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.

Alex Begg & The Problem With Managers

It made the news recently that Ayr based weaving company Alex Begg & Co would be making fifteen shop floor workers redundant in an attempt to cut down costs, due to a “softening in demand and uncertainty over Brexit”. This seems like a weak excuse when comments made by the workers themselves are taken in to account. An insider who contacted the Ayrshire Post claimed that “We were really busy, but it has quietened down quite a bit in the last year and the company had to take out a bank overdraft. But all they seem to do is keep employing more and more management. Now they have decided to pay off the shop floor workers… There’s no management at all going, just the shop floor workers.” This is not uncommon in businesses facing troubling times. Those in the position to make decisions will never vote themselves out of a job, so they calculate how many of the workers below themselves they need to get rid of to keep the company in profit and salvage their own paycheck.

The insider went on to say “They’ve just spent around half a million pounds making new offices, new decking and new computers for office staff. And believe it or not they just spent thousands sending two managers on a team building jaunt to Las Vegas.” So, FIFTEEN of the people that create the products that Alex Begg & Co makes profit from will be out of work just in time for Christmas.

Top-heavy management structures are all too common within businesses, especially in manufacturing. It is believed that a hierarchy is needed, and productivity is only achieved through people telling other people what to do and how fast to do it. However this doesn’t have to be the case; more and more we’re seeing long lasting success in businesses that structure themselves differently. Self-Management (a flat system where workers set their own goals which are reviewed by their peers) and Worker Co-ops (businesses owned by the workers themselves, with decisions made democratically) are just two alternatives to hierarchical business structures which have their roots in Syndicalism (a highly misunderstood and feared term due to its associations with Anarchism), a system in which there are no managers and all workers take collective control of the running of the business. This may sound absurd to some, that workers can get on just fine managing themselves and for these businesses to remain viable, so let me explain…

Having a top-heavy company structure can be inefficient and costly. Having so many layers of approval slows down the system of work. Not only this but having so many managers can result in good ideas being twisted or killed outright by people that are looking out for their own personal interest. It’s a problem that gets worse the more layers you add. Concentrating decision-making power into the hands of individuals- who themselves are often so removed from the realities of production as to be ignorant of its requirements- increases the risk of harmful mistakes that affect the entire business, especially the higher up you go. Decisions that seem smart high up the chain of command often end up being unworkable on the ground and workers on the frontline of the business with experience and insight into the actual production of the products are ignored. Or worse, sacked right before Christmas so bosses can justify expensive new offices and “team building” excursions to Vegas. Having people in far away, incontestable places of power means that bad decisions can’t be challenged and become a huge risk to the business.

In contrast, a self-management structure means that nobody has a boss, employees have a less rigid role in the company and negotiate their responsibilities with their peers depending on what their skills are and what they can bring to the company. There are no job titles or promotions to fight over, knowledge is valued above arbitrary titles. The amount of money that workers earn is decided by peer review and there is no option to move production to other countries so that managers can pay foreign workers less money and gain more in profit. A good real-life example of this working is the Morning Star Company in California. This company processes and distributes tomatoes across a number of large factories and is highly profitable. It is believed that the Morning Star Company is the most efficient tomato processing company in the world and they have no management at all. The company’s vision as described on their website reads “We envision an organization of self-managing professionals who initiate communication and coordination of their activities with fellow colleagues, customers, suppliers and fellow industry participants, absent directives from others. For colleagues to find joy and excitement utilizing their unique talents and to weave those talents into activities which compliment and strengthen fellow colleagues’ activities. And for colleagues to take personal responsibility and hold themselves accountable for achieving our Mission.” Those that work at the Morning Star Company are trusted to do the jobs they are good at and are kept accountable through self-written milestone goals called “Personal Missions” and through review from their peers.

