Event brings together students, alumni to discuss workers’ rights

Every spring, students, faculty, and alumni from the School meet to network and discuss current issues in the fields of labor, employment relations, and human resources. The popular alumni/student forum is sponsored by the School of LER’s Alumni Board of Directors.

You can read the original story on Penn State News.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Every spring, students, faculty and alumni from the School of Labor and Employment Relations (LER) meet to network and discuss current issues in the fields of labor, employment relations and human resources. The popular alumni/student forum is sponsored by the School of LER’s Alumni Board of Directors.

In the virtual world of 2021, the school welcomed back two alumni from the Labor and Global Workers’ Rights (LGWR) master’s program for “Making Hard Choices to Protect Worker’s Rights: Case Studies in Bangladesh and Ghana.”

After alumni Bashiratu Kamal and Jafar Iqbal presented about labor rights crises in Ghana and Bangladesh, attendees were divided into small breakout groups to discuss related case studies. Participants were presented with hypothetical scenarios involving multinational companies which faced accusations of egregious workers’ rights violations in their global supply chains. Groups then presented creative responses that sought to balance ethical and fiduciary responsibilities.

Palm oil workers in Ghana

Bashiratu Kamal is a 2019 graduate of the LGWR program. She is currently the gender and training officer for the General Agricultural Workers Union in Ghana, the largest agricultural trade union in the country. Kamal is a self-described feminist, nonconformist, unionist and activist, as well as a leader in the push for women’s rights within the trade union movement.

In addition to her studies at Penn State, Kamal holds degrees in human resource management, journalism, and development leadership. She appears regularly on Ghanaian and international news programs and writes about women’s rights, gender equity and workers’ rights.

During Kamal’s presentation, she discussed the situation of palm oil workers in Ghana. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil produced from the fruit of oil palm trees. It is used in a vast range of items broadly grouped into food, personal care products and biofuels.

“If you brush your teeth, wash your hair or eat food from a grocery store, then you’ve consumed a product with palm oil,” said Kamal.

Ghana is the eighth largest producer of palm oil in the world, and it is one of the most important edible crops in the country. Most palm oil in Ghana is produced by six major plantations that are owned by multinational corporations. Some of the workers who help harvest and process the palm oil are permanent, but a majority are temporary or contract workers.

Kamal’s union was originally organized just to support permanent workers, but in recent years, the union has also started to organize the more vulnerable contract workers.

Services offered by the union include training and education, advocacy and campaigns on issues that affect workers. They also ensure workers are protected against accidents and injuries, and conduct inspections with the Labor Department. Additionally, Kamal said the union records cases of sexual- and gender-based violence at work.

Kamal emphasized the impact of the pandemic on workers, but especially women. “Women were already mostly at the lowest level in terms of the value chain. The pandemic has exposed the preexisting inequalities in the status of women, how much they earn, and access to childcare. According to the Trade Union Congress of Ghana, workers have lost almost one million jobs and many of those workers were women.”

Garment workers in Bangladesh

Jafar Iqbal graduated from the LGWR program in 2020 and is working on a doctorate in lifelong learning and adult education at Penn State. He is from Bangladesh where he worked for many years in the labor movement, most recently serving as a program officer for the International Labor Organization. Since the pandemic started, Iqbal has hosted a Facebook-based labor education platform called “Fighting for Labor Justice,” which draws as many as 20,000 weekly viewers.

Iqbal’s presentation focused on the apparel industry in Bangladesh, emphasizing how the pandemic has disproportionately affected the global supply chain workers and the current state of working conditions at the bottom of the supply chain.

According to Iqbal, while the apparel industry provides work for millions of people, the working conditions in this sector are miserable. The average workday is often more than 12 hours, and many workers earn as little as $95 per month which is the minimum wage. It is estimated that the prevailing wages cover only 14% of living expenses. Many of the workers are women and sexual harassment at work is rampant.

The global fashion industry’s profits were expected to fall by 93% in 2020. Some brands have gone bankrupt, but others like Amazon and Walmart have seen record profits. Numerous suppliers in Bangladesh have shut down their factories leaving millions of workers unemployed and hungry.

Research conducted early in the pandemic by the School of LER professor and founder of the LGWR program Mark Anner exposed the impact of shutdowns on workers and business losses. Public outcry after the report led to the recovery of some of the losses but not all. The apparel industry in Bangladesh lost an estimated $3.8 billion in 2020 relative to earnings in 2019, and more than 600 factories are now permanently closed.

Iqbal said, “About 357,000 workers lost their jobs, and a majority have not received severance pay – the deficit in severance pay is $500 million. Seventy-seven percent of workers’ households have gone hungry since the beginning of the pandemic.”   

Even though Bangladesh enforced a strict lockdown at the beginning of last year, the apparel sector was largely exempted from the lockdown, and workers risked their health to keep their jobs. As the pandemic dragged on, the workers were illegally terminated en masse. “When they weren’t needed, they became disposable,” Iqbal said. “And now many workers in Bangladesh are in a profound humanitarian crisis.”

About the Labor and Global Workers’ Rights Master of Professional Studies

The Labor and Global Workers’ Rights (LGWR) program is associated with the school’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights (CGWR). The center was established in 2012 by Professor Mark Anner to conduct research internationally with a particular focus on vulnerable workers in precarious sectors of the global economy.

Established in 2014, the Master of Professional Studies in LGWR is a one-year program for mid-career worker rights unionists and advocates. The program focuses on international labor standards and is part of the Global Labour University. The LGWR program has alumni from 16 different countries and the seventh cohort of students will graduate in August 2021.

May 13, 2021