Nafisa Tanjeem

The contemporary global supply chains have taken the art of exploiting labour to serve the purpose of the elites of both the center and the periphery of the global capitalist system to a whole new level.

These supply chains are shaped by colonial labour practices and inherently unequal distribution of power – a phenomenon which scholars have described as supply chain capitalism. Supply chain capitalism promotes a  new kind of global imperialism since capitalist production is no longer restricted within national economies. Instead, profit-driven production is now primarily governed by transnational corporations that can freely travel across borders and take the supply chain to where the cheapest labour is available. States and governments in the Global South, where feminized and racialized labour is abundant, have opened their borders to transnational corporations in the name of inviting foreign direct investments, which also benefited the ruling and elite classes of these countries. Thus, a nation-state-based conceptualization of imperialism and how to resist it are inadequate to critically reflect on and subvert the global reach and impact of supply chain capitalism.

Labour rights activists have a long history of going beyond state-centric organizing and collaborating across borders to resist supply chain capitalism. While transnational solidarity movements have been able to build coordinated resistance against powerful corporations and provide logistical support to grassroots organizing initiatives, the solidarity networks themselves are not necessarily some idealistic and egalitarian playground for workers and activists. They entail their own imperialist hierarchies and colonial practices and often do little to challenge supply chain capitalism in its entirety. Transnational solidarity building in the Bangladeshi garment labour organizing efforts offers a classic example of the way solidarity building initiatives can inadvertently rely on imperialist assumptions and promote colonial practices even when they try to build solidarity with grassroots labour organizers.

A Brief Timeline of Transnational Garment Labour Organizing in Bangladesh

Transnational solidarity building has involved various modes of transnational governance struggles, where transnational actors and institutions shared power and made decisions about workplace conditions and labour rights of Bangladeshi garment workers. The history of transnational governance in the Bangladeshi garment industry can be traced back to the 1990s consumers’ campaign in the United States to boycott “Made in Bangladesh” products for using child labour. Interestingly, in this campaign, U.S.-based labour unions and labour NGOs collaborated with U.S. conservative and protectionist actors that were more worried about protecting jobs in the U.S. than protecting the interests of children in Bangladesh. The campaign resulted in Senator Tom Harkin’s Deterrence of 1993, which prohibited the importation of goods produced by child labour to the United States. Consequently, thousands of child workers lost their jobs at garment factories in Bangladesh.

“…boycotting “Made in Bangladesh” products for using child labour… perpetuated imperialist savior tropes and… did not consider the unique scenario in Bangladesh.”

Many scholars and activists criticized this campaign for perpetuating imperialist savior tropes since the North American consumers and labour rights activists did not consider the unique scenario in Bangladesh, where sending kids to work in factories was a survival mechanism for many working-class families. The transnational consumer boycott campaign also did not consider the various roles played by global brands, the U.S. government, or U.S. protectionist trade policy advocates who either had a direct or indirect role in exploiting child labour in Bangladesh or benefited from the boycott movement. Instead, it framed Bangladesh as the “site of the problem” and tried to solve the problem by promoting “Made in U.S.A” products as if commodities produced in the United States were free from the exploitation of workers.

The idea of a “social clause,” which advocated enforcing global labour standards through international trade agreements, started to gain traction in the mid-1990s, even though scholars expressed concerns that such propositions focused on one industry at a time leaving the vast informal economic sector out of their purview. The proponents of social clauses failed to recognize that even in its most dire situation, the garment sector still remained one of the most viable employment options for many local workers whose other choices involved even more deplorable working conditions. In later years, there was a proliferation of corporate codes of conduct that merely appeared as public relations strategies of big multinational corporations. These codes of conduct mainly focused on the “welfare” question of workers and did not promote collective bargaining or supporting labour organizing platforms and rights.

