In a globalised world with shrinking trade barriers and increased economic interdependence, workers’ rights have been the worst casualty. The quest for new sites with cheap production facilities and even cheaper human labour could only lead to violent exploitation of workers, especially in the Third World and other developing economies. As a result, six months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,129 workers, and the US’s suspension of duty-free privileges to the country following the incident, little seems to have changed on the ground. If anything, the garment industry — notorious for exploiting workers and accounting for 80 per cent of the nation’s exports — has thrived, registering an increase in exports of 24 per cent year-on-year in the third quarter of 2013.
Bangladesh, of course, appears to have made the right moves, having amended its Labour Act 2006, to conform with international labour standards, bringing in much-needed reforms like the workers’ right to form trade unions. However, lack of effective implementation of this new set of laws continues to be a major problem. For instance, a labour inspection directorate supposed to recruit 800 personnel, including 200 inspectors, by this year end, has a staff strength of only 56 till now. Many employers are still loath to allowing unions in the factories, often resorting to violence to crush the demands of union leaders.
Bangladesh isn’t alone in this crime as the condition of workers is equally, if not more despicable, in China, often referred to the world’s manufacturing hub. In 2010 in China, 14 workers committed suicide at a Foxconn factory, which boasts of clients like Apple, Dell, Nokia,’ HewlettPackard and Sony. The pattern is the same everywhere — unpaid wages, wages below contract pay and unsafe working conditions. In one of its Apple production factories, Foxconn workers had to find substitutes to take their places during the little time they needed to go to the washroom or drink water. It also shows how toothless the new People’s Republic of China Labour Contract Law, which came into effect in January 2008, with an aim to ensure workers’ rights, has been, even in the face of relentless campaigning of NGOs like China Labour Watch.
The diamond industry in Africa fares no better, for the same set of reasons. Close to a million diamond diggers in Africa earn less than a dollar a day. There is widespread child labour, and politicians continue to deprive diamond mining communities of funds desperately needed for economic development. Poor wages and hazardous unhygienic working conditions have made these communities vulnerable to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The international campaign to stop the abuse has long since fizzled out.
India with 90 per cent of its workforce in the unorganised sector has little to show in terms of labour-friendly practices, where exploitation is as rampant as anywhere else in the world. Even in the organised sector, workers have had to strike to make employers yield to their basic demands of ‘human’ treatment. The Maruti plant in Gurgaon is a case in point.
It appears virtually impossible to fight the two powerful factors contributing to this worldwide phenomenon — corporate greed and corrupt governments, working in tandem to crush opposition to a healthy work environment.