Students and workers to the Gap: “No more fires, no more deathtraps”

About 30 members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition and their supporters paid a visit Saturday to a Gap store in North Austin, but they didn’t go there to shop. At a pre-arranged signal, the psuedo-shoppers dropped to the floor to stage a die-in to protest the Gap’s corporate decision not to sign an international accord designed to eliminate deathtrap sweatshops in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

Three members of the coalition tried to give the store manager a letter urging the Gap, the second largest buyer of garments made in Bangladesh’s sweatshops, to sign the accord. They also asked for a five-minute meeting with the manager to explain why the accord is needed. He refused, the die-in participants chanted, “No more fires, no more deathtraps,” and then proceeded outside where they rallied in front of the store and were joined by more supporters.

Outside of the store, Sofia Poitier, a worker at the University of Texas and member of the Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition, explained the purpose of the die-in and rally. “We want to show the GAP that we’re serious about them signing the accord,” she said. To emphasize her point, she read testimony from workers who were escaped a deadly fire in November  at a Tazreen Designs garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The fire killed more than hundred workers and injured many more.

More recently, a multi-storied garment factory building near Dhaka collapsed killing more than 1,100 workers.

Working in a garment factory in Bangladesh is no doubt one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The International Labor Rights Forum reports that since 2006, factory fires in Bangladesh have caused the deaths of more than 600 garment workers.

The Austin die-in was one of 35 solidarity demonstrations that took place Saturday in cities around the world. “For too long, our brothers and sisters in Bangladesh have worked long hours at a poverty wage rate of $37 per month, producing clothing in the factories that function as literal deathtraps,” read a statement by the organizers Saturday’s demonstrations.

(A documentary entitled, “The Machinist,” presents an excellent picture of what everyday life is like for Bangladeshi garment workers).

The appalling loss of life in Bangladesh’s sweatshops has led 43 clothing brands and retailers to sign an Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Some of those companies include H&M, PVH, the owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, and Abercrombie & Fitch.

The accord requires independent fire inspections by fire safety experts and mandatory repairs and renovations paid for by the clothing and retail companies whose clothes are made in Bangladesh. It also calls for workers and their unions play a central role in making sure that the garment factories are safer places to work.

However, the Gap and Walmart have refused to sign the accord. Instead, they have criticized the accord and issued their own plan for improving safety that includes non-binding measures and no worker involvement to ensure that the voluntary safety measures are carried out.

Saturday’s day of solidarity was part of an ongoing campaign to get the Gap and Walmart to sign the international safety accord. In May, USAS and Jobs with Justice members blocked the entrance to a Gap shareholders meeting in San Francisco demanding that the Gap sign the accord.

Bangladeshi workers have played the leading role in the effort to improve worker safety in the garment sweatshops. In May, 20,000 workers barricaded a highway leading to the Ashulia industrial district where many of the country’s garment factories are located to demand better safety, fair pay, and a better life for garment workers.

Instead of listening to their demands, the government sent the police, who charged the workers firing tear gas and rubber bullets. More than 50 were injured by the police.

Walmart and the Gap aren’t the only US companies that have refused to sign the accord. JC Penney, Banana Republic, North Face, and Sears are some of the other US companies that have failed to sign.

Members of local labor groups including the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186, IBEW, the AFL-CIO, Workers Defense Project, the Texas Fair Trade Coalition, Austin Tan Cerca la Frontera, and National Nurses United joined Saturday’s die-in and rally at the Austin Gap store.

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