Solidarity with Bangladeshi Workers

The Dragon Sweater Group is a cornerstone of Bangladesh’s garment industry, producing about $4.5 billion in revenue per year from exports. The organization is headed by Mostafa Golam Quddus, a former president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and an important figure in establishing the country’s industrialised clothing industry. You might not know a lot about this company but if you’ve ever bought clothes from Zara, Primark, H&M or even Asda you might have a jumper made in one of the companies factores in your house right now. Lately, the Dragon Sweater Group has come under fire for their treatment of Bangladeshi garment workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

In March, the factory closed down as part of precautions over the pandemic, and it was at this point that a large part of the company’s employees were dismissed; the company claims only 140 workers did not return to work and that everyone was given their proper wages while the factory was closed over. However, the Daily Star- an English-Bangladeshi newspaper claims the number is between 500 and 600, with the Garment Workers Trade Union Centre and the Industrial Workers of the World claiming the number of employees that were dismissed and had their wages withheld being ten times that figure, at 6000

This unfair, and technically illegal dismissal of such a large portion of their workforce has naturally caused some backlash towards the company; but with management unwilling to even admit to an agreed upon figure of dismissed workers- never mind admitting wrong-doing- negotiations drew to a halt over reinstatement of the workers and lost wages. In response, the union organised protests, including occupying the factory owners’ home and a hunger strike at the Prime Minister’s office. Jolly Talukder, general secretary of Garment Workers Trade Union Centre makes the group’s demands very simple, saying that “Every worker deserves legal payment by the employer”.

The union has also garnered support internationally with groups like the IWW and the International Confederation of Labour organising pickets and poster campaigns targeting businesses still trading with the factory worldwide, in Ireland, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and even our own Ayrshire. 

You might ask yourself what benefit these demonstrations can do and what material help this is actually giving the workers in Bangladesh, but the campaign is looking to be on a roll, with the Walmart Group(owners of ASDA) stating they will no longer work with the factory until the workers demands are met. In the UK, only Lidl are yet to issue a response. With mounting pressure on the Dragon Sweater Group, both in Bangladesh and internationally, the workers are hoping to bring management to the negotiating table, reinstating their jobs and wages and returning to normal life.

If you want to get involved you can get more information about the campaign here and if you want to take part in action in support of workers locally and worldwide, you can join the IWW here.

Manufacturing Indifference: Fast Fashion and Consumerism

This past week, fashion industry giant Boohoo made headlines as news of poor working conditions and underpayment came to light from its supply chains in Leicester’s garment district; workers are being paid as little as £3 per hour, well below the national minimum wage, as well as being required to work in unsafe conditions throughout the pandemic, with no social distancing or safety measures put in place. With Leicester being one of the first cities forced to implement a localised lockdown in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, it is believed that these conditions in garment factories contributed to the rapid spread of the virus among the community. Developments in this wave of fashion industry controversy are ongoing- two days ago The Times announced the findings of an investigation which similarly implicates the Quiz brand in sourcing products from garment factories with a flagrant disregard for workers’ rights. As “shocked and appalled” as Boohoo- and us along with them- may claim to be at finding what amounts to slavery on our own doorstep, this is nothing new. While some may be genuinely surprised workers are treated this way in our own country, we, like the bosses at Boohoo, know the suffering that goes into producing the shirts on our backs and the shoes on our feet; “Made in Bangladesh” labels on £4 Primark dresses don’t exactly conjure images of workplace utopia’s. 

While we are hazily aware of oppression in the Global South, this level of awareness very seldom translates into the kind of moral outrage garnered by analogous oppressions in our immediate environment. Geographical as well as cultural distance help us to otherise workers suffering in far off places. Yet this is not a problem solely for foreign governments and traders to deal with. As this latest affair shows, the oppressive and callous conditions of capitalist production persist everywhere; even in ostensibly ‘developed’ countries like our own, huge retailers and restaurant chains will routinely underpay and overwork staff. Last year, the Low Pay Commission found a record number of workers in the UK, most of them women, were being paid less than the national minimum wage. If companies with huge public profiles like Wagamama and Marriott can get away with underpaying employees and violating their rights, is it any wonder that for migrant workers locked away in sweatshops the situation is significantly worse?

