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Take Note: Mark Anner on the fight for workers' rights in the global garment industry

WPSU Take Note Mark Anner

On this episode of Take Note, Mark Anner, Penn State professor and researcher, talks with us about working towards improved workers' rights in the garment industry. He shares a few harrowing stories and the background on the Covid-19 tracker which encouraged big brand clothing companies to #payup their cancelled Covid-19 orders with global factories.

Here's the conversation:

John Weber 
Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm John Weber. Today we're talking with Mark Anner. Anner is an author, researcher, and Penn State professor. He's also the founding director of the Center for Global Workers' Rights at the School of Labor and Employment Relations. His research and activism for improved working conditions and workers' rights, primarily in apparel manufacturing, has led to reforms in both Latin America and Asia. In 2020, with the Worker Rights Consortium, Anner and the Center team created a tracker to monitor apparel manufacturing orders in Bangladesh, that major corporations cancelled because of COVID. This work and the resulting $22 billion paid up by these corporations has been called one of the single greatest achievements for workers' rights in the garment sector in decades. Hello, Mark, thanks for talking with us today.

Mark Anner  
John, it's great to be with you. Thank you for having me.

John Weber 
For many years, you lived in El Salvador and worked directly with labor unions. How has your role as a professor researcher shifted your work towards advancing global workers rights lately?

Mark Anner 
That's a great question. It's been decades of work and process and reflection. Decades of lived experience. So there's a common thread through this all that really goes back to the 1980s. You know, now currently, as you mentioned, I'm really privileged to be able to direct The Center on Global Worker Rights and to direct his master's program on labor and global worker rights. You know, I'm able to, through teaching and through research, really focus on the issues that concern me so much. So you know, I'm able to do these reports that, are geared toward larger audience like the ones around these order cancellations, as well as academic publications.

John Weber 
I know you found your work dangerous sometimes, Mark. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how that has shaped your work?

