Labour rights rights in South Asia

It is a start

The lockdowns have highlighted once again who the weakest link is in global value chains. By Thomas Rudhof-Seibert

The first lockdown in spring 2020 already shattered global manufacturing and supply chains and made the global market’s hyper-production grind to a halt. The losers were the workers in the basement of globalisation. In just a few days, global trading corporations cancelled their orders to the textile factories in South Asia, plunging millions of workers and their families into abject poverty. Those in the millions-strong army living in poverty in the megacities who manage to find a textile job may have hit the jackpot. But the fall into social oblivion, homelessness and hunger can happen literally at the snap of someone’s fingers. It stands to reason that people whose painstakingly built lives are so ruthlessly turned upside down cannot make the coronavirus the first of their worries: those who have no home anyway and now also nothing to eat quite simply have no tears left to shed over the danger of contracting not this (cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis) but that (Covid-19) disease. The closure of their factories meant the ex-workers were forced to drift through the streets of their megacities in search of something edible, or, if they were lucky, a day labourer’s job.  Mask mandate, social distancing, leave no one behind? What the fuck!

In this situation, the Pakistani National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) and the Bangladeshi National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), medico’s local partner organisations, redirected funds intended for trade union work to provide food instead. When the spring 2020 lockdown ended, by no means all of those who had been laid off got their jobs back, and many factories remained closed. The return to what is a worse normalcy overall is happening in the shadow of the appalling conditions of global vaccine injustice: whilst European buyers of South Asian textiles can hope for early vaccination, the situation in Pakistan and Bangladesh is considerably bleaker. Binding commitments on the supply of vaccine are non-existent.

No pain, no gain, supply chain

In Germany, this brings us to the highly controversial Supply Chain Act, which once adopted by the Bundestag is to apply from 2023. Whilst the first draft of the Act still planned to “ensure the protection of internationally recognised human rights and the environment in global value chains,” it now states noncommittally: “A Supply Chain Act aims to obligate companies based in Germany to honour their responsibility in supply and value chains in the future.” Whilst the first draft unambiguously obligated all companies with 250 or more employees to ensure the protection of human rights and the environment, this now only applies to companies with at least 3,000, and from 2024 also to those with more than 1,000 employees. With fewer staff, the company gets off scot free and enjoys impunity. “Impunity” is the right word because whilst the unequivocal commitment to human rights in the first draft was intended to apply systematically to “the value chain encompassing the entire life cycle of a product or a service,” it now only applies to the company’s “own area of business” and the first tier of suppliers. For the supply chain thereafter, the only requirement is that any human rights violations must be reviewed in a “risk analysis” if complaints from the second, fifth or eighth link in the chain reach the German company.

In spite of being watered down, the Act, which has not been fought through yet, will still ensure that universal human and labour rights are no longer grossly violated in the global manufacturing to satisfy German orders, as is currently the case in many places. Violations can then not just be publicly criticised, they can also face legal action in German courts. Convicted companies will actually face fines. Politically, two things count here: first, it is clear that a majority of society want this Act – a political success, also thanks to campaigns like those on the appalling textile factory disasters, the fire at Ali Enterprises in Pakistan in 2012 and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh the year after. Second, studies by the German government have publicly proven that only a tiny minority of German companies fulfil their human rights and labour law “due diligence”. The findings are so clear they could not be ignored.

New type of anti-capitalist struggles

Like the German Due Diligence Act, its European equivalent and the “binding treaty” aspired to in the UN will also be insufficient. All three are initially no more than bad compromises that fall short of what is needed. If the laws and treaty can nevertheless become successes, this will be down to changing how we combat misery: placing human rights ahead of capitalist globalisation in principle, so turning a struggle that has historically been lost as a particular (labour) struggle into a universal struggle in the full sense of the term over the form and the matter of globalisation itself. This is the dawn of a new type of anti-capitalist struggle. It will succeed with the subjects who lead it and those it appeals to. If the struggle against capitalist exploitation is waged as a human rights struggle, it is no longer just a class struggle and certainly no longer a labour struggle. The factories will no longer be the epicentre, it will instead be waged along the entire production and supply chains, by those who are supplied and by those producing what is supplied. Those who join the fight for human rights will then be answering the question each and every single human being faces, “What kind of world do we want to live in?”.

In this respect, the campaigns that emerged after the disasters of 2012/2013 anticipated, not just in terms of their human rights discourse, but also in terms of their subjective composition, what we will hopefully see more of – because these campaigns brought together South Asian trade union activists and solidarity activists critical of globalisation from the supplied countries. What was true for the activists was also true for those who identified with the campaign: When they used the campaign to demand compensation for survivors, legal action against the companies responsible and, finally, placing human rights ahead of production and supply chains, they did so politically, with the aspiration of creating the other world that is possible. The Supply Chain Act will continue to support this aspiration even when it becomes clear that it will not actually deliver what it promises. All the more so then, hopefully.

Published: 12. May 2021

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