WHO'S RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FIRE THAT KILLED 112 GARMENT WORKERS?
By David Bacon
Progressive Media Project, 11/28/12
The day after Black Friday demonstrations of
workers and supporters in front of hundreds of
Walmart stores across the US., a fire killed 112
workers making clothes for Walmart at the Tazreen
Fashions factory in Bangladesh. This was the
most recent of several such factory fires,
leading to the deaths of another 500 young women.
These fires are industrial homicides. They can
be avoided. The fact that they're not is a
consequence of a production system that places
the profits of multinational clothing
manufacturers and their contractors above the
lives of people. The same profit-at-any-cost
philosophy is leading to growing protest among
workers who sell those garments in U.S. stores
over their own wages and conditions, especially
The Bangladesh fire tells us a lot about the
conditions under which the garments consumers
bought this Black Friday were made. Reports from
the scene say there were no fire escapes.
Several young women jumped from the windows to
get away from the flames, as their sisters did a
century ago in New York City, in the Triangle
Shirtwaist fire. Most Tazreen workers were
trapped inside and burned to death.
Walmart has a grading system for its contractors,
and had put the Tazreen factory on "orange"
status (green for good, yellow for not so good,
orange for a warning, and red for a contractor
whose orders are cut off). Yet the company's
inspectors must have seen that there were no fire
escapes, and kept giving Tazreen orders.
The reason is clear. Wages are 21¢ an hour.
Contractors like Tazreen compete against each
other to get the orders. In a garment factory,
the main way they cut costs is by cutting wages
and expenses like safety.
Workers have been trying to win the right to
organize militant unions to raise those wages and
improve working conditions. If workers had been
successful, they would have had the power to
force the company to build fire escapes and make
the factory safe.
But police in Bangladesh have been putting down
demonstrations by workers in this region for
months. One worker activist, Aminul Islam, was
tortured and killed this year. The government
uses low wages to attract manufacturers like
Walmart. It does not enforce safety regulations,
as the fires clearly show. Walmart then uses the
labor of the women to boost its profits, and has
the same attitude towards their efforts to
organize unions that it does towards the efforts
of its employees in the U.S. Total opposition.
This is not just Bangladesh's problem, however.
The system for garment production worldwide has
nations competing in the same way -- Bangladesh
vs. China, for instance. Factory fires are the
logical result because safety, unions and higher
wages are costs that will make a country
uncompetitive. It's also a U.S. problem.
According to the Economic Policy Institute,
Wal-Mart's trade deficit with China alone cost
200,000 U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2006. Garment
manufacturing in the U.S. has practically
Manufacturers claim that if wages and safety
costs rise, so will the prices of garments in
U.S. stores. Yet if wages of 21¢ an hour were
doubled, it would add only a few pennies to the
cost of even a cheap teeshirt. Walmart customers
on Black Friday spoke out in favor of higher
wages and more rights for Walmart's store
workers. They would support the same for factory
workers in Bangladesh. The obstacle is the
contractor system, competition between
contractors and countries, and a policy of
suppressing unions. The system of self-policing
hailed by Walmart and large manufacturers does
not change this situation. It is a fig leaf.
Instead, countries like Bangladesh and the U.S.
should implement the international accords that,
on paper, guarantee workers the right to organize
unions. Consumers also have power. They can
refuse to purchase garments made in factories
like the one that killed 112 young women, or that
are sold in stores that deny workers the right to
Whether at a sewing machine in Bangladesh or at a
cash register in California, workers have the
right to a safe job, a decent standard of living,
and to organize. We need a system for producing
and selling clothing that reinforces those
rights, not one that works against them.
BLACK FRIDAY PROTESTS HIT WALMART STORES ACROSS THE U.S.
Photoessay by David Bacon
In These Times, web edition
RICHMOND, CA (11/24/12) - On past Black
Fridays, the U.S.'s annual post-Thanksgiving
shopping celebration, Walmart stores have seen
such a crush of shoppers that people have been
trampled trying to get through the doors. On
this Black Friday, however, shoppers saw
protesting workers at over 1000 stores.
Walmart is the world's third-largest
corporation, and its largest retail store chain,
with over two million workers in more than 15
countries. It has a record of low wages, and an
overt policy of fighting any attempt by its
employees to organize unions or other independent
organizations. One study by the University of
California in Berkeley found that wages are so
low that its workers in the state receive
annually $86 million in public benefits for
things like health care and food stamps, paid for
People have criticized the chain's low
wages and unfair competition with local
businesses for years. And for a long time the
company has been able to keep its workers from
joining in. Where it could, Walmart has tried to
give itself a paternalistic,
we're-all-one-big-family face. Where that hasn't
worked, it's resorted to the age-old tactics of
firings and fear.
But Walmart workers are waking up.
They've organized a workers association called
OURWalmart (Organization United for Respect at
Walmart), and supported by a number of unions, a
series of work stoppages. The latest and most
extensive took place on Black Friday.