Mark Anner 
So you know, for me this really starts when I was an undergraduate. I was studying in the Boston area, at Tufts University, in the 80s. And back then, the international news was all about Central America, these really brutal civil wars that were going on. And I became very interested and very concerned about the US role in supporting these wars. And as I became interested in that, I became very interested in the region, and the people in the countries, and the histories, and the cultures. And I started to go down. I went down during my winter breaks. I went down during my summer breaks, when I was an undergraduate student. And one month after graduating, I went to the region and to live there. And I spent most of that time in El Salvador. When I got to El Salvador, it was 1988. And the Civil War was really extremely brutal at the time. There were daily killings going on, and many of them of worker rights advocates. And my job was to sort of document what was going on and getting the word out internationally with US and European organizations. And what happened to me was, while I went to document what was happening to other people, was I eventually got on the radar of the of the government there. And I was detained. I was put in a basement prison cell, detention center cell. And I was interrogated for days about my work. I was asked repeatedly whether I was working with unions and what I was doing. It was a really terrifying experience. I was eventually released because of international and local pressure. And then six weeks after that, the labor organization where I worked, was bombed at lunchtime. I was in the cafeteria, when it happened. It was a very simple, rustic cafeteria. Actually turned the old garage into a makeshift cafeteria. And a couple of guys put a plastic explosive outside the doors of this old garage, which was our cafeteria. And it blasted through the cafeteria at lunchtime, killing 10 people, three of them, were sitting with me. And one in particular, was a very close friend, Febe Elizabeth Valesquez. So three were killed sitting with me. I survived both the very serious head injury and was taken to the public hospital. I don't know at the time, initially, they gave me about 89 stitches, I think in the top of my head. I eventually got out of the hospital and went back to the to the US and the country just descended deeper and deeper into civil war. And I was at that point, there was such a broad movement going on, I began participating in that. I was speaking sometimes two, three times a day. I still had bandages on my head, but I sort of really, you know, got involved in in that movement. It was both about worker rights and ending the war in El Salvador. So that had a really traumatic effect on me. What happens afterwards, I took a pause on all this. I couldn't go back. I wanted to go back to El Salvador. I couldn't. The situation was just too violent. The office was still abandoned. My friends and colleagues were either in hiding or had left the country. So I got a master's degree, went to Stanford. I did that degree. By the time I finished, the situation had changed in El Salvador. There was a peace process and things were very different. And I went back. I think it was a day after finishing my thesis, I was on a plane to go back. I just I didn't know what else to do. That was what was in my heart. I'd lived through so much. I wanted to be there. I wanted to see what this post-war country would look like. I wanted to see how the country would rebuild. I wanted to see if you know, worker rights and labor organizations were going to be part of that rebuilding process. And what I found was this plan by the government, in coordination with the US, to build almost everywhere, these Export Processing Zones for garment exports. And that's how I became aware of this issue. An issue that, again, drives me to this day. And what I do and what I write about. All the work I do as an activist and as an academic. What happened was, they were so adamant that they needed to rebuild after the war; they provided tax incentives, tariffs, incentives, subsidies, and so on. But they didn't think about the quality of the jobs. The philosophy was really, any job, a bad job is better than no job. What happened, these jobs really mushroomed in the country, but they were really bad jobs. Things I hadn't heard of before. These are really, really long shifts, really brutal paces of production. Very young workers. Pregnancy tests to get a job to make sure you wouldn't have leave for a pregnancy. And I began just documenting this, writing about it, trying to participate with others to try to address these situations. Those early lessons, those experiences really motivated me to this day. And just while I'm doing all this, this is in the 90s now in El Salvador, I get called to see if I can help sort of facilitate a solution to a problem that emerged in one of these factories that had orders with The Gap. Workers had problems, they tried to form a union, all of the ones that signed up to form the union were fired. And this big international campaign, one of the very first anti-sweatshop campaigns happens. And there was an agreement in in the US, in New York, between the company, The Gap and the activists to get those workers their jobs back. They were, you know unfairly fired, the unionists, the union leaders. So I get called in to see if I could help facilitate, just making this happen, and then sort of verify that the workers got their jobs back. And it took a long time. We were in discussions for months. But they eventually got their jobs back and I was with them the day they got their jobs back. I walked in with them, with my team. We were a group of folks. Saw them go back to work, saw them go back to their workstations. And we were just over the moon. We were so pleased with this. This was really unheard of. It was the first time in El Salvador unionists got their jobs back. What happened next, though, was four days after that really tremendous success. I was coming home from doing some work. As I attempted to go into my house, three men followed me in. And I was....they pulled out guns on me, they held me, they said they're gonna basically didn't say anything to me, really. But they were waiting for the rush hour traffic to die down. And then they attempted to take me with them. Luckily, a neighbor saw. She called the police once, twice, three times, they eventually showed up. So when they tried to take me, they noticed that the police were outside. They kind of looked through a crack in the garage door. And they fled. I just really, very luckily survived. I originally tried to tell myself this was a kidnapping attempt. When I went to report it, the investigators asked me, they actually said, "what did they cover their faces with?" I said, "Well, they didn't cover their faces with anything." And they said, "Well, this wasn't a kidnapping attempt. Kidnappers, you know, don't want to be identified after ransoms are paid or so on. They wanted to take your life." So this was yet another really dramatic experience. And this was directly linked to just trying to defend the most basic rights for garment workers. Just trying to get these workers their jobs back. And you could just see how high the stakes were. So I was in El Salvador for another year after that. And then I went to Cornell, got my PhD. Not surprisingly, this was a big part of my dissertation research. finished the PhD and came to Penn State about 16 years ago.

John Weber 
Do you see some similarities between countries like India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh as far as how they're treating their workers now, much like how it was in El Salvador back in the 80s and 90s? Are there any similarities between these workers rights and the issues that are kind of being faced or are these totally new issues unrelated to those times?