‘Fast fashion’ has developed exponentially in the last decade, as high street shopping has been overtaken by the online sphere and the demand for personalised convenience. As highlighted by clothing magnate Eileen Fisher (while accepting an industry award for environmentalism), “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world… second only to oil… it’s a really nasty business… it’s a mess.” At every level, from the harvesting of raw materials, to production, to transit, to distribution, to consumption and finally to disposal, the environmental impact of fast fashion is gargantuan. Behind endless sales and new seasons in perpetuity, inland seas are drained, landfills pile high with poor quality, instantly dated clothes and rivers are poisoned with dye. Cultural awareness of the environmental impact of our consumption habits has arguably never been higher, as we hurtle on towards climate catastrophe. In recent years, the high-profile protestations of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have dominated much of this conversation, and around the world, leaders are being put under increased pressure to develop a ‘Green New Deal’. As this snappy business-backed euphemism suggests, the more radical (often non-white) voices of the environmental movement are subsumed by a mainstream which proposes investment in emergent technologies, streamlining production and developing a carbon-neutral ‘eco-capitalism’. Quick to dismiss the utopian visions of far- out socialists or even social democrats, liberal policymakers the world over have seemingly found their own fairy tale to inhabit.

Understanding our consumption habits in terms of environmental impact is hugely important if we are to have any chance of preventing- or, at this stage, mitigating- climate change, and no doubt there are emergent or developing technologies which will help us accomplish a reduction in the footprint of industries like fashion. Yet conversations around the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ typically fails to provide any consideration for the workers, whose already precarious existence will face the most upheaval at the hands of automation or efficiency technologies. Some continue to argue that innovations on the production line benefit workers by increasing output while minimizing their required labour input; as workers in the fashion industry have known since the invention of the sewing machine, any perceived reduction in exertion leads inevitably to an increase in hours and a deflation of wages. Whatever the case may be, these people won’t simply cease to exist once we fully automate production lines and will need to be accounted for.

The coronavirus lockdown has created the space and conditions in which this conversation could reasonably be expected to come to a head; earlier in the pandemic, online retailers reported huge surges in profits as more and more people turned to online outlets for their grocery, entertainment and consumption needs. This uptick in revenue and usage has led to increased scrutiny. Or, at least, more conscious scrutiny. After all, environmental groups have been warning of the devastating impact of over-consumption for decades, and similar reports to those shaming Boohoo and Quiz have come and gone in years past. While it might typically be easy for us to think of these as issues solely for private business and government, the true impact and danger of our consumption demands- not only for the environment but for workers- has been thrown into sharp relief by the threat the coronavirus poses. 

Yet it’s almost easier to imagine the end of the world as a result of a deadly pandemic than the end of rampant consumerism, a mould we have been collectively shaped and moulded into since at least the 1920s. Industrial capital has manufactured our indifference to the suffering of workers for decades. When one story breaks through, as has happened with Boohoo and the Leicester factories, they follow a standardised playbook: plead ignorance, pledge funding to weed out the bad actors and wait for everything to blow over. We can’t rely on the self-regulation of huge companies to improve working conditions or avert climate disaster. While they may offer empty gestures and platitudes (the £10mil pledged by Boohoo to address this controversy is less than 7% of the £150 millon bonus scheme already planned for bosses), these organisations will forever be the propagators of unchecked and exponential consumption. It will take unlearning and challenging our roles as consumers to exert the kind of pressure needed to win big for the environment and workers.

Cat Calling it Out

On International Women’s Day we thought we would take a look at the struggles still faced by working women today. Sexism within the workplace is still something faced by many workers across Scotland, with a wage gap that is getting larger rather than smaller and a government report released in 2018 showing that around one in five workers had experience d sexism in the workplace, with around one in twenty experiencing unwanted physical contact. Sexism and harassment in the workplace is unfortunately still alive and well. 

One group that is taking a stand against this, especially within precarious work, is Better than Zero with their Cat Calling it Out Campaign. Better than Zero, you might remember from an earlier article, is a group that fights for workers right in and around Scotland, especially focusing on workers stuck on zero hour contacts that are being denied their rights. 

We had a chance to ask Morgan (@morganwotwu), someone from our own Ayrshire that’s involved in both Better than Zero and the Cat Calling it Out Campaign a few questions.

Better than Zero has been championing workers rights in Glasgow for a few years now, fighting against unfair work conditions and underpayment of wages, why has this campaign focused specifically on harassment in the workplace, are people in precarious work more vulnerable to sexism within the workplace? 

