He was less than two years into a heart-wrenching job – leader of a global union whose workers endure the worst excesses of globalization. He had already visited more than 150 garment factories and textile mills on every continent.
That was in March 1990, when I first met Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF). By chance, we were then both in Bangladesh, where he had meetings with the fledgling trade unions, some affiliates of his federation, some not.
I was there researching the country’s sweatshops. He was there to eliminate them, much to the anger of the owners and managers of the country’s garment factories, even though he wasn’t trying to eliminate the shops, just the “sweat,” or grueling conditions, in them.
This month Kearney once again visited Bangladesh, for the 50th time in 20 years, some said. But he didn't complete his tight four-day schedule, which included an investigation into reports, publicized in Europe, that a large factory was in gross violation of its worker rights commitments.
Early on the morning of Thursday, November 19, the heart of tireless Neil Kearney stopped beating. He was 59 years old.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Owners Association (BGMEA), and several union leaders held a Thursday press conference at the employers’ headquarters to announce Kearney’s death. Together, the BGMEA and the unions started a three-day mourning period on Friday.
“We lost a great friend of Bangladesh who fought for the welfare of the core segment of our country,” Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, the BGMEA’s acting president, said.
In Brussels, the shocked headquarters staff of the ITGLWF announced that the Federation’s congress will, as scheduled, hold its world congress in Frankfurt, Germany, on December 2-4. The planned theme, “Unionize = Decent Work = Decent Life,” will be supplemented by a celebration of how much Neil Kearney’s life has contributed to decent work and to the decent life of workers throughout the world.
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My book, “Justice at Work: Globalization and the Human Rights of Workers,” mentions Neil Kearney at points in four different chapters, but of course that falls far short of telling the full story. His action-packed life has story material for a dramatic movie, even if, or especially if, it focused on Bangladesh alone.