Mark Anner 
Now the the issues are very similar. You know, one of the key things, the very first factory that I visited was in El Salvador was actually 1988. The extreme violence is one part of the story, but the logic of the industry and how that logic adversely affects worker rights hasn't changed. If anything, it's gotten more intense. So the story I had, this is again my first time going into a garment factory. And I was going...touring the factory. The factory owner was taking us around. There was a union in the factory. And she starts telling me the story of how the minimum wage went up by 10%. And that most of her costs are labor cost. And she says, she called up the brand. So this is all, you know, outsourced production. She's an independent factory owner, she does orders for a big brand. She called up the brand and said, "I can't do it at that price point." She was given $1 per piece to make these little girls' dresses. "I can't do it at the price point, the minimum wage just went up by 10%." And the brand's response was basically, "You don't set the price point, we do. The price point is $1. So there's one question and only one question, can you do it for $1 a piece? If not, with one phone call, we can move the production elsewhere." So I'm looking at her and the factory is buzzing. And I said, "Well, you obviously stayed in business, how did you do it?" She said, "Well I told them, I got it, I would do it for $1 a piece. I got off the phone, I went over to the microphone system for the loudspeakers and told the workers, they're all going to have to work 10% faster." And that's in a sense, easy to do. It's not humane. It's easy to do in garment production because workers are sort of very carefully counted. How many pieces or operations they do per hour. If they're sewing on the collars or the cuffs, that they're doing 80, they would at that point have to have done 88 operations per hour. That was just such an important moment for me. And I tell the story frequently for that reason. That logic has not changed to this day. And it's a purchasing practice decision by a brand, "make this for me at a certain price point." A supplier trying to stay in business, while costs are rising. And then pushing down on the workers. So I refer to it as a double squeeze. A squeeze by these brands and retailers, like a Walmart, onto the supplier factories. And in turn a squeeze from the supplier factories onto the workers. And that is what you know, I would call "work intensity". And it's something I've focused on very recent research in India. And I found I documented this through survey research. And it goes one step further. Okay, if it's one off, the wages go up and you'll go from 80 to 88 operations. It's one thing. What happens when this is systemic? What happens when year after year, the prices get pushed down? And factory owners not knowing what else to do, respond by increasing the production demand on the workers. At some point, you're going to be demanding production goals of these workers that are just simply inhumane. And at that point, what happens, and I documented this in my research in India, is you start to get a rise in verbal and physical abuse in the factories. And one of the reasons is, many not all, but many factories link the supervisor pay to the capacity of those workers to meet quota. So if the production line doesn't meet that hourly quota that they're set up to do; not only do the workers get penalized, but so does the supervisor. So now the supervisor, they have an incentive to really push the workers, hit the workers, yell at the workers, to work faster because they want their full pay. And we go from a squeeze on price, to a squeeze on work intensity, to an increase in verbal abuse. And that trend was there in the 80s. It was there in the 90s. It was there in the early 2000s. And it's there today.

John Weber 
If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm John Weber. Our guest is Penn State professor and global workers' rights activist, Mark Anner. And this continued squeeze got worse with COVID right, Mark?

Mark Anner 
Absolutely. So when COVID hits, there was a very harsh reaction by the by the brands and the retailers. And all this of course is based on a power imbalance. Sort of the way I've been talking, sort of implicit in this. These brands are huge. The supplier factory, some of them are quite large, but they have nothing....the power that the really big brands and retailers have. So they have power, they have the power to set prices. And when COVID hit, they had the power to cancel orders abruptly without pay. Now one of the things that did shift over all these years was that suppliers were instructed by the brands and the retailers to take on more and more responsibility for the production process. If fabric was shipped to them in the past, now they're the ones that need to purchase the fabric, cut it, and then make the garment. In the process, the buyers began paying later and later. So you're giving the suppliers more risk and you're also turning them almost into the banks for the industry. So they're going into debt, to buy that fabric and to make that product. So when they canceled, when the brands cancelled, it was really brutal on these supplier factories because they owed so much money. We estimate, we did some research, we estimate that it reached $40 billion in order cancellation. So again, it's the suppliers get hit and then they turn and you know, lay off workers. And the workers get squeezed. So we documented severance pay not getting paid. Workers getting sent home with without furlough pay and so on. And you know, very shortly, we were documenting increases in the level of malnutrition among garment workers. So it was really brutal. We documented this in a short report called Abandoned: The Impact of COVID-19 on Workers and Suppliers at the Bottom of Supply Chains. If I really wanted to be more accurate in that title, the title should have been "Abandoned the Impact of the Brand Response to COVID-19 on Workers and Businesses at the Bottom of Supply Chains." Not just that COVID happened, brands and retailers made a decision on how they wanted to respond to COVID. And they responded by abruptly canceling orders without paying. Basically protecting their own bottom line and putting all the risk and the impact onto the suppliers and the workers in the supplier factories.

John Weber 
Has the COVID-19 order tracker project changed since the early days of COVID lockdown in 2020? Has Bangladesh recovered as an apparel industry? Are the workers rights now improving like with knowing that they're being tracked? You know, these sorts of suppliers or factories or big brands? Like what are the changes being seen lately?

