On the One-Year Anniversary of the Bangladesh Factory Collapse
One year ago, more than 1,100 people died needlessly. More than 2,500 other people were injured, a great many very seriously.
Why did these things happen? Was it a freak and unforeseeable accident that couldn’t be avoided? Was it an isolated incident that promises never to happen again? Was it the sort of accident against which we have safeguards, but for which one minor oversight had tragic consequences?
No, none of these things are true.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh was predictable, preventable, and wholly prejudicial. Put bluntly: garment factory workers in Bangladesh died on April 24, 2013 because we like cheap clothing and the companies who sell that clothing don’t really care about the welfare of the people who make it.
Of course, you never would have known the callous calculation in which these companies had engaged when this story broke. As pictures of the collapsed building and the bodies of workers in the rubble started to make their way around the Internet and into newspapers, shock, awe, and remorse were the only expressions we heard uttered.
Every CEO involved was “devastated” at the loss of life. They were “overwhelmed” by the scale of what had happened. And they “vowed” to do right by the impacted families and Bangladesh’s entire garment industry.
Never mind the fact that those workers had expressed grave concern over massive cracks that had appeared in the building just one day earlier. Nor that those workers were coerced back into an all but certain death sentence by an employer who threatened to withhold a month’s pay from them if they did not return.
Of course, what’s a month’s pay when you’re the CEO of a billion dollar company? The rest of us; however, can at least roughly grasp just how devastating that threat would be, though we do not live in the challenging conditions that these workers endure.
Never mind that organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Maquila Solidarity Network, the Workers’ Rights Consortium and many labour unions had been running campaigns for years addressing the very pressing concern around worker safety in Bangladesh factories. Nor that only five months prior, more than 100 garment workers died and more than 200 others were injured in a factory fire in that very same region of the country. Those workers died because the building did not have emergency exits and the existing exits were too narrow to fit the rush of workers once the flames broke out.
More than 100 people burned to death in a building for want of way to get out. But the incident “only” involved a couple hundred Bangladeshi workers, so little media attention was paid and the involved companies effectively did nothing to address the issue.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
The notion that the Rana Plaza factory collapse came out of the blue and took everyone by surprise is sheer fiction. The companies who sell these clothes have known there are serious problems with the working conditions in the factories they use for a long time.
But talk about addressing those issues is about as cheap as the clothing they sell. It is all too easy to say that you care about the suffering of others and then turn a blind eye to solutions that would actually address that suffering – usually with lame excuses about cost and inefficiencies.
Some of those companies have signed on to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and that is genuinely a good thing. The Accord requires that inspections of factories take place to ensure the deaths I’ve mentioned don’t happen again. Though going is slow on those inspections, as only about 300 of the 1,600 factories covered by the Accord have been inspected in the last year.
And don’t get too kind-hearted towards these companies thinking that they’ve finally turned the corner on this issue. In addition to the Accord, the other major promise that they made was to compensate the families of workers killed or injured in the collapse.
Have they fulfilled that promise? Once again, talk is cheap – and so are these companies. A trust fund has been set up through the International Labour Organization with the goal of collecting $40 million in assistance for Bangladeshi families. To date, only a fraction of that money has been contributed.
The one thing in this unfortunate story that is not cheap is human life. Indeed, human life is precious, whether you are a super rich CEO or a factory worker in Bangladesh.
On April 24, 2013, the world became much poorer when we lost more than 1,100 human lives for reasons that were known and could have been prevented. A handful of employers let greed get in the way of preserving the safety of the people they employed.
Let us not forget that this is the crux of the story in Bangladesh. And let us also make sure that these companies are made to pay for their greed and the pain and suffering it has inflicted on Bangladeshi workers.
Have you ever wondered where that UFCW Local 401 pen came from? Or how about the lapel pin you wear on your 401 jacket or hat? Unions talk a lot about ethical shopping. Who makes those t-shirts, hats, pens or lapel pins? Are those workers making a decent wage? Do they have freedom to speak out without worry of being fired? Are my union dues being spent on ethically sourced goods? These are important considerations when figuring out where to buy the products we offer to our members.
UFCW has a policy that wherever possible, we purchase products from companies that support their workers’ right to belong to a union, negotiate collectively and have a say in their compensation and conditions of work. Statistics show that union workers have higher standards of living and healthier workplaces. They are also far more likely to have retirement security through negotiated pensions, supplemental retirement income plans or RRSPs. And of course, better job security.
Making a conscious choice to buy ethically, particularly to buy union-made products, involves research and dedication. So let’s walk through the process of how these UFCW 401 promotional items make their way to you.
Let’s use our UFCW lapel pins as an example. Some lapel pins are worn by union members day-to-day to show their pride in belonging to Local 401. Other pins are more specific to an issue or campaign, like the Pride Parades around the province or the upcoming Members’ Conference in June. We even make “Bargaining Strong Together” buttons workers can wear during contract negotiations to show their solidarity.
