The coronavirus will likely strike the Global South more viciously than it is currently hitting the United States and other well-off nations. The pandemic has the potential to devastate poorer nations with weak health care systems. But the drop in demand from the richer nations is already harming the economies of countries in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia that depend on exports.
In Bangladesh, for example, the ready-made garment industry normally employs 4 million people to produce clothing for brands in Europe and the United States. Garments account for 84 percent of the nation’s $40 billion a year export sector. The coronavirus has yet to land in full force, but the global economic crisis caused by the pandemic is causing desperation—and big clothing importers in the US and Europe like Gap and Walmart share the blame.
Kalpona Akter, 44 years old, is one of the most prominent union leaders in the country, and the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. I got to know her back in 2013, when I visited Dhaka to report on the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, when a factory building collapsed, killing 1,129 workers. Akter left school at age 12 to work in a garment factory, and was elected president of her local union at 15. She is courageous and revered by the young workers, 80 percent of whom are women.
James North: The press is is reporting that laid-off garment workers in Bangladesh are staging big demonstrations. One report said 20,000 people marched on April 12. What is happening?
Kalpona Akter: The workers are marching because they didn’t get paid their wages for last month. Once the coronavirus crisis hit, the international brands that import from Bangladesh canceled their orders, even for clothing that was already sewn. So the local factory owners say that because they haven’t gotten paid, they can’t pay their workers. During the month, our workers get their groceries from the stores, and they pay the stores back at the end of the month. But somewhere around 70 percent of our workers have not been paid yet. They also owe on their leases where they rent.
JN: Bangladesh is supposed to be under a lockdown. Aren’t the garment workers risking their health by demonstrating together in the streets?
KA: Absolutely. But they know they may die anyway if they don’t get paid.
JN: During my visit to Bangladesh, I remember meeting garment workers who were living in crowded quarters. How can people stay quarantined under such conditions, maintaining what we here in America are calling social distancing?
KA: It is very crowded. One room will have three to four people living there. Twenty families will share four cooking burners, two toilets, and one or two showers. Running water is also a problem. In some places you have to take your buckets to shared water faucets only between certain hours.
JN: But despite these risks, you in the union movement still called for the garment factories to close?
KA: Absolutely, that was a top priority demand. In the factories, workers sit at sewing machines with just a one-foot gap between them. Thousands of people are working together in the same building. You could have a situation where two workers infect an entire factory of 5,000. And Bangladesh has a shortage of medical facilities, which makes our country one of the most vulnerable. We have a broken health system. It would be a nightmare for workers to try and get access to health care or a hospital. So that’s why we called for the factories to be locked down.
JN: Please explain how the big importing brands acted once the crisis started.
KA: At first, all of the brands canceled their orders. This was not just a few million dollars, but nearly $3 billion. None of the brands did the right thing. But then we in the union movement started to name and shame them globally. So some of them did say they would at least pay for the clothing that our workers had already finished.
The Worker Rights Consortium [a solidarity organization, based in the United States] does have a website where you can check to see which brands have agreed to pay for orders that are complete or were already in production, and which are not. [As of April 20, H&M, Target, and PVH, (which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) were paying. Gap, JCPenney, Walmart. and Urban Outfitters were not.]
JN: You also warned publicly that you will carry out a global campaign against the big importers that continue refusing to pay.
KA: Yes. We may start working with the Avaaz campaign [an online activist network] to pursue the other brands to do the right thing.
JN: When I visited you back in 2013, the union movement in Bangladesh had started to make significant progress. What has happened since then?
KA: The owners fought back, and our workers are still struggling to organize. There were two big crackdowns, in 2016 and 2018. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, including trained union leaders; they got fired and blacklisted.
JN: What about workplace safety? I know that pressure from both Bangladeshi unionists and international solidarity did bring about improvements after the Rana Plaza disaster.
KA: I am very worried. The Bangladesh Accord ends on June 1 this year. [The Accord was an agreement among some brands and labor unions that has led to 30,000 safety inspections in 1,000 factories, and fixed 90 percent of the violations found.] Once the Accord expires, I am worried about safety.
JN: Finally, here’s the same question I asked you back in 2013. People here in America who learn about how the global brands and local owners mistreat Bangladeshi workers may decide that they should stop buying anything with the “Made in Bangladesh” label. What do you say to them?
KA: I have a very strong message to such people: No boycott. Not buying our clothing is not the solution. That will mean we won’t have jobs. We need these 4 million jobs. But we also need the big brands to be accountable, to pay enough to ensure the workers get a living wage, to make sure the factories are safer for the workers, and to give workers a chance to raise their voices and practice their union rights. We need jobs, but we want them with dignity.