Mark Anner 
Great question. Yes. So a couple of things. First, just to talk about in terms....I mean, I really see what happened once we were able to document. We, a whole bunch of groups in the media and suppliers speaking out...once we were able to document the scale of these cancellations. I think really what we see is a social movement emerging. Groups all over the organization, this #Payup movement became very, very powerful. And then this tracker, which the WRC, the Worker Rights Consortium, really took the lead on. We provided a supportive role in the center. But they took the lead on it. It was the foundation. It was the go to place to see you know, who had paid up in full and who hadn't. And the media, you know, really tough journalists were really writing about this in a very clear articulate way. All this came together. It was almost a perfect storm that pushing these companies to pay up. Most did. We documented 22 billion was paid up. Many didn't. We would have needed an army of researchers to document every single thing. We did the best we could under the circumstances we had. So if a brand said we're paying up, we didn't take their word for it, we spent a ton of time on zoom and WhatsApp trying to track down supplier factories. If such and such a brand said they paid up, is that true? Then calling some factories in other countries and other countries for every brand. And you know we focused on the really big ones because there was so much money involved with those big ones. But there was a whole slew of smaller ones, and we just didn't have the capacity. So what we document is what we can, you know, really account for. I think the movement was really, as you mentioned, really one of the most powerful ones we know in the history of this anti-sweatshop movement. So that's, you know, that's where things are at, at that point of time when that movement really emerged and into the first sort of, I don't know 6,7,8 months of the pandemic itself in 2020. So where are we at now? You know, this question is such a crucial question. Are workers' rights improving? Are things back on track? I would say it's an incredibly uneven story. It really depends, country by country, sector by sector. It changes month by month. So what was happening several months out, we did a second report on this, titled Leveraging Desperation. What was happening several months out, was that new orders were starting to go back in but they were much smaller orders and the buyers wanted them very quickly, because they couldn't forecast how much is going to sell. We don't know. So instead of getting 100,000 of this product, let's get 20,000. Let's get it quickly. The orders were smaller, this lead times were shorter, and the prices were down much further than we documented that in this report. The buyers felt it was a buyer’s market. And that's sort of the title. That the suppliers were desperate. They needed orders. They had gone months without production. They, you know, had to pay their bills. They had to pay rent and electricity, and so on. So they were really desperate for orders, but there wasn't a ton of volume that was needed. So they were competing, even more so with each other. And we documented the prices, were on average, being pushed down between 12% and 13% per item. So that was really significant. And lastly, the payment terms were getting even more delayed. So the factories were really strapped to their limits in terms of credits. The banks didn't want to give them more loans. And all this, again, adversely was affecting workers. And of course, in the midst of all this, we have COVID still raging. We have low rates of vaccination in many of these supplier countries. So then the orders start to pick up again, factories want to get back in and workers want to get back in because they want to start earning their wages again. But a lot of them are being squeezed into the close quarters, they're being squeezed into little minibuses to get back and forth to work. So this question of, you know, infection rates among workers and their health and well being. So all these problems are, are still present. Now Bangladesh, specifically you asked, right now, you know, sort of today's news is the industry is buzzing there and is buzzing for a bunch of reasons. Demand has picked up again in developed market economies. Also countries like Vietnam, one of the major major suppliers in the world, is largely on lockdown right now, because of their response to the crisis. China's with tariffs and different things, it's sort of been in decline for a while. So Bangladesh is really in a good position to pick up order volume. The question there and we want to research this in the coming months, is how are they doing in terms of pricing, payment terms and other conditions?

Mark Anner 
Do consumers care enough about workers’ rights today and working conditions to make a difference?

