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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

20121203 bangladesh protest
Government, factory owners and international buyers are all pointing fingers after the fire that killed at least 112 in a Bangladesh garment factory.

A few protesters, dressed in white, lay on the street as corpses in front of a sitting protester who represents the BGMEA, the garment industry's trade body.

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About This Project

In December 2010 a raging fire tore through the Hamim Group garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Twenty-nine workers were killed, trapped without fire escapes or sprinklers, the doors allegedly locked from the outside to prevent theft. Several people jumped to their deaths to escape the suffocating smoke.

Labor activists like Aminul Islam had fought for years to improve conditions in Bangladesh's 4,000 garment factories, which produce billions of dollars worth of goods for American brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Nautica, Kenneth Cole and Timberland. But it was not until ABC News put together a damning report in March, demonstrating that the Hamim Group continued to produce clothing at the factory where 29 people died without upgrading it, that real change began to come to the factories of Dhaka.

Tommy Hilfiger's parent company, Phillips-Van Heusen pledged more than $1 million to raise and enforce safety standards before the ABC story even aired. The pledge was greeted by labor activists as a good start with much more to do. Then, less than three weeks after the landmark agreement, the activist Islam's body was found tortured to death, all his toes broken.

Islam's family suspects Bangladeshi police played a role in Islam's death, the government afraid the added cost of safety protocols, higher wages and worker protections would price Bangladesh's factories out of their collective position as the cheapest place in the world to manufacture apparel.

This is the reality of the "race to the bottom," the hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's international corporations — manufacturing, agriculture, service — to the lowest bidder. In such a race, those who get in the way of business often find themselves on the wrong side of the starting pistol. And even sympathetic people are also consumers who benefit greatly from a global system that produces affordable items for purchase.

This GlobalPost 'Special Report,' titled "Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights," explores the way the forces of free-market capitalism have rapidly eroded hard-won protections negotiated between governments, labor unions and activists in countries with developed economies, like Spain, the United States and Canada.

In surging economies like Brazil, South Africa, and India, where global capitalism and domestic labor movements are coming of age simultaneously, the battle between worker stability and economic growth continues and workers must often come to terms with an era of diminished expectations.

And for hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people in countries like China, Nicaragua, Colombia, India and Bangladesh, basic labor protections are a luxury if they exist at all and many workers lack the safety net to do anything but work the jobs they are able to get. Unions contend with government suppression and violence while formidable employers target those who dare to organize.

But as international labor organizations have discovered in recent years, the struggles of workers around the world, regardless of their nationality, are remarkably similar. This is why American labor organizations have banded together with their counterparts in Mexico to fight for better Mexican wages. It is why British unions have allied with labor advocates in Bangladesh to protest the conditions under which the London Olympic apparel is produced.

Because as American workers shake their heads as outsourced jobs finally come back home but at much lower wages with far fewer benefits, it becomes clear that the "race to the bottom" has very few winners. And those winners rarely come from the ranks of the assembly line or the cornfield or the checkout counter. In the coming months, GlobalPost will report on just how far labor rights have fallen in recent years and where they are expected to go. 

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