Fighting for Workers' Rights—and Winning—at Major Global Corporations

Organization's quest to help voiceless workers earns it human rights prize.

sweat shops

Garment workers take part in a protest in front of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 28, 2013. (Photo: Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Peter Zachariadis is a regular contributor to TakePart. A native Floridian, he has written for the Miami Herald and Associated Press in New Orleans.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse and fire that claimed 1,100 lives in April in Bangladesh inspired an international outcry about safety conditions in workplaces of the major brands that have made the South Asian nation the world's second-largest clothing exporter.

While many clothiers jumped on their public relations responses, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre immediately began tracking the regulatory response of government and the reactions of sourcing companies and international organizations. After studying the situation, it highlighted what specific changes human rights groups and unions were calling for in light of the tragedy.

As a result of the concerted effort by the London-based center and others, the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement to fund safety improvement programs at factories was announced in April. To date, more than 50 companies, including H&M, Benetton, and Mango, have signed the five-year agreement. Walmart and Gap have refused.

Bangladeshi workers' rights are just one of the many frontiers BHRRC has been working on through local human rights watchdogs in more than 180 countries. The group helps query 5,100 companies on a broad range of ethical issues, from the use of conflict minerals to safe working conditions. 

The group will be awarded the biennial Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights on Wednesday for its successes. The choice was easy, said Glenn Mitoma, interim director of the University of Connecticut research center that awards the $75,000 prize that bears the former U.S. senator’s name.

“They provided leadership in one of the great new frontiers in human rights activism,” Mitoma said.

The prize is named for the father of former Sen. Christopher Dodd, who emulated his dad's passion for such issues when he helped pass a provision in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2011 that would force U.S. companies to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission the use of “conflict minerals” found in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

BHRRC had queried companies that would have been affected by the law, and only one, General Electric, stood by the legislation, Mitoma said. The rest filed a lawsuit—ultimately quashed—hoping to scrub the provision. For Mitoma, getting even one large corporation like GE to take a positive stand was another reason to hail what BHRRC has accomplished in such a short time.

“GE is not a company that’s known for being warm and fuzzy,” Mitoma said.

BHRRC founder Chris Avery traces his organization’s work on human rights to the abolitionist movement of centuries ago, when activists stood up not for themselves but for those without any voice. Human rights abuses were rampant in an age when industries were powered by slavery.

Now, Avery points to companies around the world being held accountable for their imprint on countries and workers.

“In some ways business has always been a part of the human rights landscape,” Avery said. “Before, the debate was what accountability do companies have concerning human rights. That debate is over now.”

When he started BHRRC 11 years ago, his aim was to go beyond issues such as how many female executives made up the boardroom, looking instead at conditions for women on the ground by improving transparency, public accountability, and decision making. 

“When you talked about a company’s relationship to women, it wasn’t just about the boardroom but how they treated women in their operations around the world,” Avery said.

In this century, the human rights issues extend to workers seeking better wages and making sure companies provide safe working conditions that can be enforced on the local level through lawsuits and activism.

BHRRC claims to have a 70 percent response rate when it comes to querying companies about alleged violations discovered by human rights workers around the world. When field researchers compile reports concerning alleged exploitation of workers, BHRRC takes the initiative.

“They go a step further and ask businesses to respond to these issues,” Mitoma said. “No one is saying that all the problems of global capitalism will disappear, but we’re hoping they’ll be addressed.”

Previous Dodd Prize winners include the Committee to Protect Journalists and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for their work in promoting peace in Northern Ireland. 

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