With his handheld camcorder, Gulam Sarwar Harum swept through the chanting crowd, capturing their faces and voices as they bellowed for the workers who perished in a fire in a Bangladesh factory.
“Workers’ rights and human rights! Workers’ rights and human rights!” they yelled, waving homemade signs etched with English and Bengali cries for justice.
“We feel that they are a part of us,” said Sarwar Harum, a member of advocacy group Desis Rising up and Moving (DRUM). “We have to speak on behalf of them.”
South Asian immigrant workers, representatives of DRUM and Councilmember Daniel Dromm rallied at the Jackson Heights Plaza to demand corporate accountability among major American companies that subcontract product assembly to workers overseas. Tensions peaked several weeks ago after a fire in a Bangladesh garment factory that yields merchandise for retailers like Walmart, Sears and Disney claimed 114 lives.
“Workers lost their lives for profit so some organization could make money,” said Fahd Ahmed, DRUM’s Legal and Policy Director at the gathering on Thursday, December 6.
Speakers called for an independent and transparent investigation into the cause of the fire as well as full and fair compensation to workers who were injured and reparations made to the families of the deceased. The group hopes other American brands will become aware of the dangers of unethically sourced goods — and that the human toll is far greater than the money saved by the companies.
Dromm, whose district contains a large Bangladeshi population, believes it’s important for issues abroad to impact stateside, as the corporations involved are based in the United States.
“It’s an American company that really is at fault for this fire,” said Dromm. “It’s the corporate greed of a company like Walmart that allows substandard-type conditions to exist in those companies that they contract out to.”
According to Dromm, the factory, which made girls’ shorts, could have provided better conditions for their workers if brands were willing to raise the price of their items by just a small amount — allowing employees to operate in healthier, safer environments and earn more than the average Bangladeshi salary of $37 a month. Dromm said the retailer’s desire to remain competitive among their price bracket rather than use ethical methods to source their merchandise was “unconscionable” and the reason Walmart and companies like it will struggle to establish stores in New York City.
“Walmart will never get into New York City,” said Dromm. “I will fight them to the very end.”