Thursday, May 30, 2013

African Liberation Day 2013: Reflecting on the past and planning to accelerate the full unification of the peoples

African Liberation day, May 25 2013, was marked with meetings and reflections in all parts of the Pan African world, from Kingston to Abuja and from Kampala to Accra. It was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the current heads of state held their celebration. Many international leaders including the Secretary General of the United Nations participated in the celebrations in Addis. The two day event at the new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa had been preceded by a week of meetings by many groups from across Africa and the dispersed Africa family. The reflections and discussions of these groups were very different from the communiques that came from the heads of State at the end of the celebration. While the Heads of state focused on a standby force and their vision of Africa 2063, the intellectuals, activists, artists and writers focused on the acceleration of the full unification of the peoples of Africa and the need for concrete steps towards a government that can defend Africans at home and abroad. It was from the Global African family where the activists were reminded of the spirit of 1804 and why the challenges laid down by the revolution in Haiti were still relevant, especially in relation to the dignity and citizenship of the African person in the 21st century. Hilaty Beckles of Barbados reminded the intellectuals who were gathered in a session called Being Pan African, that the question of reparations must be at the top of the agenda in order for there to be healing and peace in the 21st century. The three terms of dignity, emancipation and unity were repeated and elaborated on by confident presenters who participated in a forum on  “Framing a 21st Century Narrative on Pan Africanism and African Renaissance.”
In this submission, I want to share some of the discussions and reflections that went on at these side meetings to celebrate 50 years of African Unity.
Can the African Union exclude the Rastafari?
The first session that I participated in at these celebrations was a three day Symposium entitled “Being Pan –African.” Leading intellectuals from Africa and the African Global Family were brought together by a number of organizations in the Old Plenary Hall of the African Union on May 17 - 19.  On the morning that the Symposium was supposed to be open there was a delay. What was the problem? We were informed later by Giulia Bonacci (one of the organizers) that the accreditation of representatives from the Rastafari community from Sheshamane had been the reason for the hold up. Some members of the bureaucracy of the African Union considered the Rastafari a security risk, especially because many of the children of the brethren and sistren did not have the relevant identification documents to enable entry. The matter was resolved before the start when some of the Rastafari at the gates of the African Union were allowed entry. This impasse between the grassroots Rastafari community and the leaders of the African Union was like a metaphor about the freedom of movement of Africans at home and abroad. Here was a community of Africans that had been repatriated to Africa but the leaders of the current state felt threatened by those who were active in the promotion of the ideas of African unity and dignity. It was therefore, not surprising to hear from the press that many grassroots organs were excluded from the big celebrations at the AU headquarters.
On Saturday evening May 18, the Rastafari brethren and sistren gave a full cultural session, bringing back the lyrics of Bob Marley and those cultural artists who called for full unity.
The debates and discussions on the roots, achievements and challenges of Pan-Africanism reflected the diversity of what is called Pan Africanism today.
Pan Africanism and Reparations
There were many outstanding presentations, two of which I would like  to highlight. The first was that of Kofi Anyidoho, the Ghanaian writer and poet. Drawing from the creative genius of a number of Ghanaian writers (such as  Casely Hayford’s novel Ethiopia Unbound [1911]; Ama Ata Aidoo’s short story “She Who Would Be King” [1997]; Ayi Kwei Armah’s novels Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa Past, Present, and Future [1995] and KMT [2002]; and Kodwo Abaidoo’s trilogy Osimbe [1993] Black Fury [1995] and Sealed Scroll [2000]), Anyidoho elaborated on  the creative visions of these writers and how this body of literature has  moved us far into the 21st Century. Anyidoho, formerly the Kwame Nkrumah Professor of Pan Africanism at the University of Legon, maintained that “these creative visions of a future Africa seen through the minds of writers are remarkable for one fact, Africa’s resilience and triumph against domination and exploitation, based on one pre-condition: unity along lines defined by leading Pan-African thinkers, especially Kwame Nkrumah.
His presentation was a welcome antidote to that of a young Ethiopian scholar who had castigated the Pan Africanism of Kwame Nkrumah and sought to establish a false dichotomy between the aspirations of Nkrumah and Haile Selassie.
The other memorable presentation in this symposium was that of Hilary Beckles who spoke on the question of Reparations and the healing of the African peoples. Drawing extensively from his new book Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, Beclkles reminded the Pan African movement of criminal legacies of the mass enslavement of Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From the moment of the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) in Durban 2001, European diplomats and politicians have been active in Africa, claiming that the enslavement of Africans was perfectly legal and moral. Those Africans whose ancestors were complicit in this criminal enterprise argued that the matter was simply a commercial activity. 
