The Tazreen Fashions garment factory, where 112 workers died in a devastating fire on November 30, 2012. (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)
Survivors of a factory fire in Bangladesh and an armed assault in Nicaragua both called this week for Walmart to crack down on abuses in its global supply chain. Former garment worker Sumi Abedin, who jumped from a third story window to escape Bangladesh’s Tazreen factory, will lead a mock “funeral procession” tonight to the New York City home of Walmart board member Michele Burns. Tomorrow, students and other supporters will converge on the New York and Los Angeles offices of SAE-A, a Walmart contractor accused of fomenting violence against union activists.
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on either case.
Stabbings and Beatings in Nicaragua
“We’re making their clothes, the clothes they’re going to sell,” fired Nicaraguan factory worker Darwing Lopez-Alanez told The Nation in Spanish. “And so they have a role in what goes on inside there.” Lopez-Alanez, the secretary-general of a new union seeking recognition, was one of fifteen union leaders fired at two factories owned and operated by SAE-A, an apparel company based in South Korea.
In a March memo to Walmart and other US brands, the labor monitoring group Workers Rights Consortium wrote that its preliminary investigation “finds that SAE-A brutally violated these workers’ associational rights by directing and paying a mob of more than 300 other workers—while on paid company time—to attack these employees with scissors and metal pipes.”
Lopez-Alanez said that he began organizing with his co-workers in hopes of confronting excessive workload and mistreatment by management. “I had seen it all,” he told The Nation. Because the recognized union in the factory always sided with management, said Lopez-Alanez, he and a group of co-workers began trying to organize a new one.
On March 4, the conflict turned violent. Lopez-Alanez and other fired workers showed up with leaflets outside his factory at 5 AM. “We planned a peaceful protest,” he said. An hour later, as some workers arrived at the factory, Lopez-Alanez and his comrades struck up conversations with them, “telling them that we needed to defend our rights, talking about the mistreatment at the factory that we were working in, the terrible conditions, that everything only seemed OK when a representative from one of the brands came.”
While the fired workers protested outside, witnesses later told the WRC, SAE-A management met with workers inside the factory and promised them bonuses and free food if they would break up the rally. Lopez-Alanez said he heard from co-workers that they were also warned that if the union campaign took hold, all of them could lose their jobs. According to Lopez-Alanez, as hundreds of those workers came back out of the factory, one of the fired workers reiterated over a bullhorn that the protest was peaceful. But “then this group came towards us and started beating us. The private security told us to stop making noise.” “I was scared,” said Lopez-Alanez, who came to the rally with his wife, a fellow fired union activist. “They fractured my leg with a pipe.”