Richmond, California, was ground zero for
national Black Friday protests, as two
international union presidents and one of the
most pro-labor voices in Congress joined fired
workers and some still employed, and several
hundred of their supporters. At one point,
Service Employees International Union president
Mary Kay Henry and Rev. Carol Been, senior
organizer for Clergy and Laity United for
Economic Justice, led a delegation into the
store, and tried to present its manager with a
petition demanding the rehire of fired workers,
and respect for their right to freedom of
expression and organization. The manager refused
to accept it.
Meanwhile, fired workers themselves
angrily confronted Walmart officials, supported
by a handful of those who were still employed,
and had clocked out in order to participate in
the protest. "I was fired because I protested
the racist remarks of a store manager," declared
Misty Tanner. According to SEIU, when an
African-American associate used a rope to move
merchandise, the manager, Mr. VanRiper said,
"Leave it up to me, I'd put that rope around your
neck." Subsequently, when a Walmart worker was
speaking with members of the news media, Mr.
VanRiper threatened to run her over with his car.
Tanner worked for four years at the
Richmond store that was the object of the
demonstration, most recently on a night crew
doing renovations. She says she was suddenly
told that there was no more work for her, despite
the fact that renovations continued afterwards.
Managers refused to comment on her case, or make
any other statement.
The Richmond protest was organized by OUR
Walmart, and the group's green teeshirts were
omnipresent in the crowd. While it is supported
by the United Food and Commerical Workers and
other unions, it is an autonomous workers'
association, according to the Walmart workers
themselves. In the days prior to Black Friday,
Walmart filed charges with the National Labor
Relations Board, alleging that UFCW and Walmart
were organizationally tied, and that the union
had violated the law by conducting recognition
strikes for longer than thirty days without
filing for an NLRB representation election.
"This just shows the lack of respect
Walmart has for us," Tanner said. "We're not
organizing a union, we're demanding respect from
the company and an end to the way they violate
our rights. OUR Walmart is an organization of
Walmart's NLRB complaint, calling the
work stoppages illegal, seemed an effort to head
off worker participation in the protests, timed
to appeal to customers on the single biggest
shopping day of the year. Big retailers like
Walmart rely on the day after Thanksgiving to
kick off the holiday shopping frenzy and
guarantee the year's profits, putting their
operations into the black, hence the name. In
response, OUR Walmart organizers said protests
took place at over 1000 stores in 46 states.
Bill Simon, Walmart's US president and
chief executive officer, told the British daily
The Guardian that "only 26 protests occurred at
stores last night [the evening before Black
Friday] and many of them did not include any
Walmart associates. We had very safe and
successful Black Friday events at our stores
across the country and heard overwhelmingly
positive feedback from our customers," he said.
He might not have heard from Richmond managers,
however, since that store was almost empty for
hours, and many customers turned away after
associates outside explained why they were there.
U.S. Congressman George Miller, who
sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act labor
reform bill in the last few sessions of Congress,
told workers in the store parking lot that the
Richmond community, which he represents, would
rise to their defense. "We won't let any
employer punish workers for trying to organize,"
he said, "especially when they are calling for a
decent standard of living, something all workers
Henry responded to the Walmart unfair
labor practice charge by asking, "Do you know
what is an unfair labor practice?" She answered
her own question: "Unfair labor is working full
time and living in poverty. Unfair labor is
seeing your health care premiums skyrocket year
after year. Unfair labor is being denied the
hours needed to support your family. Unfair labor
is being punished for exercising your freedom of
speech and association. Walmart workers know what
unfair labor is-because they endure it every
Pickets outside the Richmond, CA Walmart store.
Community supporters hold placards anouncing that
the actions of Walmart workers in stopping work
constitute a "ULP Strike" -- that is, a protest
over Walmart's illegal retaliation against
workers for their collective activity in OUR
Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and
Commercial Workers, speaks at the rally outside
Rev. Carol Been and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry
lead a delegation into the store, to present a
petition calling on Walmart to stop firing
workers and to respect their rights.
Walmart associates stand inside the entrance to
the store, demanding a meeting with store
managers and the rehiring of those fired for
exercising their right to organize.
Raymond Bravo (r), an associate still employed in
the Richmond store, tells a store manager that
Walmart should rehire the workers it has fired.
Workers walk out of the store entrance after
making their demand that Walmart rehire those who
have been fired.
Congressman George Miller (l) talks with SEIU
President Mary Kay Henry (r) and UFCW President
Joe Hansen (c).
The Liberation Brass Orchestra plays outside the
Richmond store during the protest.
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry holds a sign
supporting the desire of Walmart workers and
Richmond residents for better wages and benefits
at the retail chain.
Coming in 2013 from Beacon Press:
The Right to Stay Home: Ending Forced Migration
and the Criminalization of Immigrants
Nationwide Walmart Workers' Strike Defies Retail
Giant's Anti-Union Intimidation Tactics
Interview with David Bacon, by Scott Harris,
Between the Lines radio newsmagazine
See also Illegal People -- How Globalization
Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants
(Beacon Press, 2008)
Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008
See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)
See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the
U.S./Mexico Border (University of California,
Entrevista de David Bacon con activistas de #yosoy132 en UNAM
Interview of David Bacon by activists of #yosoy132 at UNAM (in Spanish)
Two lectures on the political economy of migration by David Bacon
For more articles and images, see http://dbacon.igc.org
David Bacon, Photographs and Stories
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