March 29, 2020

Justice Still Elusive in Factory Disasters in Bangladesh

Perhaps that is because the man, Delowar Hossain, has not yet been charged with anything — and may never be. He has been a vilified figure since his garment factory, Tazreen Fashions, caught fire last November, killing 112 workers who were making clothes for retailers like Walmart and Sears. A high-level government investigation found fire safety violations and accused Mr. Hossain of “unpardonable negligence.”

“How do you sleep at night?” a woman screamed as Mr. Hossain left the courtroom after the hearing on June 19. The more pertinent question might be this: In Bangladesh, where the garment industry powers the economy and wields enormous political clout, is it possible to hold factory owners like Mr. Hossain accountable?

Now is undeniably the test. The Tazreen Fashions fire was followed by the April collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, in which 1,129 people were killed in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. A global supply chain that delivers low-cost clothes from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West was suddenly redefined by images of mutilated bodies pulled from the rubble. The Obama administration responded last week by rescinding a special trade privilege for Bangladesh over concerns about safety problems and labor rights violations in its garment industry.

But Bangladeshi factories have always suffered fires and accidents, usually without attracting international attention. One study estimated that more than 1,000 workers died in hundreds of factory fires or accidents from 1990 to 2012. Not once was a factory owner charged with any crime, activists say.

“We want to set a legal precedent that factory owners can’t get away with this,” said Saydia Gulrukh, an anthropologist and social activist.

One way to interpret the hearing for Mr. Hossain was as an act of exasperation. It was not a criminal trial. Instead, Ms. Gulrukh and a handful of other activists and lawyers had become so frustrated that they petitioned the Bangladesh High Court to overstep the stalled police investigation and decide whether criminal charges should be filed. The proceeding is already bogged down and could take months, or longer.

“They are just delaying the process,” said Jyotirmoy Barua, the lawyer handling the petition, speaking of Mr. Hossain’s defense team. “They think we will lose the spirit of fighting. But they have miscalculated.”

Bangladesh’s legal system has rarely favored anyone confronting the power structure. Much of the legal code has remained intact since the British imperial era, when laws were devised to control the population and protect the colonialist power structure. Legal reformers continue to push to modernize the criminal code, but the pace of change has been slow. Moreover, the police and other security forces are deeply politicized, with a bloody legacy of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Many garment factory owners are now entrenched in the nation’s power elite, some as members of Parliament. Garments represent 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing exports, giving the industry vast economic power, while factory owners also finance campaigns during national elections, giving them broad political influence.

The April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, located in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, seemed to shock a system often inured to factory accidents. On the morning of the collapse, factory workers had been ordered into the building, even though cracks had appeared a day earlier and an engineer had warned that the structure was unsafe. The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, disappeared amid speculation that he would avoid prosecution because he was affiliated with the governing political coalition, the Awami League.

But incensed High Court judges ordered the police to arrest Mr. Rana, as well as the owners of the garment factories inside the building. Mr. Rana was hauled into the courthouse, along with the factory bosses, surprising some legal activists who could not remember a single case in which judges had taken such action against members of the garment industry.

“That was very unusual,” said Sara Hossain, a Supreme Court lawyer and legal activist, who is not related to Delowar Hossain. “I think it was only possible because of the level of national and international outrage.”

Ms. Hossain has fought the garment industry for years over the 2005 collapse of the Spectrum sweater factory in Savar, in which at least 64 workers died. Soon after the collapse, she and other lawyers petitioned the court and pressed for affidavits from different agencies to determine who was to blame, in hopes of stirring a prosecution.

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.

Article source:

Labor Chieftain Seizes the Anti-Union Moment

But now, with public sector unions under attack in deficit-plagued states and cities nationwide, Mr. McEntee faces the biggest challenge of his career — avoiding a wipeout.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, newly enacted laws will cripple the bargaining rights of 200,000 members of his union and may cause many to quit, jeopardizing the union’s dues base and political clout. The union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as Afscme (pronounced AF-skmee), is also under assault in Florida and New Jersey, where governors and lawmakers are seeking to curb bargaining rights or achieve far-reaching concessions on what many say are overly generous health benefits and pensions.

Still combative at age 76, Mr. McEntee has pushed away talk of retirement and plunged into battle to defend his union, which has grown from 900,000 members when he took over to 1.4 million today.

“The Republicans who were elected last November promised to focus on jobs, but instead they’re focusing on going after the unions,” Mr. McEntee said. “That’s a big overreach.”

In Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican lawmakers argued that public sector unions had grown too powerful and that it was vital to weaken public employees’ bargaining rights, so as to give state and local governments flexibility to help erase their budget deficits. In what is largely a decentralized union, Mr. McEntee is doing his utmost to serve as national field marshal, strategist and megaphone for the counterattack. He sent money to Wisconsin to help fight Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation, initially to mount the huge protests in Madison before the law was enacted and more recently to try to elect a labor-friendly Supreme Court justice and gather signatures to recall eight Republican state senators who voted for the law.

