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It Does Not Have to Be This Way

December 10, 2010  |  Share


Statement by

Charles Kernaghan
Director, Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights

December 10, 2010

It Does Not Have to Be This Way


A group of high school students from the Youth Labor Committee of Dundee-Crown High School are doing something remarkable.  On the 62nd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the students will meet with Sears executives.  The students, whose high school is a stone's throw from Sears headquarters on the outskirts of Chicago, will ask Sears to guarantee that the rights of any worker making Sears/Kmart goods will be respected.

For years, Sears and other corporations have completely ignored the rights of workers enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Corporations have, in effect, thrown the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the ground and stepped on it.

Sears makes men's shirts at the Chittagong Fashion Specialized Textiles factory in Bangladesh.  Among the Sears shirts sewn at the factory is a Sears "Structure" label men's, long sleeved shirt, 60 percent cotton, 40 percent polyester in white, blue and other colors.  These shirts retail for $38 in a Sears store not far from Sears' corporate headquarters.




The young workers in Bangladesh are paid just 10 cents for each Sears shirt they sew, leaving them trapped in misery.  The 3,500 workers at the Chittagong Fashion factory-over 70 percent of whom are young women, 18 to 25 years of age-are paid wages of just 11 to 24 cents an hour.  These are starvation wages no one can survive on.  The garment workers live in primitive one-room hovels, sleeping on hard wooden platforms, covering themselves with rags.  When it rains, they have to sit up all night covering themselves with plastic since the roof leaks.  Workers survive on rice and lentils, which is all they can afford.

Unlike the students at Dundee-Crown and other high schools, the teenagers at the Chittagong Fashion factory have never been to a movie, have never ridden a bicycle, cannot afford to buy an apple, have never gone on vacation.  In fact, they never have the time or opportunity to play.

The young workers at the Chittagong Fashion factory sewing Sears shirts are forced to work 12 ½ hours a day, seven days a week.  In November, the workers were not permitted a single day off.  The workers are routinely at the factory over 80 hours a week.  On top of the regular 48-hour work week, they are forced to work another 30 ½ hours of overtime -which exceeds Bangladesh's legal limit on permissible overtime by 154 percent.

Young workers being paid just 11 cents an hour earn just 90 cents a day and $5.42 a week.  Even the most senior and skilled sewing operators earn just 22 cents an hour, $1.74 a day and $10.44 a week.  A pizza pie in Chicago costs more than the highest paid worker in this Bangladeshi factory earns in a week.


It does not have to be this way.  A review of shipping documents shows that Sears shirts made in the Chittagong Fashion factory in Bangladesh enter the U.S. with a total production cost of just $5.33 per shirt.  That $5.33 accounts for all the fabric, thread, buttons and other accessories, direct and indirect labor, and shipping costs.  When Sears sells the shirt for $38, this represents a mark-up of over 600 percent over the cost of production.

So there is money enough-if Sears chooses to take the high road-to allow the Bangladeshi workers to climb out of misery and at least into poverty, where they could afford decent food and clothing and educate their children.

The workers are given 26 minutes to complete each Sears shirt, which means that-even assuming they make 24 cents an hour, the very highest wages in the factory-the workers are paid just 10 cents for each shirt they sew.  Bangladeshi garment workers have told us that if they could earn a base wage of just 35 cents an hour-a very modest proposal-they could live with a modicum of dignity.  Could Sears afford this?  Would the sky fall in if Sears paid the workers 35 cents an hour?  If Sears paid the 35-cent-an-hour wage-which would help them immeasurably-the cost to sew each Sears shirt would rise from 10 cents to 15 cents.  Could Sears pay 5 cents more per shirt so that workers could climb out of misery?  Of course Sears could, just as every other corporation could afford to do so.

At the Sears supplier factory in the Chittagong Export Processing Zone, the workers are also cheated of paid public holidays and vacation time which are mandated under Bangladesh's labor law.  Women sewing operators are shortchanged of their legal maternity leave-being allowed just three months off with pay rather than the four months required by law. 

The workers' legal right to organize is also grossly violated.  Anyone attempting to organize a union will be immediately fired and blacklisted.

No worker we spoke with at the Sears supplier factory in Chittagong had ever heard of Sears Corporate Code of Conduct.



Sears Should Not Cut & Run

Regarding the Chittagong Fashion Specialized Textiles factory:  No one wants Sears to pull its work from the factory.   To "cut and run" would be the worst thing Sears could do, since this would only further punish the workers, who have already suffered enough.  Sears should work with its contractor to clean up the Chittagong factory, and take concrete steps to guarantee that the legal rights of the workers are finally respected.





Corporations Refuse to Pay 35 Cents an Hour!

Recently, in what may have been the largest social justice struggle of women in history, Bangladesh's 3.5 million mostly women garment workers went out on strike and demonstrated demanding a new 35-cent-an-hour minimum wage.  There is no corporation on earth that could not easily afford to pay the modest 35-cent-an-hour wage the women garment workers were asking for.  But not one single corporation-not Sears, not Wal-Mart or any of the others-stood up to say they would pay 35 cents an hour so that the 3.5 million garment workers could climb out of misery and live with a modicum of dignity.



Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.  Perhaps more than anyone else it was Eleanor Roosevelt who fought to make the dream of human and worker rights a reality through the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, among the activist students at Dundee-Crown and other high schools across the country, there is the next Eleanor Roosevelt waiting to appear.

The students are on solid ground!

Please read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  These are our rights!  And no one-not even the largest, most powerful corporation must be allowed to take these universal rights away from us.:

  • "Everyone has the right to work-to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • "Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity...
  • "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
  • "Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitations of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
  • "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care..."

We all owe thanks to the students of Dundee-Crown, who are fighting for the rights of the voiceless workers across the developing world, who endure exploitation and misery on a daily basis.  Students can be the voice of the young workers across the developing world who have no voice in the great North American market.

There are 16.3 million high school students in the United States, 32.1 million elementary school students and 16 million university students.  These 64.4 million students across the United States have the power to make a positive difference.

We need to do everything we can to support them.  We need to remake our economy with a human face.

Attachment: Shipping Document



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