Even before we start the design process we have to determine how many pins we’ll need. When buying in bulk, the more you buy the cheaper it may be per item. UFCW Local 401 has nearly 30,000 members, so for the more universally used pins, like our “UFCW Local 401” pin, our order will be appropriately larger because there would be wider interest from all members. However, some of the more “campaign specific” pins may only require a small order. The human rights pins for the Pride Parades, for example, would fall into that category.
Now for the artwork and design. Depending on the pin and the campaign, there could be multiple colours, which would cost more for each colour you add. Our human rights pin is appropriately vibrant with 7 colours, while our regular 401 union pins have only 3. All of this must be considered when designing and developing our pins.
So where does the “union-made” stuff come into it? Before we approach suppliers we must first consider their ability to provide us a product that is made by union workers. The second thing we consider is whether it’s Canadian made. Sadly, not every product meets both criteria. Sometimes, depending on the item, we can’t meet either of those two criteria. Whenever possible, however, we choose the union-made option. If union-made is not available in Canada or the U.S. then we will strive for Canadian made. What happens if neither is available? Then we ask the question; “how are employees of this company treated? Does the employer have a good reputation?” Matters involving human rights are always a concern. We are proud to say, however, the majority of the products we purchase are union-made.
When comparing price, our main concern is always whether or not it’s union-made because we endorse well-supported workers who can exercise freedom of speech and choice.
We are proud to say that the very lapel pins we are talking about are union-made and Canadian-made. If you would like one to show your pride of being a union member, ask your Union Representative for one, or come visit the Pride Parade in Edmonton on June 7th or in Calgary on August 31st and get one of the special pins we throw out to the crowds who gather in support.
We are not only careful with how we spend your union dues, but where we spend them as well. I hope this has helped shed light on one of the many ways we support unionized workers. It is, after all, a matter of UNION PRIDE!
April 11 was Global Youth Service Day and the Edmonton Youth Committee wanted to do something special to give back to their community. The Youth Committee met one night after the general membership meeting to discuss ideas around what could be done in a relatively short amount of time with Youth Director Joe Irving. The Committee decided that organizing a blood drive would be a great way to give back.
With some hard work and quick approval from the union, the Youth Committee collaborated with Scott Payne to create and distribute a poster to Edmonton workplaces in order to get the word out. Within a short time the Youth Committee found out a lot of surprising information about the need for blood, and where it goes.
At both the local level and the national level, UFCW is the biggest supporter of Leukemia research in Canada, funding over $28 million in research to date. Last year alone, our union raised over $2.5 million in Leukemia funding.
In organizing the blood drive, the Youth Committee discovered that it takes seven blood donors to provide enough blood to sustain a patient suffering from Leukemia each week. Understanding that money cannot buy blood, the Youth Committee came to understand the importance of blood donation. Even youth members who were not able to donate blood still came out to support the rest of the Committee, and learned a lot in the process.
Additionally, Local 401 has signed up to participate in the Partners for Life Program. The Program gives our local union a group specific number that tracks the amount of blood our members donate annually. Part of this Program gives us the ability to use the life bus that will transport us from a location of our choosing. A blood drive will be held bi-annually enabling members to meet at their local union office and receive transportation to the blood clinic closest to the office.
“I understand that it’s easy for people to forget about donating blood, even with the advertisements” explains Joe Irving. “Life gets busy and there is lots to do. But every little bit helps someone in need a great deal. The reward you get for doing your part ot provide that help is overwhelming.”
On average it takes only 5- 10 minutes to donate an entire unit of blood. However, that donation goes a long way. If you wish to donate blood and add to our Partners for Life count, feel free to book an appointment online at blood.ca, and don’t forget to give our specific number UNIT401831 at the clinic.
UFCW Local 401 is currently in the process of negotiating a new Union Contract for McKesson members. As of April 17, 2014 we have concluded dealing with all non-monetary items and we are preparing to move into monetary issues. The union was originally prepared to negotiate this week, but those meetings have been moved to May. We also have additional dates booked in June, if we need them.
We have many important issues to deal with in monetary negotiations, but as McKesson members know the most critical issues are wages and benefits. The Employer has asked that we cancel the April 23 – 25, 2014 dates in an effort to prepare a “Global Offer” on all issues to try and reach a mutually agreeable deal for the members to vote on.
The union has made it clear to the Employer that we have no intention of accepting concessions. At this point, we are unsure where they are going to go with their offer. But McKesson members will be prepared for either an information meeting or a vote depending on the outcome of the May/June negotiations.
We remain confident that by bargaining strong together, McKesson members will be able to win improvements to their Union Contract and benefit their quality of life!