Beckles reminded the gathering that the same leaders who were selling their brothers and sisters in Africa yesterday, were the same leaders who were assisting in the plunder of African resources today. These leaders have been afraid to engage with the outcomes of the WCAR to bring clarity on the lasting impacts of the enslavement on the health and well–being of the current generations. Hemmed in by their alliance with Western Europe and North America, the majority of African leaders (even within the NGO communities) have been afraid to embrace the pro-reparations positions that had been adopted in Durban. It has been the African descendants from South America, North America and the Caribbean who have been most tenacious in placing the issues of reparative justice at the center of the Pan African agenda. For the past 11 years since Durban, the Global African family has been calling for solidarity from Africans at home so that the entire international community could heal.
The current African leadership remained deaf to the calls for reparative justice. The same leaders from the AU who were willing and able to place on the agenda the matter of the relationship between Africans and the current International Criminal Court could not whisper a word about the need to build a solid front over reparations.
Pan Africanism and the spirit of 1804
The mandate of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), when it was launched on May 25, 1963 was to speed up the full decolonization of Africa. Throughout the meetings, there was the celebratory mood that Africans have been able to overcome colonialism and apartheid. At the time of the launch of the OAU in 1963 there were more than twenty countries that had not yet achieved independence. Many people may have forgotten the sacrifices that there made so that African states could achieve formal independence. And yet, even in this moment of celebration, Pan Africanists had to be reminded that the tasks of decolonization have not yet been completed. There are still colonial enclaves in Africa – in Mayotte, Diego Garcia, Cueta, and Western Sahara. Outside of Africa there are millions who are still in colonial territories in places such as Aruba, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Cayenne, Puerto Rico, Curacao, and Saint Maarten. During the period of the activism of the OAU Liberation Committee, Africans who were fighting for independence pressed that the status of these territories be placed before the decolonization committee of the United Nations.
Hilary Berkles used his presentation to invoke what he called the spirit of 1804. This was the spirit of the Haitian independence struggle that conferred citizenship on all Africans. Any enslaved person from any territory would automatically receive citizenship and be a free person in Haiti. The current leaders of the African Union were called upon to confer the same principle of automatic citizenship and freedom to all Africans and at the same time guarantee freedom of movement for Africans everywhere.
In my own presentation on reconstruction and transformation in the 21st century, I drew attention to the reality that the meeting was taking place at a moment of deep crisis within the international capitalist system and that the planning for a common currency in Africa may be overtaken by the present currency wars manifest in the competitive devaluations. Focusing on the positive lessons of the OAU Liberation Committee at a moment when the majority of the African summit was dominated by generals, I reminded the Pan Africanists that commitment and clear leadership can make a difference. Like many, I underlined the reality that there can be no unity without peace. Readers will recall my earlier proposals for the replenishing of the African environment by planned interventions to reverse global warming in Africa.  Then I argued that, “The unification of the water resources of Africa is one of the primary bases for African unity, with a system of canals linking rivers and lakes in the kind of infrastructure planning that ensures that all will have water.” (See “Water and reconstruction in Africa: An agenda for transformation,” Pambazuka, April 2012.) 
The Global African Family
The presence of a large contingent of delegates from Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, and Venezuela shifted the tone of the discussions from preoccupations of the neo-liberal discourses about ‘poverty reduction and governance.’ It was in the meetings to discuss the future writing of the volumes of the General History of Africa (GHA) where these sections of the Global Pan African movement made their voices heard. Firstly, the delegates from Brazil stressed the need to enrich the teaching and writing of African history at all levels of the curriculum. Secondly, the Brazilian state committed itself to supporting UNESCO for the completion of the task of the writing of the ninth and tenth volumes of the GHA. Imperial states had intended to hold UNESCO hostage so that the historical rendering of the spread of Africans during the mass enslavement would be sanitized. The Brazilian government made a clear financial commitment to the tasks of writing and circulating this history. The past volumes have now been placed on a CD for easy circulation internationally.
The use of terms such as “diaspora” in the context of Pan Africanism was heatedly debated. Many of the brothers and sisters from South America did not warm to the term “African diaspora.” Drawing attention to the recent usage of the term diaspora by those who have alienated the lands of the Palestinian peoples some brothers and sisters preferred the use of the term Global African family to refer to those Africans who for diverse reasons do not live at present on the continent of Africa.
The African Union and the Legacy Project
Mention was made throughout these meetings that the current leadership of the AU simply view the Global African family in relation to remittances and the possible skills that could be useful for Africa. It is estimated that from among the recent Africans who have migrated outside of Africa in the past thirty years, billions are sent back to Africa. It is estimated that these family members send back approximately US $60 billion every year back to Africa.  International aid to Africa amounts to less than US $29 billion. The AU Commission has established the African Diaspora Legacy Project and has placed this work in the hands of the World Bank. From the published reports there are five elements to this legacy project, The Skills Database of African Professionals in the Diaspora; (ii) The African Diaspora Volunteer Corps; (iii) The African Institute for Remittances (AIR); (iv) the African Diaspora Investment Fund; (v) The Development marketplace for African Development as a framework for promoting entrepreneurship and innovation.