I do think that sexual harassment is more prevalent in precarious workplaces, there is less of a likelihood that workers will be a member of a trade union, or have the skills and knowledge in workplace organising to organise around this. Especially with zero hours contracts, many women are scared to come forward in the fear that once they complain, they don’t receive any other shifts, essentially leaving them unemployed. For a lot of people, it’s easier just to deal with it.

I think the campaign was needed, especially with the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns gaining prominence in Hollywood. People are starting to have more conversations about sexual harassment and assault and I think that a campaign focusing on these issues in precarious workplaces is crucial.   

How did the campaign get started, what were some of the biggest roadblocks early on?

The campaign started through hearing women’s experiences of sexual harassment in precarious work environments and we tried to organise around the issue. One of the biggest roadblocks I found personally was finding women who felt able to come forward about their experiences. Without the stories, the people, and the want for this to change, there isn’t much that we can really do.

What’s been your own involvement in the campaign? 

I was involved in the campaign from the first meeting where we planned the campaign, and was involved in leafleting precarious workers around the issue and trying to spread the work. The first big action we did was in Cineworld in Silverburn, where we were leafleting the public and staff on Cineworld’s failure to combat sexual harassment. It took place on the opening weekend of the new Spiderman movie, and I think that we raised a lot of awareness on the issue. I ended up being pulled into a quiet part of the complex by a male manager who tried to explain to me what he thought of the situation, however a couple of comrades came and found me so that I wasn’t alone.

What have been the biggest successes of the campaign to date? 

I think the campaign did really well in spreading the word about sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s a highly prevalent issue and many women don’t feel like they can come forward. I would say my favourite thing we did for the campaign was speaking at an event out on by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Myself and another Better Than Zero activist spoke on the campaign, our personal experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace and how the issue affects many young workers. It was strange to hear that some workplace reps hadn’t even realised that this was an issue. However, a lot of the women were not surprised to hear this was still happening in today’s world, I think they were just surprised about how forward these men actually are. We got a lot of really positive feedback from the session, and to be honest I think it was really worthwhile.

In 2018 the Scottish Gov released a report saying the wage gap was increasing in recent years, and other studies have shown that women are far more likely to be in zero hours work than men, as well as significantly more likely to experience harassment in the workplace. Do you think the working conditions women face in modern Scotland are getting better or worse? Is the government doing enough?

I think that for as long as we live under this system – where businesses are allowed to essentially do what they want, things won’t get much better. There is only so much that any government – especially a centrist or right wing government – can really do. Neoliberalism promotes business and the individualism in society, the ‘every man for himself’ attitude under capitalism is the biggest problem. What we need is a complete transformation of society, of the workplace and how women are treated under capitalism. For as long as women are seen as the primary caregivers and the ones who hold sole responsibility of raising children and doing unpaid domestic labour – we’ll still see that women are more likely to be paid less for the work that they do. Women’s labour has always been taken for granted under the system, but I also think that women don’t understand just how extraordinary we actually are. 

If a reader is experiencing harassment in the workplace, and doesn’t have a union at work what’s the best way to reach out to Better than Zero?

The best way to contact Better Than Zero would be through our social media accounts. They have links to the email address and phone number for the campaign, but you could also send a quick message to the Facebook page. 


 

Connecting Communities: Poland to Ayrshire

One thing that seemed to have been made clear by the EU referendum was that in general Scotland has a more open and relaxed attitude when it comes to immigration. The reality, however, is something a bit more jarring. The frequency of xenophobic attacks are on the rise and it seems the lies about immigrants being lavished with tax payer money and given houses and cars for nothing (yes this is an actual claim that I have heard made before) are never ending, with more and more poor people in this country being convinced that their problems stem from poor people from other countries.

Scotland and Poland have always had a strong connection. Ever since Polish divisions were stationed here during the Second World war there has always been some kind of Polish community present in Scotland. There is even a 50m x 40m 3D outdoor scale model of Scotland on the grounds of Barony castle that was built there by a Polish WW2 veteran as well as a small group of Polish workers and exchange students. A testament to the country that had provided Jan Tomasik with his wife and a career as a hotelier in the years after the war.

With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to ask a few questions of some of the Polish people in our community and find out what life is like for people who came here with the hopes of a better life.

JamesSo what made you decide to leave Poland? What brought you to Ayrshire?

Ewelina – I left Poland in 2007. In June that year I finished college and decided to study at Jagiellonian University (in Kraków). At the time I was basically a single parent, my partner at the time had been recruited for a job in Kilmarnock from a Polish work agency. I must add, at the time in Poland the economic situation was very bad. Most people, including my family, lived on the edge of poverty and there was no welfare system. In few words, it was hard. My partner suggested that I joined him along with my son and that’s how we came to be in Ayrshire.

