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Does Bangladesh’s Garment Industry Respect its Workers?

May 9th, 2013Asia, Business, International, News

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By Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Last month’s garment factory collapse in Savar, outside of Dhaka, is being coined as the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history.

Though the police ordered the Rana Plaza building to be evacuated on April 23rd due to a visible fracture in its infrastructure, five garment factories housed within, employing a total of 3,122 workers, continued “business as usual” on April 24th.

The consequences of this decision are heartbreaking: though approximately 2,500 people were rescued from the building’s rubble, a fire broke out in the ruins just days after the collapse, and the death toll to date has crossed 900 people.

Unfortunately, this devastating collapse follows on the heels of other disasters that have plagued Bangladesh’s garment industry. In November 2012, a garment factory fire killed 117 people, also near Dhaka. Factory workers were reportedly jumping out of windows to reach safety.

The repeated incidences of factory workers very literally being in the line of fire has reignited discussion and debate in Bangladesh, and the world, on how to better support and safeguard the rights of workers.

Dr. Mustafa Mujeri, director general of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), explains, “Workers’ rights are not high on the policy agenda. This is true in general, but more so in the garments sector. The basic rights of garment workers are neglected, especially related to workers’ safety, which has led to many tragic incidents.”

That is not really news, given that the garment industry is where cheap labor fuels cheap products. And the garment industry’s importance to Bangladesh’s economy is undeniable: in 2005, at least 75% of the country’s earnings from exports came from the garment industry.

This is obviously a huge feat, but it also increases the pressure to meet international demand for retailers, including H&M, Gap Inc. and Walmart, who rely on the country’s relatively inexpensive garment factories. From the factory perspective, the easiest way to keep costs low is by taking shortcuts when it comes to sound infrastructure and, of course, hiring cheap labor.

For this reason, there is escalating public discourse on the responsibility of companies manufacturing in foreign countries and on “fair-trade” working conditions.

So who are these garment workers?

They are rural migrants, often young women between the ages 16 and 25, who have moved closer to urban centers for stronger economic opportunities. They may move with their families or on their own, charged with sending remittances back to the village. Young women with limited formal education have few options in the big city: they are typically employed as domestic help, the maids and cooks of middle- and upper-class households, or they can find work in factories, where the wage is relatively higher. It has also been reported that Bangladesh’s garment industry is one of the largest employers of child labor.

The national minimum monthly wage in Bangladesh is ~US$38 – that is just a smidgen over US$1.25 per day, and officially, a garment worker may take home about that much with each paycheck. However, the actual earned income of a garment worker is likely variable, and in many cases, unknown.

It is clear, then, why garment workers are not fully empowered citizens: if the majority are women and children, they hold little sway over their employers – factory owners and foreign conglomerates. Working-class men encounter the same challenge.

Their lack of economic and political bargaining powers makes them easy to ignore and exploit.

Mujeri says Rana Plaza collapsed for several reasons. But the most critical one is failure to implement safety standards by factory owners, the government, fashion companies and other actors in the garment industry.

“The government’s lack of seriousness along with owners’ greed [are] responsible. [The] garment owners lobby is very powerful,” he notes.

Sajid Iqbal, a social entrepreneur and founder of CHANGE, an affordable lighting project in slum communities, agrees, “[The] government should be less dependent on [the] BGMEA [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association], and [the] BGMEA should be more accountable to the government.”

Given these conditions, what can be done?

There are grassroots efforts to educate poor labor communities and provide them with goods and services that may otherwise be out of their reach. But in terms of a more large-scale effort to address workers’ safety, not only in the garment industry but also in Bangladesh’s brick, shipbreaking, housing and waste management industries — amongst others — there is clearly room to make impact.

The not-for-profit sphere has been making its mark on Bangladeshi workers’ rights for nearly 20 years.

  • The Awaj Foundation implements education, health and legal initiatives for Bangladeshi garment workers.
  • Verité has been working with international corporations to guarantee safe conditions for workers in countries like Bangladesh.
  • And INCLUDED is taking a more holistic approach by focusing on inclusive cities and empowering migrant communities around the world, including Bangladesh.

Organizations such as these are doing valuable work, but would a model of for-profit social entrepreneurship further impact Bangladeshi workers’ rights in a meaningful way?

There are successful examples of such models’ efficacy in the garment industry around the world – just look at the Indian chain of retail stores, FabIndia and the socially-consciousness business of rug-making, Jaipur Rugs. Another example in South Asia includes Nepali fair-trade enterprise Mahaguthi, which produces, markets and exports handicrafts by more than 1,000 producers from the Kathmandu Valley.

But first, for such an enterprise to start in Bangladesh, the challenges and needs of workers need to be better understood. Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director general for field operations and partnerships at the International Labor Organization (ILO), states, “If workers are not able to make their voices heard, and organize themselves and speak collectively, then it will be much harder to understand the real problems and make the changes necessary.”

(Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons/ Flickr)

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