African peoples at home who understand how the contemporary leaders align with the Breton Woods Institutions to reinforce the exploitation of the African peoples would not be surprised by these undertakings of the current AU commission. As one commentator observed in relation to the Africa Institute for Remittances, “Most of us were surprised that the African Institute for Remittances had already begun in 2009, had been launched in June 2010, without one of the most important so-called stakeholders, the people who remit the funds, being aware of anything about it.”
One representative of the African Union of lawyers called for serious work on the question of integrating the peoples of the sixth region (Global Africa) into the operations of the African Union. This delegate called for the groups present to implement the work of inviting members of the Global African family dispersed outside of Africa to participate in their organizations and not wait on the AU Commission to clarify how the dispersed Africans would be integrated and represented into the organs of the African Union.
Africans must speak for themselves
The two concurrent meetings that brought together some of the most diverse voices were the Colloquium of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and the Multi-Stakeholder dialogue on Pan Africanism and African Renaissance in the 21st Century. Many of the same speakers such as Amos Sawyer of Liberia and Joaquin Chissano of Mozambique spoke in these meetings. Chissano reminded the assembled Pan Africanists of the urgent need for a united government now and challenged the gradualist agenda that had been adopted when the leaders had convened the Grand Debate on African unity in Accra, 2007.  In this multi stakeholder meeting there was a consistent call for the basic ideals of Pan Africanism to be fought for. These included a union government, the free movement of people across the artificial borders, the establishment of an African currency, the African monetary system, building the African infrastructure, the need for investments in the transformation of African agriculture, the creation of meaningful jobs for the growing youthful population, defending the health and wellbeing of the people and defending Africa from external plunderers.
Adebayo Olukoshi spelt out a vision of a self-reliant Africa that harnessed its own resources to be able to make a break from external domination. One clear tension in these discussions on Pan Africanism was the distinction between the neo-liberal sound bites and the challenge of a language that grasped a real break from western neoliberal agenda. For example, there were some presenters who spoke of ‘partners’ when referring to the European Union and the Untied States instead of labelling these entities as imperial exploiters. The language of Millennium Development Goals is fast receding as the Uniuted Nations Economic Commission for Africa spelt out a clear vision of economic integration and investments to accelerate the economic transformation of the continent.
The neo-liberal ideas of gender equality were on full display from a large delegation from the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). There were lofty praises for Sirleaf Johnson of Liberia and Joyce Banda of Malawi. There were progressive feminists who reminded all that the question was not for women to be equal to men but for the transformation of gender relations. 
Towards the 8th Pan African Congress
The outcomes and resolutions of these meetings will have to surface in order for those not present to get a clearer picture of the deliberations in the meetings in Addis. From the international press reports on the statements from the summit of the Heads of State, it is clear that these leaders did not take up the questions of deepening Pan African education or the numerous calls for breaking out of the confines of the Berlinist states. In many ways the stakeholders meeting was a gathering of many who had been inspired by the work and spirit of Tajudeen Abdul Raheem. The Multi-stakeholder dialogue called for the convening of the 8th Pan African Congress and there were already lobbying to call for Ghana to host the 8th Pan African Congress.
Throughout the year of 2013 to 2014, the AU Commission has called for celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of African Unity. Concerned Africans at home and abroad will have to find their own way to celebrate. Jibrin Ibrahim in his article “Nigeria: No Country Is Enough,” communicated the mood at one celebration hosted by the centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja. These celebrations In Nigeria to celebrate  the life of Tajudeen and the anniversary of African Liberation Day was a reminder that even in the midst of the uncertainties unleashed by elements called Boko Haram, there are Africans who are planning for a new dawn when societies such as Nigeria will be part of the new road to emancipation.
Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1961. The compromise of the OAU came directly from the forces who did not want the Congo to be free. Fifty years after the assassination of Lumumba, the Congo is still mired in destabilization and plunder.  The Congolese artists and singers have risen above this plunder and for fifty years have given voice to the spirit of love and peace. From all corners poets, writers, film makers, story tellers and musicians are planning their own statement on African Liberation. 
One young Egyptian scholar made a presentation on the Egyptian revolution 1952 and its links to the 2011 revolutionary processes. This presentation reminded those who would listen that the liberation of Africa will not be a smooth linear process. In commemorating the African heroines and heroes over the past fifty years there was the effort to steel the next generation so that the present self-confidence will be imbued with new creativity to launch a leap so that African emancipation and dignity will be a beacon for humanity in the 21st century.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Deceptions and lies about the CIA's operations in North Africa: Benghazi, Petraeus, and the CIA

