The Bangladesh garment industry (the second largest in the world after China) is often described as female-dominated.
In truth, those women workers are often clustered in the lowest paid jobs and are under pressure from the increased levels of automation in an industry that is rapidly modernising.
It therefore attracts plenty of attention when these workers are paid 35p per hour to produce t-shirts supporting a Comic Relief “gender justice” campaign , as the Guardian reported yesterday.
But in the end, all companies have a moral imperative to respect fundamental human rights in the workplace whether they are producers of a charity t-shirt or one made for profit.
The workers interviewed for the Guardian’s story were earning barely above the country’s controversial new minimum wage, the introduction of which at the turn of the year saw thousands of protesters on the streets of the capital.
Unions had demanded a minimum wage that’s also a living wage, warning that too few people would benefit from a low rise. There are always a number of different ways to calculate a living wage, but it’s safe to say that the 16,000 (68p an hour) demanded by garment unions is a lot more convincing than the government offer of 34p an hour.
To compound the humiliation of poverty pay, the workers at the factory reported forced overtime, verbal abuse, and constant fear of being sacked. There is no dignity in this work.
The Spice Girls have been quick to stress that they are “shocked and appalled” by the revelations. But the incident once again calls into question the credibility of inspections carried out by businesses sourcing in countries like Bangladesh that have a poor record on workers’ rights. Time and time again, abuses are discovered in factories that had received a clean bill of health from an inspection.
Bangladesh is ranked by the ITUC as one of the 10 worst country’s in the world for workers’ rights. This means the workers in these factories have few rights to protect themselves, and what rights they have are also poorly protected. It’s not surprising that when someone they have no reason to trust asks them about conditions in the factory, they tell them what they think they want to hear.
When a trade union or a journalist asks, however, the answers are often shockingly different.
Yesterday’s revelations follow a surge in industrial unrest following the increase in the minimum wage at the new year. Having dismissed the warnings of trade unions, the government pressed ahead with a simplistic – and low – minimum wage.
After workers received their first ‘new’ pay packets (and rumours circulated of workers being downgraded or even fired to keep the overall wage bill the same), spontaneous strikes and protests brought parts of Dhaka to a halt as roads were blocked and factories closed.
The government overreacted with lethal force, using tear gas and rubber bullets that resulted in the death of at least one protestor.
Workers’ lack of trust with factory management seems well founded. Workers were coaxed back their factories by the promise of modest increases across the salary scales. However, on returning to work, hundreds of workers found themselves dismissed – by the simple method of sticking their pictures on a notice on the factory gates.
Managers blamed workers for property damage during the protests. But the number of those sacked far outstrips the number arrested for vandalism (12), suggesting managers are using different criteria to remove activists from their workforce.
Although trade unions are legal in Bangladesh and have legal protections in law, the reality is that the government makes it as hard as possible for them to operate. Each union can only represent one factory, making it difficult to provide support. But where there are functioning unions, workers at least have a route to report abuses such as forced overtime. That way they don’t have to wait for a journalist to stumble across their factory.
If the Spice Girls and Comic Relief are truly appalled by what they’ve learned, they can do more than just pay for yet another “independent” inspection of factories.
They could lend their voices to the many already demanding that the Bangladesh government reinstates sacked workers and end trade union repression to enable strong trade unions in the garment sector that give workers the power to claim safe and dignified conditions in factories and wages they can live on.