Monika – I left Poland 10 years ago, for economic reasons mostly, but I always wanted to live in the UK. At the time, as a single mother in Poland I struggled to support myself and my daughter, even though I worked full time and had family helping with childcare, etc. My dad was already living in Ayrshire so I chose to come and stay with him.

Magdalena – The economic situation in Poland, difficulties in finding a job and a lack of prospects for the future is why I decided to leave. My husbands parents had been living in Ayrshire already so we decided to join them.

James – Has life been any easier for you since you moved to Ayrshire?

Ewelina – I thought living in Scotland would be a dream come true but it was really hard in the beginning. For some reason Polish people were seen only as cheap labour. We would be hired to do work that people here didn’t want to do and in general we’d be paid less to do it. Despite this I still earned more than a bookkeeper in Poland by washing dishes in a restaurant so in a way life was better! I had to go to college again in Ayrshire to gain some qualifications and learn new skills and now I have a better job.

Monika – Life is easier in Scotland for us. As a single mother I’m able to support us and even save a little, which I wasn’t able to do in Poland.

Magdalena – A little bit yes, but it’s not as good as we expected it to be.

James – Has it been easy to make friends here or do you tend to gravitate more towards other Polish people?

Ewelina – Scottish people are very friendly (most of them!) and open. In my opinion it is easy to make friends here as long as you’re fair and treat people how you would like to be treated, with respect and understanding. I’ve got roughly the same amount of Polish and Scottish friends, I like them all!

Monika – I have family here who I spend most of my time with and a few friends/ colleagues that are both Polish and Scottish. Language is not a barrier for me though, so I think it’s a little easier for me.

Magdalena – Due to the hobby that I have (Dog training) I’ve met quite a few people and made friends with a couple but generally we just keep to ourselves. I only have a few Polish friends but I’m not looking for more.

James – Have you encountered any prejudice during your time here?

Ewelina – Unfortunately yes. Usually in my places of work with random people who would ask me questions like “why don’t you want to go back home?” or say things like “your country must be empty as so many of you left!”. Also my children were bullied for being Polish so we had to change schools. Now we don’t have problems. I know that behind behaviour like that are parents who live in a world of illusions. They believe any lies they are told.

Monika – I have… In real day to day life not very often and nothing major. Just people expressing their opinions on immigration but it’s mostly on TV, online or in the papers. My daughter has witnessed incidents on the playground at school where Polish or Muslim kids were bullied for being foreign.

Magdalena – Luckily, No

James – Has Brexit affected how you view this country?

Ewelina – “BREXIT” that big scary word that everyone wants to run from! Yes, I’m scared, distracted and just tired. I have everything here, family, friends, my job… Life! It doesn’t seem fair that you can just come and tell people “OK! It was nice having you here but now is your time to leave.” It’s unfair. I’ve paid for permission to live and work in Scotland, paid all of my taxes and now if I’m denied settlement status I have to go! Just like that. It is sad that the British/ Polish people have been deceived in this way. Now everyone will be affected.

Monika – It has. I felt at home here and now I don’t. It changed everything. Before the referendum we never even considered going back to Poland. Home was Scotland, but now it’s more than a possibility. My daughter considered herself Scottish – now she wants to go back to Poland. We’re tired of it all, this governments rhetoric on immigration most of all. They aren’t giving us any assurances and we don’t trust anything that they say. The settled status is a sham. When we came here 10 years ago I had to pay (a lot) for my right to work. A year later they scrapped it. Now they want us to register again. And the scheme doesn’t guarantee anything because the Home Office can revoke your settled status at any moment – that’s if you even get it in the first place. They’re not exactly known for their competence either. How can anyone live like that? And what would a no deal Brexit mean for us? Do we just become illegal overnight? It’s been so stressful, but it’s not as easy as just packing our suitcases and leaving. We’ve built our lives here. We have responsibilities, friends and family.

Magdalena – Yes as it’s a lot of uncertainty now. We don’t know what to expect and how our life will be afterwards.

I would like to thank Ewelina, Monika and Magdalena for the insights they have provided and I hope that whether leave or remain, we can take note of the chaos this situation has caused in the lives of fellow working people who have brought more to this country than they are given credit for, in spite of what some would have you believe when they talk about the “dangers” of immigration.