Mr. McEntee has also been pouring resources into Ohio to promote a statewide referendum to overturn that state’s new anti-bargaining law.

Last week, he joined an emerging national battle — fighting House Republicans’ plan to cut Medicare and Medicaid. In addition to plotting strategy with Democrats, Afscme is helping to pay for broadcast ads attacking Republican. The union is also urging 250,000 retirees to fight the plan by contacting lawmakers in Washington.

“He’s a very political animal,” said Richard A. Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader. “He’ll be effective in fighting back.”

The son of a Philadelphia street cleaner, Mr. McEntee followed his father into the labor movement in 1958, becoming Afscme’s top official in Pennsylvania. In 1970, he played an important role in persuading that state’s Republican governor and Republican-led Senate to give state employees the right to bargain collectively.

In 1981, in an upset victory, he defeated Afscme’s secretary-treasurer to become the union’s president. In 1995, frustrated with uninspired leadership at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., he engineered a coup that pushed out its long-time president, Lane Kirkland, and installed John Sweeney.

Mr. McEntee relishes his active role in national and state politics. He heads the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s political committee, which has made him somewhat of a kingmaker in deciding political endorsements, and was an early backer of Bill Clinton for president.

After the Republican revolution of 1994, Mr. McEntee led a labor-financed advertising campaign to help derail Newt Gingrich’s proposal to rein in Medicare spending. And when Mr. Gingrich, then the House speaker, precipitated a government shutdown, Mr. McEntee’s union again ran ads hitting the Republicans, helping turn public opinion against Mr. Gingrich and in favor of President Clinton.

“Gerry’s effort was very helpful,” said Harold M. Ickes, who served as Mr. Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. “Once Gerry makes up his mind on something, he’s very forceful and dogged.”

In 1996, Mr. McEntee joined Mr. Sweeney to persuade the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to spend $36 million, then a huge sum, to help re-elect President Clinton and Democratic House members. As the federation’s political chairman, he helped overhaul labor’s campaign operations to emphasize workplace fliers, door-knocking and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“He was the main mover and shaker in rebuilding labor’s political clout,” said Steve Rosenthal, a former A.F.L.-C.I.O. political director, who added, “He’s a big personality and he rolls the dice in a very big way.”

Mr. McEntee’s critics say he can be brash, pushy and all too happy to pound political opponents in speeches and ads.

Mark Neumann, who was a Republican congressman from Wisconsin in the mid-1990s, still complains about the “horrible” ads Mr. McEntee ran against Mr. Gingrich’s allies. One showed a middle-aged couple at their kitchen table, with the wife worrying that she might have to quit her job to take care of her mother if Mr. Gingrich’s proposals were enacted. “Gingrich and his Republicans are starting to ram their Medicare and Medicaid cuts through Congress now,” the same ad said. “so they can pay for more tax giveaways to the rich.”

“They were misleading,” Mr. Neumann said. He said Republicans were not planning cuts, but were merely trying to hold down Medicare spending increases to 7 percent a year from a projected 14 percent.

More recently, some of Mr. McEntee’s political bets have gone more wrong than right.

During the 2008 primaries, he aggressively backed Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama, at one point saying Mr. Obama “has a problem with the blue-collar work and relating to that worker.”

Last fall, he claimed that his union had spent $90 million in the 2010 campaign, making Afscme the biggest underwriter of the Democrats’ efforts. Mr. McEntee now regrets his boastful words, acknowledging that they helped make public employee unions a target when Republicans swept to victory in many states.

“Some of this is political payback,” he said. “The Republicans are thinking, ‘The public sector unions are a major political force, and if we weaken them, that’ll leave us with an awfully weakened Democratic Party.’ ”

Given recent events, public sector unions may well end up smaller and weaker.

In Wisconsin, where Afscme was founded in 1932, Governor Walker’s legislation, which has been suspended pending a legal challenge, would all but end collective bargaining. It would bar state and local governments from collecting workers’ union dues for public employee unions and would require employees to vote every year on whether they want to keep their union.

“I don’t see how unions can survive in this situation,” said William Powell Jones, a University of Wisconsin labor historian. “This bill is designed to make it almost impossible to operate a union.”

Unlikely as it may sound, Mr. McEntee asserts that his union is on the offensive, not the defensive. He points to opinion polls showing that the public backs unions, not the Republican governors, in their recent clashes. He says many union members are feeling so angry toward the Republicans and so enthusiastic about their union that they will want to continue paying union dues — unlike in Indiana, where 90 percent of state employees stopped paying dues after Governor Mitch Daniels ended bargaining for them in 2005.

“We haven’t had this kind of energy, this kind of spark, in our union in decades,” Mr. McEntee said. “Look at the crowds that came out to protest in Wisconsin: 50,000, 70,000, 100,000. These people are jazzed up. They’re ready to do battle.”

Article source: