Unsung hero who devoted life to ending sweatshops
I was on my way to Carndonagh to speak at a meeting on non-payment of household charges when news came of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka in Bangladesh, crushing at least 400 garment workers to death – almost all of them women.
Puts our own concerns in perspective, I thought. So it seemed appropriate to begin my talk with mention of Neil Kearney.
No one in the audience appeared to recognise the name, which puzzled me somewhat, given that we are so good in Ireland at celebrating anybody from the same vicinity who makes a mark anywhere.
I realised on Tuesday that the Carndonagh people were scarcely to blame. The jack of all journalistic trades, Fintan O'Toole, devoted his Irish Times column to the Dhaka calamity. But he seems not to have known of Neil Kearney, either.
The absence of trades unions, Fintan argued, was "the single biggest factor missing in the sweatshops of Asia". The workers at the Rana Plaza factory were at the mercy of the owners, who, in turn, were dependent on the prices Western fashion outlets were willing to pay.
Trapped in this circumstance, the women had no means available of standing up for themselves and demanding decent conditions.
Fintan made the point that workers in Britain had faced comparable conditions during the industrial revolution, sucked into cities to sell their labour for what price they could get in the dark, Satanic mills.
"But the cruelty was mitigated by a mighty force – the workers themselves. The single, but crucial difference between the 19th century toiler in a Lancashire cotton mill and the woman sent back to work in a crumbling sweatshop in Dhaka is trade unions." Herein lies the relevance of Neil Kearney.
The Carndonagh man died from a heart attack in Dhaka in November 2009. He had just completed a round of factory visits, recruiting and advising garment workers.
Neil had left Carndonagh, aged 17, in 1960 for a job in a bank in England. He joined the union on his first day at work and quickly acquired a reputation as a formidable negotiator.
In 1972, he was head-hunted to run the information and research department of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers.
At the congress of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation in Tokyo in 1988, Neil was elected general secretary – just as the huge migration of textile and garment manufacture from the developed to the developing world was getting under way. He was to stay in the job for the rest of his life and to visit Bangladesh more than 50 times.
One of his main missions was to raise funds and resources from Western unions, international trusts and anyone else he could buttonhole to help unionise workers.
One of his more significant interventions came in the wake of the collapse of the Spectrum factory in Savar, north-west of Dhaka, in 2005, in which 64 women were killed.
Mobilising local and international opinion, Neil was key to a settlement which at least gave the workers half-adequate compensation and medical services. In Bangladesh, this was a breakthrough.
A month after he died, in January 2010, Radio 4's In Business programme reported on one Dhaka factory, Windy Apparels, where more than two-thirds of the workers had recently moved to a newly-built, modern site. Those who didn't want to move had been handed – hitherto unheard of – a negotiated sum in severance pay.
Presenter Caroline Bayley reported: "One of the main players who helped influence and bring about this transformation was the late Neil Kearney. He spent a day with us to help tell the story.
"He had worked tirelessly around the world and particularly in Bangladesh to improve working conditions in the garment sector."
Neil told the programme that, although this was only one of 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, "You have to start somewhere".
He believed that, out of 10,000 Western buyers dealing with Bangladesh, as few as a hundred were making an effort to improve working conditions.
His twin-track approach was to organise the workers while putting pressure on the buyers. There are lessons in that for us all.
The garment workers of Dhaka declared three days of mourning for him when he died. A government spokesman described him as "a great friend of Bangladesh and its people".
He should be remembered here, too, not in a sentimental way only, but also as a practical fighter for downtrodden people.
The journey of a thousand miles has to begin with a single step. Neil Kearney helped take the first step in Bangladesh.
It is for others – for all of us – to complete the trek.