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Do Santa’s elves a favor: Support their labor rights

Holiday shoppers can help ensure their gifts are produced under fair conditions

December 23, 2014 2:00AM ET

Yuletide lore tells us that the clothing and toys that appear under the Christmas tree are made by cheerful elves in Santa’s workshop. While they are likely to be made far away, of course we know that the gifts don’t come from the North Pole.

Wherever they are stationed, Santa’s real-life helpers deserve safe and fair working conditions. And Christmas shoppers have an opportunity to help.

Over the last two years, anti-sweatshop campaigners have focused on the plight of garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia. In the wake of the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2012, which killed 1,100 employees of several garment factories, labor advocates have been pushing for safeguards that would avoid similar tragedies. Similarly, after a series of national strikes by garment workers in Cambodia, European manufacturers have pledged to raise wages. Activists are now calling on U.S. brands to do the same.

In the past two decades, labor rights advocates have helped enact reforms to curtail child labor and improve working conditions in the garment industry. However, there is still a long way to go. 

The need for monitoring

More than a century ago, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City killed 146 garment workers — mostly immigrant women and teens — after owners locked the doors to a workshop. The tragedy brought the horrendous conditions of sweatshop laborers to the attention of American citizens. The public outrage that followed generated important reforms in the United States. As garment manufacturing has moved abroad in search of cheap labor and relaxed safety and environmental regulations, these harmful conditions have unfortunately re-emerged in the global supply chain.

These injustices have been vividly illustrated by stories of factory fires overseas and by the factory collapse in Bangladesh. Nearly two years after that terrible incident in Dhaka, many families of the victims are yet to be compensated for the loss of their wage earners. People outraged by the tragedy are working to create safeguards to prevent such man-made disasters from being repeated. To that end, last year a coalition of international labor organizations, nongovernmental organizations and retailers created the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, aimed at preventing such tragedies. The agreement is legally binding and requires independent safety inspections at factories and public reporting of its results. Where problems are identified, participating companies are required to ensure that repairs are made, provide the funds for their maintenance and guarantee that workers in the affected factories continue to be paid a salary while the building is repaired. The accord covers more than half the Bangladeshi garment industry.

So far, 190 brands from 20 countries across four continents — including Fruit of the Loom, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle and Knights Apparel, a major supplier of college-logo apparel approved by the Collegiate Licensing Company — have signed on to the accord.

Over the past year, Bangladeshi and international agencies overseeing the agreement have revealed the depths of the problems and reinforced global support for fixing them. In October the first inspections since the accord was signed reported safety violations at every single one of the 1,100 factories covered by the agreement. This reinforces the need for a dogged and persistent effort to make the goals of the accord a reality.

Until companies such as Target, Gap, Levi’s and Walmart agree to independent monitoring and regulations with real teeth, they are on the wrong side of this issue.

But the agreement faces resistance from retailers. Instead of working to make the accord more rigorous, comprehensive and effective, many major retailers are promoting a watered-down alternative to create confusion. About 770 garment factories have signed on to this new group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, whose members include Costco, L.L. Bean, Walmart and Target.

Resisting the call for independent investigations, these brands have turned to the public with a simple appeal: “Trust us.” They have adopted pledges of social responsibility without any commitment to workers in case of future failures. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told the U.S. Senate in February, “There is no meaningful difference” between the new initiative and the Accord on Fire and Building safety, and pledges of responsibility “have failed Bangladeshi garment workers in the past and have left behind thousands of dead and injured workers.”

If Europe can, why can’t we?

Bangladesh is not alone in the supply-chain labor violations. Cambodia has been another major garment industry hotspot in recent years. The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, an employer-side trade group, reported 131 worker strikes in 2013 — up from 34 in 2011. Tensions came to a head last December, when a four-month strike at one of Cambodia’s largest factories — supplying brands such as Levi’s, the Gap and H&M — ended with the death of one worker, after police fired live rounds at protesters.

Then on Christmas Eve, leaders of seven garment workers’ unions called a strike to protest the government’s refusal to lift the minimum wage, paralyzing Cambodia’s $5 billion garment sector. On Jan. 3 police again opened fire into crowds of striking workers, killing five; days later they imprisoned 25 union activists.

Another wave of mass demonstrations hit the streets of Phnom Penh earlier this year. In October, in a move seen as a major victory for Cambodian garment workers and their allies, several European brands, including H&M and Zara, pledged a pay increase for garment contracts at supplier factories. David Welsh, director of the Cambodia program at the Solidarity Center, a nonprofit affiliated with the American labor federation, described the decision by European brands as “unprecedented.” Cambodian factory workers are now calling on American brands to follow suit.

Unfortunately, the biggest U.S. brands continue to pay lip service to the need for improving wages and working conditions in Cambodia. Levi’s and Gap have stated that they will pay whatever minimum wage increases are mandated by the Cambodian government — but will do little more on their own. But as the commitment from European brands illustrates, U.S. manufacturers need not wait to address pressing problems for garment workers in foreign countries.

Until companies such as Target, Gap, Levi’s and Walmart agree to independent monitoring and regulations with real teeth, they are on the wrong side of this issue. This holiday season, shoppers can push these retailers in the right direction by talking with local store managers, registering their complaints with customer service and on social media and pledging their support to campaigns by groups like the Worker Rights Consortium, the Maquila Solidarity Network and SweatFree Communities, which are trying to put pressure on these companies.

In a complex global economy, none of us can be expected to know the detailed origins of all our purchases. However, we can engage responsibly with the system by showing our support for people on the front lines who are working to ensure that the gifts under our trees do not come from sweatshops.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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