Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Garment factory collapse in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Just as the catastrophe in Bangladesh is phasing out of the headlines, these rescuers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia began searching for workers after a garment factory collapsed into a rubbish-filled pond on Monday. There were no deaths but 23 people were hospitalized for injuries, including a pregnant woman pulled from the waters who said she cannot swim & feared for her baby. What makes this accident so alarming is that last Thursday, the Wing Star shoe factory in Phnom Penh collapsed, killing 2 & injuring 7 people. Wing Star made Asic sneakers for a Japanese firm that sells them worldwide.

We’re learning from all the accidents that the global sweatshop industry is run by the criminally insane. Well-heeled & dressed to the nines, but dangerous as hell! Ken Loo, the secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia said the Wing Star collapse was a “one-off accident” & insisted we have to be reasonable & can’t just charge factories with negligence. He said it was hard for factory management to control workers after these accidents, that “Procedures exist, but workers panic and don’t follow them.” Mr. Loo wasn’t so voluble after the second collapse 5 days later.

There’s apparently been some oversight of the sweatshop industry in Cambodia by labor groups including the UN International Labor Organization (ILO). In 1999, they set up the Better Factories program in a quid pro quo agreement between the US & Cambodia where the ILO audited work conditions in exchange for exporting garments tariff-free to the US. They claim it kept Cambodia’s export factories free of child labor & “nearly free of so-called sweatshop conditions.” But in another report the ILO admitted it’s extremely difficult to give exact figures on child labor anywhere because children often work in locked shops with armed guards preventing entrance & exit.

In 2005, the preferential trade agreement between the US & Cambodia ended & those “nearly free” of sweatshop conditions reverted to an entirely free of worker’s rights state, including a sharp reduction in the minimum wage. A 2010 report by the Cambodian government found nearly half of garment workers were anemic, a condition associated with malnourishment. A snappily attired Mr. Ken Loo (who really ought to learn to keep his trap shut) said the minimum wage “provides enough nutrients to survive, but it doesn’t mean you won’t feel hungry.” Like was said, the overlords in the sweatshop industry are dangerous & they aren’t all there!

It isn’t the ILO who will bring justice to the garment industry & end the sweatshop production system. It is labor organization, unions that fight (& not just collect dues to give to politicians that talk big about working people), & solidarity between working people all over the world under the mantra “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Speaking of solidarity, these are the (mainly US) companies refusing to sign the Bangladesh safety agreement: Walmart, Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Macy’s, Sears, Kmart, JC Penny, Target, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, American Eagle Outfitters, The Children’s Place, Foot Locker, Carter, OshKosh B’gosh, Cato Fashions, VF Corp, Northface, Wrangler & Vans. The agreement was unlikely to have much force but these retailers signify their commitment to sweatshop production by refusing to sign. Show solidarity by refusing to buy their “made by children” rags.

(Photo by Mak Remissa/EPA)

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