow them anyway,” Nasir Mansoor said in a phone interview from Karachi. “Ali Enterprises got a clean sheet one month before the fire. That organization has certified 100 plants in Pakistan.”

Mansoor is the deputy secretary general of the National Trade Union Federation. He says factory owners—especially in the export industry in textile, garment, shoe and leather—use the international certification to skirt official labor regulations.

“To guarantee workers’ safety and working conditions you need unions in the plants,” he said. “But to form a union you must prove that you are employed by the company. And 97 percent of all workers in the industry don’t have contracts with the employer.”

Mansoor said the Pakistani government is one of the financial contributors to Social Accountability International. “The government doesn’t care about the workers or the labor laws. It’s more interested in getting a foreign buyer to the companies here.”
Related articles:
Illinois miner tells story of fight for safety on job
S. African farmworkers’ strikes end, but wages fight is not over
Tunisian unions strike, answer attacks from pro-gov’t Islamists
Bosses ‘didn’t want union,’ close mine after worker killed  
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