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newsletter volume 20, number 2
april 2006

asian workers organising page 2

bangladesh garment industry

In Bangladesh’s notorious garment industry, foreign companies stand to make billions of dollars in profits, primarily from cheap labour.

The industry is estimated to generate $US 5.51 billion a year, and accounts for 76% of the country’s economy. The garment industry is dominated by US and European companies who have shifted their factories to Bangladesh in order to save money on labour. For example, in the US, a garment worker makes approximately $US 10.20 an hour, compared to $US 0.30 in Bangladesh.

Across Bangladesh, the garment industry employs about 3 million workers, 90% of whom are women. Apart from the cheapness of the labour there, Bangladesh’s factories have little, if any, standards for health and safety.

Hundreds of workers have been killed, just in the first three months of this year. On 23 February 2006, 54 workers were killed and more than 100
were injured when a fire destroyed the four storey KTS Textile Industries building in the Kalurghat Industrial area of Chittagong.
According to reports, 1100 people were working the night shift when an electrical short circuit caused flames to spread throughout the factory building. With the main entrance to the building locked, workers were forced to jump from second and third storey windows to escape the flames. Even still, there were up to 1000 workers still
trapped inside the building. It took fire fighters almost ten hours to put out the building.

The factory reportedly produced for US companies Uni Hosiery, Mermaid International, ATT Enterprise and VICA Enterprise Corp. Bangladesh authorities then sealed off three other factories connected to this facility citing
unplanned construction and inadequate safety measures. The other factories were Vintex Fashion, Cardinal Fashion and Arena Fashion, which together employed 6,000 workers.

Just two days later, on the morning of the 25 February 2006, 19 people were killed and 50 injured when the Phoenix Building, a five storey building in the Tejgoan district of Dhaka,
collapsed following unauthorised renovations to convert its upper stories from a factory and offices to a 500-bed private hospital.
150 construction workers were inside at the time
of the collapse, along with an unknown number of garment workers. Later that day a further 57 workers were injured, 4 seriously, when a transformer exploded at the Imam Group of IndusMoon Textile, Leading Fashion and Bimon Inda garment factories.

Fearing fire, the workers attempted to leave through a narrow exit, resulting in a stampede.
On 6 March 2006, a fire at Sayem Fashions in Gasipur killed 3 and injured 50. Following these catastrophes in the last few months, on 8 March, the Bangladesh government assembled ten inspection teams to visit garment factories across the country, checking that gates and exits are properly set up for enabling workers to exit in the event of emergency. New laws were enacted in order to fine company owners who do not comply with these emergency evacuation standards. The teams, however, did not inspect on-the-job health and safety standards in order to prevent disasters, nor were any recommendations made about working
conditions, wage increases and holiday entitlements.

Unions and workers are skeptical of these moves, prompting industrial action and protests across the country on 18 March and 11 April, the anniversary of the Spectrum factory collapse.
These events are just the latest in a long line of incidents related to poor health and safety standards in the Bangladesh garment industry. Since 1990, 350 workers have been killed and 2500 injured in garment factory fires.

In January 2005, 22 Bangladeshi workers were killed in a factory fire, which was thought to have been caused by electrical short-circuiting. On April 11 of the same year, 64 workers were killed and 74 injured in the collapse of the nine-storey
Spectrum Sweater factory building in Savar. This industrial accident was in fact commemorated this year through protests and actions across Bangladesh.

In addition to this atrocious record of industrial murders, garment workers in Bangladesh experience illness and disease. Some common ailments include headache, anaemia, fever,
chest, stomach eye and ear pain, cough and cold, diarrhoea, dysentery, urinary tract infection and reproductive health problems. Some of these are caused by the extraordinary hours workers are forced to do, the lack of recreational leave
and sick leave.

More information: www.cleanclothes.org

Jiselle Hanna
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance
AAWL Coordinator

union carbide tragedy still felt in bhopal 21 years on

Progress, economic growth, increased opportunity.
That is what the multinational companies promise when they establish their factories in the low-wage countries of Asia.
Actually the companies are searching the world looking for super profits. These are to be found in places that have been colonised or re-colonised and survive under the rule of local administrations and the WTO.

Today India is called one of the great tiger economies. Many companies are relocating there. The promised progress, economic growth and increased opportunity are not yet apparent for the 500 million or so Indian people who are homeless or living in slums with incomes
below US $2 per day, but the super profits for the capitalists are in the bank already. In 1976 the big capitalist companies were just starting to
relocate some of their big factories in Asia.

Union Carbide set up a factory in Bhopal to manufacture pesticides. Progress, economic
growth and increased opportunity were the promise for the inhabitants of the large city in
central India, located on two lakes on the side of some very pretty mountains. Union Carbide produced very dangerous chemicals, including methyl isocyanate (MIC), an extremely toxic substance that has to be kept cool and can explode in contact with water.
The factory was built with the latest technology, except that Union Carbide saw no need to maintain costly safety systems that can often slow down production.