Published May 17, 2013
Two years after the failed NATO intervention, Libyan society is in chaos. Over 50,000 were killed in a mission that was meant to protect civilians, and there are reportedly more than 1,700 competing militias marauding the streets. One outcome of this chaos was the attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi which led to the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on September 11, 2012. There have been Congressional hearings on this attack, and on May 8, U.S. Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called another inquiry into the September 11, 2012 event. At this inquiry, Greg Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya who became the top U.S. diplomat in the country after Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed, testified that the U.S. government did not do enough to intervene to rescue Ambassador Stevens.
What Greg Hicks and Representative Darrell Issa did not probe was the role of the CIA and Petraeus in the use of Benghazi as the largest CIA station in North Africa, where they ran militias into Syria. When the information about the attack on the US ‘facility’ in Benghazi was first brought to light, there was confusion because this information had the potential of putting the vaunted military in its proper perspective. Was the space that was attacked a consulate, a State Department facility, a CIA safe house, or indeed a prison for captured militias? This confusion took attention away from the reality that elements in the military/intelligence hierarchy had formulated a policy to align with certain militia groups in Eastern Libya and that these militias (sometimes called jihadists) had in the past been linked to groups that the U.S. called ‘terrorist organizations.’ France, the CIA, and the U.S. Africa Command had aligned with these jihadists to destabilize Libya, freeze billions of dollars of assets, execute Gaddafi, and use Libya as a rear base in the drive for regime change in Syria.
The Republicans had sought to benefit from the confusion and disinformation that had been spun by the intelligence and the military about the real causes of the death of the Ambassador in Benghazi. The hearings called before the Republican-controlled Congress did reveal that the private military establishments had a prime place in the protection of U.S. legations around the world. But these hearings did not come close to the real questions that should be posed to David Petraeus: what role did the use of Benghazi as a CIA station for the training of Jihadists play in the attack?
Now that the conservative media is calling the revelations of the CIA revision of the ‘talking points’ a cover up, it may be instructive to obtain a clearer picture of the role of Petraeus and the CIA in Benghazi. Why did Petraeus travel to Benghazi? What was the nature of his report? These questions have not been properly addressed and although the Accountability and Review Board, which was headed by Thomas Pickering with retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did issue a scathing report about the absence of leadership, the issues of Petraeus and the Jihadists have been buried in the hearings.
Pickering and Mullen’s scathing report released in December found that “systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” of the State Department meant that security was “inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
What this review and these hearings are obfuscating are the real issues that emanate from the role of the CIA in recruiting Jihadists in Benghazi. On Monday at a press conference, Obama called the continued discussions on Benghazi a “side show.” However, for the millions of persons in North Africa that have been negatively affected by the NATO intervention and the role of the CIA, private militias and private military contractors, the debates in the USA can be viewed as another diversion to cover up the CIA operations in North Africa. Ethan Chorin, one of the operators in Libya and close ally of Ambassador Stevens, has weighed in with an op-ed piece in the New York Times that stated,
“The biggest American failure wasn’t in the tactical mistakes about security at the diplomatic mission where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died. It lay in thinking that an intervention in Libya would be easier or less costly than it has proved to be — a judgment that led the United States to think it could go in light, get out fast and focus on the capital, Tripoli, without paying enough attention to Libya’s eastern provinces, where the rebellion began as a call for a constitution and increased civil liberties.”
Chorin, who was an insider in Benghazi, continues to insist that the NATO intervention was “inspired and skillfully executed, and had the potential to do more good than harm.”
In my book, Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, I have challenged this verdict that the intervention did more good than harm. Some other supporters of the Libya intervention are now calculating the costs as embassies rush to leave the people to the mercy of the militias.  According to the British newspaper the Guardian, “the fear of further violence has led to the British and US embassies withdrawing some staff, the European Union closing its mission in Tripoli and BP announcing it was pulling out non-essential staff.” France had already scaled back its operations after a military attack on its mission in Tripoli. What Daryl Issa and the forces calling the issues of Benghazi a cover-up are refusing to deal with is the deceptions and lies that led to the catastrophic situation in Libya and North Africa today.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bangladeshi textile factory collapse: Over 900 dead, lessons for Africa