Businesses similar to this have been cropping up all over Scotland. The Worker cooperative sector has grown from 30 businesses in 2015 to 100 in 2018. In Glasgow alone, there has been an overall 17% increase in the co-op economy. For those businesses which have switched over from traditional management structures to worker co-ops, turnover has increased by 35%, and profits are up by 55%. In general worker owned businesses tend to be much more stable as they don’t run the risk of being undone by one bad managers decision.

There is no doubt that there are hardworking managers out there that do their best to contribute to the success of a business and steer away from abusing the power they are given. The point is that there is more than one way to structure a business and it seems that those companies that do move away from hierarchy and the politics of power tend to operate better in the long run.

So, perhaps if Alex Begg & Co wish to future-proof themselves and move forward with creative solutions to production, they should first fire the managers, and let the workers do what they do best.

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Worker Ownership in North Ayrshire

Joe Cullinane from North Ayrshire recently announced his plans to introduce a scheme to increase worker owned businesses in the area as part of a community wealth building strategy.  In this article we’ll take a look into what worker ownership means and why this could be good for North Ayrshire.

Worker ownership can mean a lot of different things; it can be a business where every employee gets a vote on decisions the enterprise makes, or it can be a business were the management is elected by employees to make these decisions. The structure is variable, but the basic principle is that every worker gets a say in how the business is run. This turns the workers into worker-owners.

The basic central idea is that people doing the job generally know the job the best- if given the chance to make choices in their work the people at the coal face will know the best course forward. We’ve all had managers that knew nothing about how the workplace actually runs, leaving you to try your best to cover for their (ahem) “hands-off” management style. Worker ownership avoids this awkward and annoying occurrence by making it so that management is more accountable to the workers, and not the other way around.

On top of this worker co-ops have a proven record of success; a taxi company in Texas was able to compete with and then drive out of Austin companies  like Uber and Lyft, at a time when taxi companies structured like more traditional businesses are struggling to keep their head’s above water. This isn’t a one off example either, a study by former professor of Economics at the University of Leeds Virginie Pérotin showed that worker co-ops were able to compete with traditional firms and that many are in fact more productive. This is largely because workers tend to be more motivated when they have a say in how their labour is used. Professor Richard Wolff, an american economist suggests that a combination of the fact that co-ops are more productive and its workers are more motivated is why these organisations stay in business at a far higher rate in their first year compared to more traditional business.

This system is not only beneficial for the businesses themselves. The Emilia Romagna region of Italy has taken the concept of worker run businesses to heart, with nearly two thirds of its population members of a co-op, producing about a third of the region’s GDP. The north of Italy has always been a very economically strong place and the fact that co-ops can and have taken such a large claim to the local economy speaks to the strengths of co-ops.

Italy has another interesting policy in support of co-ops, namely that instead of taking their regular unemployment benefit, people can choose to take a sum of money up front and use this as start up capital towards a co-op. So rather than being unemployed and on the dole, you and a few friends can come together and start your own business. This helps keep unemployment low and means that instead of layoffs leading to mass unemployment, it leads to the nurturing of enterprise.

At the time of writing we don’t know that much about Joe’s own plan to introduce worker co-ops to Ayrshire, but what we do know is that it would likely be a lot less radical than the policy in Italy. Joe specifically spoke out about introducing co-ops to Ayrshire at a meeting discussing family business succession. Family run businesses form a large part of the local economy, unfortunately these don’t tend to last forever- eventually someone in the family decides they want to do something different with their lives and this, along with other factors, leads to many of these businesses not surviving past the second generation. Joe’s plan would give the workers a chance at running these businesses and could prevent them losing their jobs. While the specific details are not available at the time of writing, the policy is being worked on by the Community Wealth Building commission in North Ayrshire.

It’s no secret that North Ayrshire and Ayrshire as a whole have a long running issue with unemployment and an economy that lags behind the rest of Scotland, plans like this to revitalise the area are more than welcome in my opinion, and I will be watching for the CWBC’s final draft of the policy keenly. Looking at studies by Professor Wolff and Pérotin, as well as a working example in Italy my only worry is that this policy may not be radical enough.

Photo by Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash