Worker Rights and Responsible Consumption

Cramped_Quarters_of_the_Textile_WorkerHuman Rights in Ireland welcomes this guest post from Dr Fiona Donson. Fiona  is a lecturer at UCC Faculty of Law specialising in Human Rights, Administrative Law and Criminal Law. She was formally a human rights worker in Cambodia where her experience included health and employment rights projects in Garment factories and child rights projects for UNICEF and the European Commission. This is a cross post from the CCJHR Blog.


The tragic events in Bangladesh last week once again threw a spotlight on the harsh reality of sourcing products from developing nations. Yet it remains to be seen if this latest disaster will have any impact on the policies of transnational corporations and their customers seeking low priced goods.  Today, International Labour Day, the official death toll from the collapse of the Rana building near Dhaka was has passed 400, but estimates place the casualties as being over four times that figure. The facts of the disaster are in many ways typical of the story of factory operations in many developing nations. A largely unregulated industry operating in unregulated buildings, with limited health and safety laws and/or implementation, cramped working conditions, poor pay, and with limited unionisation.


Bangladesh has one of the lowest levels of labour unit cost in the world with a living way currently standing at US$64 a month. It therefore operates at the bottom end of the garment industry in an environment that regularly results in tragedies. As Human Rights Watch noted this disaster is a new event:


The Rana building collapse is the latest in a long list of factory building tragedies in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said. In April 2005, 73 garment workers died in a factory collapse in Savar. In February 2006, 18 workers were killed in a garment factory collapse in Dhaka. In June 2010, 25 people were killed in a building collapse in Dhaka. In November 2012, more than 100 workers died in a fire at a factory in Dhaka.


These large scale tragedies however, overshadow the day to day cost of cheap labour.


Yet Bangladesh has failed to come to terms with the problems within the sector. Human Rights Watch highlight that they have ongoing and well recognised problems with labour inspections – employing just 18 inspectors to monitor an industry employing over 3 million people. Companies are given prior warnings of inspections and the consequences of breaching the labour law are small and unlikely to act as a deterrent in the face of profits – the most common punishment is a fine of US$13 per case.


In this context, the role of unions is critical but the government has consistently worked to limit the right of workers to unionise. The factories within the Rana building were not unionised, and it is likely that no union would have stood by and allowed their workers to enter a building that had previously been evacuated on safety grounds. Yet, Continue reading

Minority Rights Summer School Highlights Plight of the Rohingyas

I was the organiser for this year’s Minority Rights Summer School, held at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway, from 13th-17th June. It was the eleventh year of the School, which always attracts an interesting group of academics, students, activists and lobbyists, as well as those with a general interest in minority and indigenous rights and the role of human rights law in promoting equality and diversity. The programme this year saw a range of speakers, including a full day of sessions dedicated to a forum on indigenous peoples’ rights with contributions from scholars and practitioners. Continue reading

The Irish Lifeboat

A recent article in the Irish Times described comments by a leading Australian urban geographer, Prof. Brendan Gleeson of NUI Maynooth, that Ireland will become a ‘climate change lifeboat’. The idea is that as climate change causes rising sea levels, displacing vast overpopulated regions of the world, Ireland will be less physically affected leading to our ‘lifeboat’ status for large numbers of people who are effectively ‘climate refugees’. The BBC also reported the story, adding that if global temperatures rise by three or four degrees, as Prof. Gleeson predicts they will, the southern megacities in Africa, the sub-continental states and Asia will be the first to go under, taking with them a substantial proportion of our species. This will generate “enormous migratory shifts, as displaced and stressed populations flee the sea level rise and wildly destructive weather.” Ireland could become one of only a few habitable ‘lifeboat’ regions in the cooler extremes of the earth.

The concept of climate change refugees is a growing area of interest. For example a recent Oscar-nominated documentary film, Sun Come Up, tells the story of the Cateret Islanders of Papua New Guinea, considered the first climate change refugees as their island is predicted to sink. Another documentary, Climate Refugees, portrays “a new phenomenon in the global arena called ‘Climate Refugees’”, according to its blurb. Continue reading