With the death toll now over 900 in the wake of the collapse of the textile factory in Bangladesh, there are newspapers and financial newssheets all over the world decrying this event as a ‘disaster’ and the ‘deadliest industrial accidents ever.’ However, the sweatshop conditions for billions of workers around the world along with the absence of occupational safety beg the question: Was this building collapse an ‘accident?’ Why are there no rules relating to the inspection of buildings and building codes in the countries such as China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Tanzania and South Africa? How was it possible for the owners of this ‘establishment’ to continue operations when the safety and structural conditions of the building had been called into question? It is the contention here that this was no accident but the logic of a form of accumulating wealth that placed a premium on profits over human lives. Some have determined that this period is like a second slavery.

In the past 30 years, the drive for super-profits has led corporations to seek conditions where the working peoples have the least protection with no safety regulations at places of work. Buffeted by banks and hedge fund managers who respect no national boundaries, the bottom line for the ‘investors’ takes precedence over human lives. Egged on by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, governments in the exploited countries of the world have been outdoing each other to establish areas of intensified exploitation called Export Processing Zones (EPZ). EPZ are sites of production where international capitalists do not have to respect labour laws. The recent fire resulting from an ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in West, Texas, was another example of worksites where there are no proper controls with respect to occupational safety.

On top of the promotion of these EPZs, the efforts to roll back the basic rights of workers have intensified. Bangladesh is one of those societies where the rights of workers have been trampled upon to make the society attractive to ‘foreign investors.’ One such attraction is to ensure that there are no democratic rights such as the rights of workers to assemble, the right to a living wage or the rights to collective bargaining. During the period of the last capitalist depression, the International Labour Organization (ILO) had campaigned against wage slavery and at the end of the depression and war workers fought to expand their rights and to strengthen collective bargaining agreements and questions of occupational safety. As one form of cover up of these new forms of exploitation, some international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) write on corporate social responsibility in order to deflect from the growing calls for the protection of workers internationally.

