Debate: workers, unions and Fashion Revolution Day

[Part of Fashion Revolution Day’s twitter Q&A with the General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union. Click here for more]

In the wake of worldwide actions and news stories on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, a number of reviews of how the fashion industry has(n’t) changed have been published. On this blog, we’ve tried to bring together perspectives from all of the stakeholders in (un)ethical fashion: including factory workers, unions, NGOs, fashion companies, auditors, journalists, filmmakers, academics and consumers.

Given its global trending on twitter on 24 April 2014, the coalition of people who named the anniversary Fashion Revolution Day have been congratulated for raising awareness and putting unprecedented pressure on fashion corporations. But the more constructively critical reviews are the ones that the movement will learn most from.

One highlighted the importance of union involvement in post-Rana Plaza campaigning. Many young people are wary of unions, particularly because of the way that their work and their leaders are discussed in the popular press. But it’s impossible to imagine a more ethical fashion industry without them. This is the argument:

… Perhaps because they are working in the industry — albeit in its “ethical fashion” niche — FRD give[s] garment manufacturers far too much credit for being moral. “…We recognize that being transparent is difficult. As a business, you might fear transparency because you don’t want it to jeopardize your competitiveness, or because you might not be able to answer workers or suppliers if questions are asked, or because it might uncover issues you don’t know how to resolve.” The fact is that companies know full well that their huge profits come from low wages, and turn a blind eye to practices in the factories they sub-contract to.

FRD are correct, however, that consumer pressure has been important in, for example, helping to achieve the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which makes independent safety inspections of 2,000 factories compulsory. More than 150 UK and 14 US brands have signed the Accord, which — on paper, at least — covers two million of Bangladesh’s estimated four million garment workers. But it takes an awful lot of consumer pressure to make the brands move.

Crucially, most important in forcing change was the action taken by Bangladeshi garment workers themselves, when they mounted a wave of protests and strikes in the wake of Rana Plaza. In the FRD set-up there is little recognition of the importance of workers organising. The IndustriALL Twitter Q&A seems to have been exceptional on the day. There were other anniversary protests. The Clean Clothes Campaign supports “the empowerment of workers in the global garment and sportswear industries”. Its UK affiliate, Labour Behind the Label, organised a “Pay Up” protest on Oxford Street, where Amirul Haque Amin, president of Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers’ Federation, spoke.

If FRD brings more people into contact with organisations such as Labour Behind the Label, or helps them to understand the importance of workers organising, it will have been worthwhile. …

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