With Christmas bargain-hunters in the midst of the wildest shopping frenzy of the year, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of archdiocesan Catholic Charities, joined a delegation of New Yorkers that traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Black Friday, Nov. 29, to meet the workers who produce much of the merchandise being fought over in department stores back home.
The delegation, which included Thomas DiNapoli, New York State comptroller, and Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) UFCW, met with factory workers who survived the Rana Plaza factory collapse last year, family members of workers killed in the collapse and with labor leaders and officials of H & M retail clothing company and other retailers. The workers, labor leaders and H & M officials are involved in getting global retailers to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and improve conditions for garment workers there. The New York delegation visited Bangladesh to learn more about the garment industry and to raise awareness among U.S. consumers about conditions and workplace issues.
“In the past year there have been at least two major garment factory disasters and tragedies, a fire in Tazreen, which killed 119 people, and a building collapse in Rana Plaza, which killed about 1,132 people,” Msgr. Sullivan explained. “Our trip was intended to meet with the various sectors involved in the garment industry, the workers themselves, organizers, brand names and government officials to learn about what was going on. That we went (Black Friday) had to do with the coordination of schedules. Coincidentally, but opportunistically, it did occur on one of the major shopping days of the season in which people are buying clothing, some of which quite probably was actually made in garment factories in Bangladesh.”
Because of political unrest and a nationwide blockade, which effectively shut down much of the country, the delegation was prevented from visiting any factories. However they met with garment workers, including some of the workers injured in the two factory disasters. They also met with government officials and with representatives of H&M, which has been spearheading the global accord campaign. The accord is an agreement, which has been signed onto by more than 100 companies and brands to significantly improve working conditions and safety standards in Bangladesh. It also provides for worker participation in each factory to ensure ongoing compliance. Most of the signatories have been European corporations.
“American brands have generally not signed on because they claim there are issues that will potentially subject them to litigation,” Msgr. Sullivan explained. “They have formed an alliance, which is committed to similar types of issues, but it’s voluntary and non-binding, and so the concern that is raised by many people, including foremost the union leadership, is that the alliance doesn’t have any teeth in it. Therefore it’s not really strong enough to make a difference.”
Msgr. Sullivan said meeting with some of the Rana Plaza survivors and the loved ones of workers killed in the disaster was especially “moving.”
“They had a number of concerns,” he pointed out. “They wanted conditions in the buildings to be safer so that workers in the future wouldn’t suffer the same fate. The other specific thing they were asking was that they receive fair compensation for the tragedies. Some were disabled. They couldn’t work. They had received some compensation but from their descriptions it was minimal.”
But he said he was heartened by how often the workers the delegation talked to mentioned the help they had received from Caritas Bangladesh.
“It was wonderful to hear,” he said. “Bangladesh is a country that is 89 percent Muslim, 10 percent Hindu and less than half a percent Christian. So that Caritas, or Catholic Charities Bangladesh, was known and was providing help clearly represented what Catholic Charities does throughout the world. It helps people regardless of religion. It helps people because there is a genuine human need.”
Msgr. Sullivan also said he was pleasantly surprised by the progress already made and he stressed the garment industry there is providing millions of workers an opportunity to improve their standard of living. “Now the critical part of this is to make sure that work is done in conditions that are safe and that fair wages are paid,” he stressed.
As for American shoppers, he said, “I would like consumers to be aware that most of the garments we buy, that we receive as gifts, are produced in factories thousands of miles away and we need to become aware that the conditions in these factories should be such that there are safe working conditions and fair wages for those producing the garments.”