Speech by Nurul Kabir, poem read by Padma Balasubramanian below.
Thanks, everybody for being here today. It is a great day, a beautiful day and I am happy to be here with all of you!
And I remember that no more than a few days ago, at 9 AM in the morning on the other side of the world, in Bangladesh, a nine-story building had collapsed, with 5000 workers in it. And people died.
People died. People died cruelly. With their limbs stuck under the rubble. They had no food and water for over four days. They died in anguish thinking of their infants that they had left behind, the father and the mother that they could no longer support with their meager earnings.
They died because they were made to go back into a building that was in danger of collapse. They died because their managers forced them to go in and work. They died for a job that paid $40 a month.
Now, since 2006 there have been over a thousand such deaths. We as consumers in the west do have responsibility. Because those people died making the clothes we wear.
They are being killed because in the chain connecting us to them something is amiss. Something is amiss because we know that for every garment piece that is sold at $100 in the western market, the governments of the consuming countries in the west earn more than $25 in tax, the retailer in the west makes $50 and of the rest, nearly $24 go to the owner’s profit and costs, and a worker gets less than $1.
[Shouts of “Shame” from people assembled at vigil]
Now, the multi-national companies say that “Look, we don’t have any responsibility, because we are contracting to sub-contractors and them to sub-contractors”. They work in cooperation with the government [in the outsourced country}. And the government supports the owners of the factories. The police are on their [owner’s] side, the administration is on their side. Till today not a single factory owner has been punished. The workers, on the other hand, have no unions. They do have industrial police, recently formed, not to protect them but for the express purpose of “keeping order” in the factories.
Now, this is an old story. In 1995, Gap made shirts in El Salvador. They sold for $20 outside. The worker got 18 cents. Men, women, children! toiled in sweatshop hell for 14 hours a day. Some formed a union. The subcontracting factory fired them. Others went on strike. At the end of the year, Gap said we are moving to Asia.
The multi-national companies say this: “Look, if you don’t behave yourselves we will move away. We will leave El Salvador and we will go to Bangladesh, from Bangladesh we will go to Haiti. Why will go to the moon if you don’t behave”.
So how are we to protect poor working people’s rights on this world?
Well, the first thing we have to realize is that the multi-national corporations aren’t about to go to the moon, there are no workers there, not yet. They live on this planet, where WE live and die.
For me, the way is that nowhere in the world should somebody be made to go back to burning buildings, collapsing buildings. If the rights of all workers are upheld, then in the so-called race to the bottom, there is a bottom below which we can’t go to.
So generally if we look at the alliances in the whole supply chain that gives us a guide of where we are and where we should be. There are the alliances between the multi-nationals and the governments, and the works, perhaps, with us.
And specifically, of course, and I say this specifically too certain aggrieved members of the Bangladeshi “Community” :
We do not undertake any action that is not in concert with working people’s express demands.
We work in humility. We know that we are not the workers themselves. In unity, we see what the workers want, and to the best of our ability, we will give them our support.
If we do that, I think, we can achieve the goal that we – all of us – want. Which is: “The people united will never be defeated”
[Chorus of slogans from the people assembled at vigil]
Poem Read by Padma Balasubramanian
Your feet are raised toward Bangladesh
The music of your anklets used to ring out in your mother’s yard and your own home
Your upturned hands used to rise up in prayer
That was yesterday
That was when we sold your tears and sweat for cheap
You were extremely useful to us
Useful in terms of dollar value,
Useful in terms of international trade,
Useful for the governmental statistics
More than once, your face and your dedication to work I have used,
After creasing out the folds and wrinkles, to represent Bangladesh in brightly-lit seminar rooms.