Gap Called on to Sign Safety Agreement Harvard Square Outlet Picketed
Cambridge, Mass. - In the less than two weeks since a devastating collapse at a Bangladeshi garment factory on April 24, over 650 workers have been confirmed dead with many more still missing and the death toll is still expected to rise.
Following the loss of life that allegedly resulted from a management decision to ignore structural faults in the building, picketers targeted the Gap outlet at 15 Brattle St. in Harvard Square on Saturday to call on the company – a major purchaser of garments from Bangladesh – to sign a safety agreement in the country.
They were also calling on consumers to question retailers like the Gap about how their clothes are made, saying that consumers can impact the way their clothes are produced by placing pressure on major apparel chains.
Paul Drake, director and lead organizer of Interfaith Worker Justice, Massachusetts said the picket “was about ensuring that the humanity of the workers that have been killed by the hundreds over the past several years, that that humanity gets recognized, because it’s been buried in the rubble of these buildings.
“These deaths and these incidents are entirely preventable, the companies that make the profit from the clothes that these workers make, they have the resources, and they also have the responsibility to commit the resources, to making these spaces safe, and we’re here to ask for exactly that,” he continued.
The political group Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia, and other labor organizations, had scheduled a talk at Boston University by survivors of a deadly blaze at a different garment factory in Bangladesh that claimed the lives of 112 people last November.
The talk was due to take place on April 19, but was cancelled during the manhunt for the suspected Boston marathon bombers that had started the night before; less than one week later in Bangladesh the collapse of the garment factory building has killed nearly six times the number of those killed in the fire.
Coming to the US from Bangladesh over 20 years ago, member of the ASDSA, Nurul Kabir spoke of his anger towards the employers in the Bangladeshi garment industry and “the contempt they have for working people.”
He said, “The garment industry is very important to Bangladesh, because 80 per cent of export earnings are coming from the garment industry, right, but you’d think for that reason people would be treated better.
“It bothers me that there’s so much inhumanity…and plain not seeing people as human beings, I don’t think they (politicians and employers)…see workers as truly human beings just like themselves, and that’s my personal feeling, and I detest that,” said Kabir.
Open Media Boston found multiple items of clothing at the Gap outlet with labels stating they were made in Bangladesh, along with several other underdeveloped countries including: Sri Lanka, Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, India, and China.
The picket on Brattle St. was preceded by a vigil and speeches outside Harvard T station before the crowd of over 80 demonstrators marched to the store; Cambridge police officers arrived during the picket, but the event passed without incident.
Calling on the Gap to sign a fire and building safety agreement in Bangladesh, demonstrators also delivered a letter to a store employee to pass on to the corporate office.
Drake explained that the agreement they seek “is something that would be a contract … similar to the contracts we all have in society, as opposed to just a promise to do right.”
The agreement calls for independent inspections by trained fire safety experts independent of corporate ties, public reporting of inspection results, mandatory repairs to safety hazards, the creation of new ways to identify workplace hazards, and a voice for workers through their unions on workplace safety issues.
“There has to be sufficient financing, and this has to be legally binding,” Drake said, “it can’t just be vague promises; those are the features in the agreement that are so important, and we’re just baffled why these companies don’t want to agree to that.”
Open Media Boston contacted the Gap press office for comment, but the company did not respond before the filing of this report.
Many picketers chanted, “close, close, close the Gap, your factories are a death trap,” but Kabir doesn’t agree.
“I don’t think they should stop buying anything because it’s made in El Salvador, or wherever such crimes are happening, they shouldn’t, because people there are desperate, and the job is important to them; I think it doesn’t help anybody.
“It’s not so much that the wage difference is bad, but workers’ rights should be enforced, you know, the cost of living is lower, so is the wage difference …,” he said.
This latest tragedy in Bangladesh is being compared in the media to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City in 1911, but it already far outstrips the 146 fatalities in that infamous workplace disaster.
Asked about how consumers can feel like they’re doing something to improve workplace conditions and not feel resigned to how their garments are produced in countries like Bangladesh, Mr. Drake said, “I think part of that is because the economy fragments us from one another and it fragments our humanity …”
On a practical level, he said “one concrete thing that individuals…can do is wherever they shop for their garments, say ‘if you source in Bangladesh, have you signed on to the fire safety agreement?’ that’s pretty basic, so people should speak up in that capacity.”
He also called on consumers to call corporate offices, write letters to the editor, and join future pickets of the Gap.