Mark Anner 
My short answer is yes. And I say this in part as a Penn State professor who's in the classroom a lot of talking to young people. I think there's awareness now for this generation, that didn't exist to the same degree in my generation. And that's really welcoming. I think it's connected with other issues. Tje awareness about the environment and sustainability. And a lot of us in this field are really trying to link the two. It's about a sustainable environment. It's about sustainable lives for the workers that make our products. Treating the workers well, as well as caring for the environment. So I see a lot of interest, a lot of good questions come up. Young people wanting to know what they can do, and how they can be more informed, better informed consumers. I see them, you know, really paying attention to these issues. The question that comes up, is this, and it's a good question. I get it a lot. Well, if one of the answers as far as the environment is a concern, to buy less. Like part of the issue with this industry was fast fashion, which was pushing us to buy more and more. Sort of this disposable fashion. And all these stories of how many trucks go per second to landfills with, you know, used clothing, or some clothing that was never used and is being dumped. So how do we have a more sustainable model of production, without adversely affecting the millions of millions, 10s of millions of workers, who have come to depend on these jobs? You know, are these two goals in conflict with each other? And I like to think that's not the case. And the way I like to put it is this, I think we need to move toward a model of...on the consumer side, and I say this sort of in quotes "consumers." Because we work and we consume. On the consumer side, I think we need to pay more and buy less. So it doesn't have to affect our bottom line in our budgets. But if the products are better, and they last longer, move away from disposable fashion. So buy better quality products that last longer and pay more per item. But you know, sort of in our annual budgets, pay the same or maybe even a bit less if we're buying smarter. So if we're paying more and buying less, what does that do on the worker side? Well, you know what, what I see in the workplace is I visit and the workers I talked to are these insane, long shifts with this very, very inhumane pace of production. So there on that side, I say, we have to work smarter and pay more. So I think we need to go back to that dream from over 100 years ago of an eight hour workday. And I think we have to get these production targets down to a more humane level. So that means each worker will be working less, both in terms of intensity and hours of work. I mean, many are doing 72 hours of work a week. I mean, you can always take those jobs and divide them in two. So if they're working smarter and getting paid more, we can sort of connect these two goals of caring for the environment and caring for workers. And I think people get that message and I think they respond to it. Now getting the word out, of course is important. I like to believe the tracker that the Worker Rights Consortium put out, and we collaborated on, provides one guide. You could still see that today and see which brands paid up in full and which ones haven't.

John Weber 
Many of those apparel companies that you mentioned in your tracker and hit record highs and sales this past summer. How does this affect garment workers going forward, knowing that there's this squeeze that continues to happen, but the companies back in America are really seeing the benefits of that squeeze? Is there a breaking point?

Mark Anner 
I think you're absolutely right. We see this, I mean these companies have returned to incredible profitability. Yet we see the squeeze in a variety of purchasing practices. That those squeezes continuing, whether it's prices, whether it's lead times, whether it's delayed payments. I think one of the big lessons coming out of this is voluntary initiatives to address worker rights violations and poor labor conditions aren't really up to the task of dealing with these issues. And it's because these sort of economic inequalities are really rooted in power and equalities. If we can start from that poin, that there's a fundamental power imbalance between these big buyers, the suppliers, and the suppliers and their workers. Then we need to move beyond voluntary initiatives. And there's this whole series of experiences that are so important and what I call "multi-actor binding agreements." The Bangladesh Accord is one example of that. And there's these calls out now for wages and severance pay. So the idea here is that, just like companies, and over 200 did this back in the day, signed on to The Bangladesh Accord, with binding clauses in it. So if they signed on and said they're gonna do this, and this for building safety, and they didn't do it...there was a possibility, it was a long process of escalation and consultation, but they could be taken to court. And two were at The Hague. So this is I think, the kind of mechanism that's needed because it really calls these companies to task. They can't just go and say they have these good intentions. They have to sign onto agreements that they're legally bound to fulfill those obligations. And if we move in that direction, I think we can address this issue like you're saying, the profits accruing on one side and workers being squeezed on the other. And you know, one of the important points of what you're saying, that's so insightful about the question itself is, this is not an impoverished industry. I mean, some people look at the garment sector, "Oh, that's kind of the poor old industry that you do on the first stage of development. You have to get into higher value added products and move up the the chain." I don't really see it that way. This is a multi multi-billion dollar industry. There are enormous profits being made as one of the most important industries in the global economy. The problem isn't the industry itself is impoverished. The problem is that the benefits from production aren't equally shared

John Weber 
Mark, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Mark Anner 
Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

John Weber 
Mark Anner is an author, researcher, Penn State professor and the founding director of the Center for Global Workers' Rights at the School of Labor and Employment Relations. His research and activism for improved working conditions and workers rights, primarily in apparel manufacturing has led to reforms in both Latin America and Asia. I'm John Weber, WPSU.

Check out the Worker Rights Consortium Covid-19 Tracker here.

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