Today, the kind of exploitation that is present in Bangladesh is present all over Africa. In Africa, the role of force in production had denied basic rights to the working people during colonialism. After independence, the politicians aligned with the soldiers to roll back the basic democratic rights of workers. These forms differ in degree from the child labour conditions in mining operations in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the use of semi-slave labour on plantations in Cote d’Iviore, the absence of safety and health for workers and ultimately in the use of religion and ethnic differences to divide workers. When these divisive tactics fail, then the companies and their police and security forces shoot workers as was the case of the Marikana mines in South Africa. This column is a statement of solidarity with the working people of Bangladesh and another call to push for global rights, especially the rights of working peoples.

‘UNPRECEDENTED TRAGEDY, ONE OF THE WORST INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENTS IN THE WORLD’

This is the way the newspapers and journalists have sought to depict the actions that led to the collapse of the eight storey building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013. According to the BBC, ‘some 700 workers have been killed in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005. Garment factory collapses in 2005 and 2010 claimed another 79 lives.’ In this building collapse of April 24, there are now over 912 dead with over 2,500 injured in this latest building collapse. There is no clear account of how many persons were in the factory at the time of the collapse of the building because the factory owners have not given precise numbers. It was reported that 2,437 people have been rescued.

There is still a search for more bodies in the wreckage of the eight-story building that was packed with workers at five garment factories. The building was supposed to be a five storey building. It has been reported that the owner illegally added three floors and allowed the garment factories to install heavy machines and generators, even though the structure was not designed to support such equipment. The factories were making clothing bound for major big name brand retailers in North America and Western Europe. Factory owners such that of the Rana Plaza are not unusual. This owner had claimed the building was safe, and the factory owners had ordered workers into the building despite their objections after serious cracks were found in the structure on April 23, the day before the disaster.

The semi-slavery conditions of workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh had been an open secret among ‘international investors.’ For after all, one of the attractions for Bangladesh as a center for the global textile industry was precisely the fact that working conditions were poor. In November 2012, a fire at another garment factory in Bangladesh that made clothes for Wal-Mart and Sears killed 112 people. Supervisors had ordered the coerced workers back to work after the fire alarm sounded, leaving workers trapped in the upper floors. In 2010, 27 people died and more than 100 were injured in a fire in a factory that made clothes for high-street retailer Gap. Next door in Pakistan in 2012 a fire in a factory had killed more than 300 workers. Then the New York Times reported that the Pakistan fire was the worst industrial accident. http://tinyurl.com/8d7t9qt

Yet, in light of this tradition of coercing workers to toil in unsafe conditions the media has called this building collapse an accident. According to the mainstream media, the building collapse was one of the deadliest industrial accidents ever.

TEXTILE WORKERS AND EXPLOITATION

Workers in the garment industry have always been open to super exploitation. It was one of the centers of production where the modern trade union movement emerged to fight for basic industrial rights. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) had been one of the largest labour unions in the United States. This union had fought hard for the rights of workers especially after the big garment disaster in New York in 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist factory, which killed 146 workers. One writer who has commented on the recent deaths traced the genealogy of garment manufacturing and the succession of ‘accidents.’ In an article titled “Clothed in Misery,” M. T. Anderson wrote,

‘Similar disasters happened here in the first phase of our national industrialization — the 1878 Washburn mill explosion in Minneapolis, the 1905 Grover Shoe Factory disaster in Brockton, Mass., the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan — but back when New England textile mills were the beating heart of America’s mass-production infancy, the most notorious was the 1860 collapse of the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Mass.’ http://tinyurl.com/cnnm6mj

During the last capitalist depression the workers in the United States fought for better wages and better working conditions. By the end of the depression and the end of the war when workers gained confidence, the capitalist moved the factories to areas of the United States where there were no unions. Later when the workers were unionized in other parts of the USA, the owners moved to low wage economies such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Haiti, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. US garment manufacturers and textile owners had promoted the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to bring African societies into this web of sweat shop production. However, the race to the bottom had been intense with the IMF and World Bank promoting the interests of the big name brand producers of textiles.

The April 24 building collapse is now going in the record book and the way the media is writing about the criminal activities is to divert attention from the alliance between the international garment manufacturers and the local political/comprador elements in Bangladesh. When the press writes about the role of corruption that led to this disaster, the mainstream media tend to deflect attention from the apparel sellers in Europe and North America.