There was also no thought about the safety of the population of Bhopal, living just metres outside the factory gates, as the plant was conveniently located well inside the urban area. The factory brought employment to the people of Bhopal. The company felt no other duty to them and just took the super profits home. By 1982 the workers at Union Carbide had became unionised and often complained about the poor working conditions and poor safety systems. In September 1982 a safety audit showed major safety problems that
could cause a disaster. Local publications publicise the dangers, but the company took no action to possible industrial disasters. By 1984 however Union Carbide was facing serious
competition in the pesticide industry, and began a process of downsizing and cost cutting. In October 1984 they reduced production and sacked staff (including safety monitors). They reduced training, and they turned off the cooling system for the MIC tank. Turning off the cooling system saved Union Carbide and their shareholders almost $50 per day. It also let the MIC overheat.

On 3 December 1984, a night-time cleaning operation by an understaffed, under-trained and under-equipped maintenance crew went wrong. More than 27 tonnes of MIC escaped into the night air and flowed into Bhopal.

Three days and nights of panic followed and 8,000 people, mostly industrial workers and their families, died of lung failure. This is the world’s worst industrial accident, and the worst corporate
murder ever committed.

The Union Carbide managers ran to the United
States, where they remain unpunished. Twenty-two years after the poisoning of Bhopal the death toll is shocking: More than 20,000 are dead from the effects of the gas. At least 150,000 inhabitants of Bhopal are living and dying from the chronic diseases caused by MIC. Many children are born with defects caused by
their parents’ exposure to the gas. It is thought that more than 500,000 people were exposed to the gas and may develop or pass on diseases because of it.

Union Carbide refused to issue doctors with the exact chemical composition of the gases to protect its ‘trade secrets’, and declared bankruptcy in India. Union Carbide fought all compensation cases, eventually being
forced to pay US $470 Million. This money has mainly been used by a department set up by the Indian govincluding the establishment of five hospitals, at which most of the victims cannot get treatment. The relatives of the people who were killed directly by the gas received only a maximum of US $500 after some years of court cases. Today the factory sits empty and contaminated, polluting the water table of the population living in the area around the factory, who are too poor to afford bottled water.

Union Carbide merged with Dow Chemicals in 2001. Dow is a company with extensive knowledge of chemicals including their uses and misuses. They were the manufacturers of Agent Orange that was used by US forces during the Vietnam war. Dow has refused to recognise any claims against Union Carbide by the survivors in Bhopal.

In February 2006, the Bhopalis’ padyatra, or long
march for justice, began. A group of survivors from the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal marched to Delhi to demand recognition, compensation and legal action against the Union Carbide managers.

Their demands were:
Set up a National Commission on Bhopal;
Provide Safe Drinking Water;
Prosecute Union Carbide and Anderson;
Make Dow Clean Up and Pay;
Blacklist Dow and Union Carbide;
and Remember Bhopal

Then, in early April, survivor-groups stepped up the campaign to win compensation and commenced a hunger-strike that would end in victory on 17 April 2006.

Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, promised to clean up the disused chemical factory, provide fresh drinking water for the local people and build a £13 million memorial to the dead.

He fell short, however, of pledging to prosecute Dow Chemicals or Union Carbide’s former chief executive, Warren Anderson, in order to preserve India’s business prospects.

More information:
www.bhopal.org or www.bhopal.net

Manrico Moro
National Tertiary Education Union
AAWL Information Convenor

occupational and environmental
health network india

A network on Occupational and Environmental
Health has been established by grassroots
organisations working on the issue in India. The
decision was taken at a meeting held at New
Delhi on 30-31 January 2006, jointly organised
by the Asian Network for the Right of Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV), Asian Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC) and the People’s Training and Research Centre, India.

Thirty activists from sixteen organisations
attended the “National Consultation on OHS”.
Groups from Gujarat, Mharashtra, Tamilnadu,
Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Delhi attended the
meeting. There were individual activists from Kolkata, Delhi and other places who also attended the meeting. Representatives of International organisations like the AMRC and FOCUS also attended the meeting.

During the two days, representatives presented
their work on specific issues, narrated the difficulties, prepared resource maps and discussed strategies to help each other to achieve better results. Groups from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh decided to work together to get justice for the silicosis sufferers of stone crushing units of Godhra.

Strategies to promote victims groups and making
social security schemes more pro-people were
also discussed. Numbers of groups expressed
a strong need to have a network. As a result, it was resolved to form a network named Occupational and Environmental Health Network India” (OEHNI).

Jagdish Patel
People’s Training and Research Centre
Gujarat, India

help

newsletters

Asian Workers Organising, April 06

Asian Workers Organising, February 06

APWSL Newsletter December 05

 

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