First speaker was Bangladeshi garment workers’ union President, Amirul Haque Amin who addressed Congress on Sunday evening. He explained that international support and solidarity went two ways - it was not just about the North providing financial support for the South. It is about how to stop international companies exploiting all workers - in Bangladesh and the UK. Workers in Textile factories, retail, transport and consumers. All are being exploited. We need to work together to challenge such exploitation.
Amirual called for the British companies who have refused so far to sign the international "Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh" to do so. The so called "Alliance" by Walmart and Gap is completely inadequate since it is voluntary and not binding.
Workers protected by the Accord have right to refuse dangerous work and keep their salary. Also they will themselves play a key role in safety training and inspections.
Phil Jennings from the UNI global union spoke next. His union had played a key role in creating the Accord. He thought it was a "beginning to the end to the race to the bottom". Beforehand there had been a failure of reporting as well as collusion between safety investigators and factory owners.
The issue of adequate compensation for the relatives of the dead and the injured is still outstanding.
Then Debbie Coulter (on right) , Head of Programmes for the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) pointed out that Bangladesh is the 2nd biggest clothing exporter in the World but allows widespread labour rights violations. Union activists have been tortured and even murdered. This had led to disasters such as Rana Plaza and the earlier Tazreen factory fire. Workers have little power and as shown at Tazreen fire doors were locked and fire alarms ignored by managers.
Without workers rights disasters will happen again. The only solution is freedom of association and bargaining rights for unions to protect them.
Final speaker was Fiona Wilson from UK retail union USDAW. She named the UK companies refusing to sign the Accord :-
River Island, Matalan, Bench, Bank Fashion, Peacocks, Jane Norman, Republic and Mexx.
She also criticised the UK government for inviting the top 20 retailer to a conference in July on this issue but excluded the TUC. Need to promote the Accord and draw up similar agreements in other Countries. At least now we have a model.
(take action to get the 8 UK retailers to sign the Accord at the TUC Going to Work website)