It is against the recent history of the activism of international capital to roll back the rights of workers where it is necessary to locate the actions of the capitalists in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza complex which was not built as a factory to withstand the vibrations and hectic conditions of producing garments is typical of the thousands of cheaply built, unsafe sweatshops in Bangladesh employing workers at $38 a month to churn out orders for some of the world’s largest corporations. Global conglomerates, including some of the world’s best-known brands, extract 60 to 80 percent profit margins from merchandise made in Bangladesh, by pressing contractors to deliver the lowest possible costs. The garment factories in Bangladesh generate 80 percent of the country’s $24 billion annual exports. Grouped together in the Bangladesh Garment Manufactures & Exporters Association (BGMEA) the Bangladeshi ruling elite operates as a junior partner of international big business such as H&M, JC Penney, C&A, Levi’s, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Nike. In the aftermath of the fire, the New York Times editorialized that there were only 11 collective bargaining agreements in Bangladesh. Writing under the byline, ‘Another Preventable Tragedy in Bangladesh,’ this leading voice of liberal capitalism lamented,

‘Meanwhile, there are just 11 collective bargaining agreements in the entire country of 150 million people, and there are only a few unions in the clothing industry. Workers who try to form unions are often fired and beaten, sometimes even killed. Last year, a young labor leader, Aminul Islam, was tortured and killed in apparent retaliation for his work organizing garment workers.’ http://tinyurl.com/cwc8orc

Safety regulations are virtually non-existent, and industrial laws routinely flouted. Bangladesh’s labour ministry reportedly employs just 18 inspectors to monitor conditions in more than 100,000 factories in Dhaka.

SHODDY WORKPLACE AND RIGHTS OF WORKERS EVERYWHERE

What the leading newspapers of the world have neglected to say clearly is that the conditions of the workers in Bangladesh have been the direct result of the new form of sweatshop conditions internationally. The Bangladesh Garment Manufactures & Exporters Association (BGMEA) emerged as a force within the competitive race to move the production of garments to this poor and exploited society. In this race to the bottom, Bangladesh had risen to be the world’s second largest garment producer, behind China, by giving international investors and their local comprador allies a free hand. As in the early industrial era in the United States when poor rural women were lured to these factories, today, there are an estimated 4 million garment workers, mostly women who toil in conditions that were supposed to have been left behind at the end of the last war and depression..

At that historical moment, the ILO was one of the more well-known international organizations as it fought for the rights of workers internationally to ensure an end to poverty level wages and semi slavery working conditions. Since its creation in 1919, the ILO adopted 184 Conventions that establish standards for a range of workplace issues. Today very few workers are aware of these Conventions because the discourses about corporate social responsibility turn the rights of workers into the arbitrary philanthropic actions employers. This philanthropic based approach to the rights of workers finds its echo in the financing of international non-governmental organizations to focus on micro credit schemes or other efforts that does not document the sweat shop conditions Since the era of Thatcherism when there was a total assault on the rights of workers, questions of health and safety of workers have been replaced by the canard of corporate social responsibility. It is not by accident that even in the advanced capitalist countries one of the fundamental battles today is to retain the rights of workers to defend their standard of living. It is not enough for the top media to lament that ‘the severity and frequency of these disasters are an indictment of global clothing brands and retailers like.’

LESSONS FOR THE AFRICAN WORKERS

Throughout Africa, capitalists have campaigned to roll back the rights of workers. One can measure the extent of undemocratic practices in a society in relation to the amount of rights that have been retained by the working people. The present invasion of Africa by big and small capitalists has left shoddy buildings and poor conditions everywhere. One month before the building collapse in Bangladesh, there was a building collapse, one of the many such collapse in places such as Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. The construction boom in Africa has been taking place in a context where building codes are routinely ignored.

Western democracy experts have focused on narrow issues of elections and parliaments without a concomitant analysis of the extent of the erosion of rights of working peoples. The removal of basic safety and security of workers in order to attract ‘investors’ is part of the current political process promoted heavily by the World Bank. The more brutal dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko simply used troops to shoot workers. In the aftermath of this form of wanton killings, militias have moved in to ensure that mining operations in the Congo are never placed in a situation where the miners have the basic rights for good pay and safety. Just as in the mines, so it is in the plantations where child labour has returned and the questions of occupational health deleted from negotiations.