The Accord campaign is another example of Bangladeshi garment workers’ complicated relationship with transnational organizing efforts. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, popularly known as “the Accord,” came into play after the collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-storied commercial building in Savar, Dhaka, housing five garment factories, on 24 April 2013; the collapse killed more than 1135 workers and injured more than 2500 workers. The Accord was a five-year-long legally binding agreement between more than 200 global brands and Bangladeshi and global trade unions and was later extended for three more years. It covered more than 1600 factories, offered independent inspection programs, and publicly disclosed inspection reports and corrective action plans. The campaign was widely championed in North America and Europe, with some labour rights proponents describing it as a “major breakthrough” and a “game changer.” It was viewed as a much better initiative than the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety, commonly known as “the Alliance.” The Alliance was more of a commitment and not a legally binding agreement. In contrast to the Accord, the Alliance consisted of 29 U.S.-based corporations opting for a corporate code of conduct-like commitment that they unilaterally proposed and signed without significant input from Bangladeshi garment workers and labour organizers. U.S.-based labour activist campaigns heavily criticized the Alliance because it offered the corporations an opportunity to sidestep the legally binding nature of the Accord.

However, Bangladesh-based grassroots labour rights groups, such as Bangladesh Garment Workers Unity Forum and Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity, were critical of not just the Alliance but also the Accord. They indicated how the Accord campaign closed factories without securing alternative employment opportunities for thousands of workers, even when there was a requirement on paper to help workers find jobs. Others pointed out that both the Accord and the Alliance offered private governance mechanisms, which promoted technocratic understanding of building, electrical, and fire safety while ignoring other gendered and classed nature of safety, such as job security or livable wage or safety from sexual harassment. These mechanisms did not create new legal rights for workers. They also left out 3,000 subcontracting factories that employed half of the Bangladeshi garment workers and sometimes operated under much more hazardous conditions than the 2,300 factories that were covered by the Accord and the Alliance. Grassroots labour rights organizers expressed concerns that the Accord campaign focused exclusively on the testimony of Bangladeshi labour organizers who were connected with and supported by Europe and U.S.-based labour organizations as opposed to some other non-celebrity grassroots organizers who did not speak fluent English and chose to operate outside of the NGO-model and donor-funded labour organizing.

From Triangle to Tazreen: Solidarity or Colonial Trope?

During the Accord campaign, the U.S. labour rights groups widely drew parallels between the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York and the 2012 Tazreen factory fire in Ashulia, Bangladesh. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire claimed the lives of 145 workers – most of whom were young immigrant women. The factory owner kept the doors locked to prevent theft, which obstructed workers from escaping the fire. Many workers jumped from the 9th, 10th, and 11th floors of the building to escape and either died or got seriously injured. The tragedy gained widespread attention from labour rights advocates and the government, resulting in laws and regulations to improve working conditions. The Tazreen factory fire killed at least 112 workers. More than 200 workers got injured as they tried to jump off the nine-storied building, which was locked to prevent theft, in the absence of emergency exits. The apparent similarities between the two events on two different continents, separated by almost a century, attracted the U.S. labour rights activists’ attention. On U.S. college campuses, following the Rana Plaza collapse, student activist groups, such as United States Against Sweatshops (USAS), screened a documentary during their “Garment Worker Solidarity” campaign, which featured parallels between the Triangle Shirtwaist and the Tazreen factory fires. USAS used this parallel to urge students to participate in the Accord campaign by putting pressure on their university administration to cut ties with brand partners supplying college apparel and other college gear that did not sign the Accord.

Robin Berson, a U.S.-based artist, historian, and quilter, made two 10-by-7-foot memorial quilts – one for each tragedy. Both the quilts were displayed together at various exhibitions across the United States. The Triangle memorial quilt featured photos of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire victims, a notice for a memorial march, and pro-union quotes. The Bangladesh garment workers’ memorial quilt featured photos of dead and missing workers who worked at the Rana Plaza, as well as three Bangladeshi labour rights activists – Kalpona Akter, Taslima Akhter, and Aminul Islam.

Interestingly, the labour organizing politics and strategies of Taslima Akhter vary significantly from that of Kalpona Akter and Aminul Islam. For example, Taslima Akhter and her organization Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity mostly rely on membership contributions and donations from their individual grassroots political allies. They are very critical of the NGOization of the labour movement in Bangladesh since the donor-funded NGO model often prioritizes the donors’ short-term agenda, ignoring the long-term grounded needs and realities of garment workers. Kalpona Akter’s organization Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) is a registered NGO. It runs a series of projects funded by international organizations, such as Laudes Foundation, International Labour Rights Forum, Clean Clothes Campaign, Solidarity Center, FEMNET, etc. BCWS avoids corporate funding but accepts funding from international labour and human rights organizations and international foundations. BCWS was a strong proponent of and participant in the Accord campaign, whereas Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity was intensely skeptical about the prospect of this campaign. BCWS closely works with various international solidarity campaigns to target global brands, whereas Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity heavily focuses on challenging the Bangladeshi state, Bangladeshi garment factory owners, local labour laws and policies, and minimum wage structures. In this way, BCWS and Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity sometimes contrast and sometimes complement each other as they target different clusters of actors in the global supply chain. These nuances get lost when the Bangladesh garment workers’ memorial quilt clustered all local, Bangladesh-based organizing initiatives together, making it difficult to recognize their distinct roles and differences from each other.

The Tazreen Fashion fire killed 112 garment workers and injured more than 200 at the Ashulia, Dhaka factory in November 2012. Image: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Berson calls the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza collapse an “exported tragedy,” implying that labour suppression had traveled from the United States to “today’s sweatshops,” such as Bangladesh. Legislative reforms and labour organizing after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire resulted in decent wages, strong collective bargaining, and safety regulations in the United States by the 1950s. As a result, brands and retailers moved production from the United States to countries such as Bangladesh, where they could still capitalize on and exploit racialized and feminized labour in unregulated workplaces. From this perspective, calling the Rana Plaza collapse an “exported tragedy” makes sense. Scott Nova, the Executive Director of Worker Rights Consortium, and Christopher Wegemer, a scholar of political economy and civic engagement, support Berson’s view, pointing out, “Leading Western apparel brands and retailers have thus accomplished a perverse form of time travel: they have re-created 1911 working conditions for millions of twenty-first-century garment workers.”

“…brands and retailers moved production from the US to countries like Bangladesh, where they could capitalize on and exploit racialized and feminized labour…”

However, transnational feminist scholar Dina Siddiqi argues that it is “counterproductive, if not dangerous,” to equate the Tazreen fire with the Triangle Shirtwaist fire despite visual and factual similarities. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was more of a “domestic localized” process, as Siddiqi describes it, that was limited within the national border. It occurred against the backdrop of a socialist radicalism that inspired ongoing grassroots political and labour organizing in the United States. The question of the priority of labour vs. capital was the focus of national as well as international debates at that time. Moreover, the global supply chain was not as “global” and complicated as it is in present days, and it used to be restricted within the national border in most of the cases.

The contemporary global garment supply chain involves complex and multi-layered transnational corporate as well as activist actors. The giant multinational corporations now cross international borders frequently to find the cheapest labour available. Buying houses, local factory owners, subcontractors, and many other directly and indirectly involved actors and institutions run business with global brands, taking the complexity of the global supply chain to an unprecedented level. Finding a single responsible actor for ensuring labour rights is impossible these days, given that all the actors embedded in the supply chain affect the working conditions of garment workers in different capacities. There are also many local and transnational activist groups and organizations that challenge the exploitation perpetuated by global brands, states, local factory owners, and, most importantly, what Siddiqi describes as supply chain capitalism, in myriad ways.

The complexity of today’s scenario is erased in the oversimplified comparison between the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the Tazreen fire. Moreover, the parallel generates an orientalist, linear, and evolutionary view, suggesting that Bangladesh is still living the economic and social justice past of the United States. Therefore, describing the Tazreen fire as an “exported tragedy,” a phrase used by the U.S.-based artist and activist Robin Berson, as well as the widespread tendency to equate the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire with the Tazreen factory fire can inadvertently suggest an imperialist assumption that the United States has moved beyond the era of labour suppression, ignoring gendered, racialized, and classed labour exploitation that still happens within the geographical border of the United States.

The Construction of Bangladesh as a Lab to Experiment with Solidarity

In 2015, Robert J.S. Ross, a Sociology Professor at Clark University, published an article titled “Bringing Labour Rights back to Bangladesh” that examines the achievements of the Accord campaign and describes the campaign as a “groundbreaking accord.” While well-intentioned, Ross’s evocative phrase “bringing labour rights back to Bangladesh” unfortunately promotes a singular universal genealogy of labour history written from a panoptical privileged Euro-American point of view. Such scholarly expressions from the Global North position Bangladesh in what Anne McClintock describes as an “anachronistic space,” which situates colonized subjects in an archaic space outside the purview of the historical time of modernity and negates any existing labour rights in Bangladesh.

This situation further rationalizes European and U.S.-based top-down labour rights interventions in Bangladesh and justifies so-called “groundbreaking” interventions, such as the Accord, while ignoring the country’s rich legacy of grassroots labour resistance. For example, in 2006, Bangladeshi garment workers from around 4000 factories organized mass demonstrations and an unprecedented wildcat strike to demand back wages and higher minimum wages, an end to police violence against workers and state suppression of the movement, release of arrested workers, weekly time off, and overtime payment. The protesting workers were brutally attacked by police, which motivated more workers to participate in the protests. In 2010, workers took over the streets to decry the newly announced minimum wage by the government, which many workers considered inadequate and unable to meet the rising living costs. Such evidence of local resistance was rarely acknowledged in the Western celebratory narratives around the Accord campaign; these local organizing initiatives seldom received words and acts of solidarity from Europe- and U.S.-based labour organizers.

In his article, Ross further stated, “Two years after the 24 April, 2013, collapse of the Rana Plaza building, Bangladesh has become a laboratory to test whether pressure from world-wide labour unions and NGOs in support of local unions and labour activists can improve life in the world’s sweatshops” [emphasis added]. The framing of Bangladesh as a “laboratory” to test whether North American and European labour rights organizations can put pressure to improve working conditions of garment workers in collaboration with local labour rights groups raises critical concerns. The use of the Global South to test hypotheses of the Global North is not a particularly new phenomenon. Bangladesh has widely been used as a test case for various Euro-American experimental projects. Michelle Murphy traces the history of what she calls “experimental exuberance” in Bangladesh as the country turned into a global node for postcolonial and neoliberal experimental practices. The country’s long history of colonization by the British and Pakistani rulers and postcolonial capitalist-modernist projects resulted in a series of gendered and racialized experimentation involving family planning, population control, immunization, micro-loans, structural adjustment policies, NGOization, and so on.

Drawing on Murphy’s critique of experimental exuberance in Bangladesh, I argue that various transnational governance structures, such as the 1990s transnational boycott movement or the post-Rana Plaza Accord and Alliance, are apparently aimed at improving working conditions through building solidarity between local and global actors. However, this solidarity is, first of all, experimental, given that Bangladesh has been historically used as a laboratory to test new ideas and various hypotheses about improving working conditions through transnational solidarity networks without a grounded understanding of the complex realities and priorities of Bangladeshi garment workers. The initiatives were often run based on assumptions that were detached from local organizing initiatives. Second, these solidarity building initiatives designed their solidarity experiments in their own ways. Although some of these campaigns claimed that they worked in collaboration with Bangladeshi labour organizers and workers and did not replicate a top-down relationship, they selectively chose their local allies that were already embedded in transnational funding networks and fluent in the language that appealed to North American consumers and labour rights activists. They did not collaborate with local dissident grassroots organizing initiatives that rejected the conventional NGOized fund-driven labour organizing model. Building transnational solidarity became next to impossible outside the nonprofit-industrial complex that now dominates social justice organizing in  Bangladesh. Third, these initiatives legitimized continuing interventions by the U.S. and European human and labour rights forces in the Bangladeshi labour organizing landscape.

“Bangladesh has been a laboratory to test new ideas and various hypotheses… without a grounded understanding of the complex realities and priorities of Bangladeshi garment workers. ”

In this way, in the absence of democratic decision-making about organizing strategies and holistic participation of dissident local organizers, transnational labour solidarity building turned into an experimental project that relied on selective practices of collaboration, resulting in the prioritization of privileged local actors while ignoring the ones that did not have the language, funds, or means to cross transnational borders. Meaningful transnational solidarity building between workers and labour rights activists in the Global South and the Global North is instrumental in challenging exploitative practices imposed not only by individual factory owners or states or global brands but by supply chain capitalism. This is the only way of moving beyond the historical trend of targeting one actor at a time without recognizing how interconnected, complex, and multi-layered actors created and sustained exploitative working conditions through various nodes of the apparel supply chain. It is, therefore, essential to ensure an egalitarian relationship within transnational solidarity networks, which can recognize and subvert their own inherent power hierarchies and selective and experimental nature of solidarity and pose a genuine challenge against supply chain capitalism.

Nafisa Tanjeem (she/her) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Worcester State University in Massachusetts, United States. Her research and teaching interests include transnational, postcolonial, and decolonial feminisms; critical race theory; globalization and feminist politics; and transnational social justice movements with a specific focus on the United States and South Asia. To learn more about her work, please check ntanjeem.org.

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