Capitalist from all corners of the world from Japan and China in the East to the USA and Brazil with the Europeans full of experience salivate on the super profits to be reaped from the situation in Africa where there is a young work force without the protection of the state. The young people of Egypt had worked with the April 6 movement to fight for better conditions for Egyptian workers and it is this struggle of the Egyptian workers that precipitated the revolutionary upsurge which is still lingering in Egypt.

International capitalists are afraid of the kind of political mobilizing in Africa that educated the Egyptian population, hence the new pressures to present religion and religious allegiances to blunt discussion of the conditions of workers. The Bangladesh building collapse brings back the question of the rights of workers in all parts of the world. Western European planners, in the face of the stirring from below, seek to bring discourse about corporate social responsibility, but as the workers in the Niger Delta has testified, companies such as Shell Oil are adept at playing the game of using the language of corporate social responsibility while working with the military and private military contractors to police workers.

The experiences of removing the conditions of safety and collective bargaining for workers in Africa and Bangladesh have found their way back to the United States where the capitalists have been emboldened to embark on a massive campaign to strip workers of their rights. This blowback can be seen with the public struggles over collective bargaining and absence of safety conditions in establishments. The most recent example of the massive explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Plant is but one of the most graphic examples where the owners had pushed for 'Exemption' From Safety Rules and Targeted Workplace Inspections. Over the years the OSHA had cited the West Fertilizer Plant for violations of respiratory protection standards, but did not issue fines. This is because the OHSA has been disempowered in the era of neo-liberalism. These capitalists have been pushing for exemptions in Africa and the experience of this fire that killed 15 persons in April exposed US citizens to the raging fires and unsafe conditions at industrial and oil producing sites all over Africa. According to a report in the Huffington Post, ‘By claiming the exemption, the company became subject to other, less stringent requirements and avoided certain OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency rules.’

It is these less stringent rules that have applied all over the world of poor workers so that today most students do not know what OHSA stands for. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration Is that body which is supposed to inspect establishments to guarantee that the conditions of work are safe for those toiling in the place of production. In the aftermath of this fire that killed 15 persons and displaced an entire city, readers understood that the OHSA had last inspected the plant in 1985.

This kind of exemption which has been adopted by capitalists whether from China or the USA dictates that there should be stringent international standards about workers at places where there are dangerous chemicals and toxins. In every part of the world of the poor, one can see conditions where there are no rules relating to the protection of the environment. This writer is challenging the young in NGO community to refocus on the rights of the working people to build a new politics.

SOLIDARITY ACROSS BORDERS

Workers all across Africa and their supporters who share a sense of solidarity are pushing for the removal of the politicians and corporate elements that align with foreign capitalists to establish sweat shop conditions. At the moment of decolonization one of the most militant fronts had been the working poor. It is this history of organization of the workers that has to be brought back so that the struggles of the African workers are linked to the struggles of the workers in Bangladesh, China and India. The renewed campaign of the workers in Africa can now in the short run link up with workers in Brazil, India and China. As one component of the BRICS framework, there has been the establishment of a forum to support the closer relationship between workers in the BRICS societies. African workers, especially the workers of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have the necessary social weight to be able to challenge the capitalists in South Africa as well as to be a major force in this forum of trade unions from the Federative Republic of Brazil, The Russian Federation, the Republic of India, the People's Republic of China and the Republic of South Africa. This BRICS forum of workers has the capability of organizing within a framework of more than 200 million organized workers. This framework must be strengthened by the day to day struggles to ensure that the kind of accident that took place in Bangladesh is a matter of history.

As long as this criminal action is presented as an ‘accident’ and a tragedy, then those who profit from the sweatshop conditions will shed crocodile tears about the loss of lives. Militant and sustained actions to defend the global rights of workers are now on the agenda internationally. The All African Trade Union Centers and COSATU should be in the forefront of pressing the ILO to mount a clear investigation with the results being released to all parts of the world. It is only vigilance and aggressive networking internationally that will ensure that the Bangladeshi government and manufacturers do not simply make cosmetic changes to safety and building standards.