If there is a global race to the bottom on wages and working conditions, then the finishing line is probably Bangladesh. Z.M. Kamrul Anam, head of the peak body of Bangladeshi garment unions recently visited London to talk about the inspiring union campaign to turn this around, and why the British high street needs to do much more.
Over the last two decades Bangladesh has cornered the global market for low wage garment production. The industry now employs some three million workers and provides three quarters of the country's entire exports. Yet this has been built on the back of often violent repression of workers and the unions that represent them, a tragic history of factory collapses and fires, and a medieval minimum wage that might just be the lowest in the world.
But workers are getting organised, recently taking to the streets in their thousands to achieve an 80 percent rise in the minimum wage. The TUC invited Z.M. Kamrul Anam the head of the Bangladesh Textile and Garment Workers' League and the Chair of the Bangladesh National Council of Textile and Garment Workers (the 'BNC') to London to tell their story.
Anam, originally a textile worker, after migrating from his village in the 1970s, talks about the struggle for decent wages: 'It took us 12 long years for the wage to be lifted from 930 taka, or a bit over £8 per month, to 1662 taka (£15). But even then this was still among the lowest in the world, and not at all enough to deal with the sky rocketing of basic food prices over the last few years.'
'So we carried out our own study under the BNC - the coordinating body for trade unions in the sector - assessing what it takes to live in some dignity in Bangladesh and concluded that 5000 taka would be a reasonable figure for a living wage.'
This was the united demand that the union movement took to the national wage board, and to the streets. This tripartite body finally settled on an increase of 3000 taka, with the new government playing a positive role in pressuring the industry to sign up to even this modest increase.
'The final settlement is not a living wage, but it is an improvement. The deal also includes additional allowances and rations and commitments that this wage would be implemented everywhere on time.'
'But we don't want to wait another 12 years for a pay increase, so we're demanding that there be regular pay reviews every three years.' adds Anam
According to Anam, it will be a real challenge to get the new payment implemented: 'Our research shows that some 20-30% of workers were getting less than the old minimum wage so we're concerned that managers won't pass on the new increase,' says Anam. 'It's hard to monitor and enforce this. Unions can't access most factories and the Bangladeshi government has precious few resources to invest in employing and training labour inspectors.
During his visit to London Anam met with major clothing brands at a seminar organised by the Ethical Trading Initiative the multi-stakeholder initiative of companies, unions and NGOs aiming to improve labour standards in global supply chains.
Anam was clear that the brands must do much more: 'I hear about factories where the minimum wage is not being paid yet auditors engaged by the big buyers are giving them a clean bill of health and issuing compliance certificates. These auditors never even talk to the local union or worker representatives about labour conditions.'
'The factories always tell us that they must make more for less, under pressure from the Western companies. So I ask you, are you placing orders that are ethical? That are encouraging the managers to pay us a living wage, or are you forcing the prices down for everyone?'
(Z.N Kamrul Anam addresses the TUC World Day for Decent Work. Photo courtesy of philosophyfootball)
The ability of workers to speak up through trade unions is painfully limited in Bangladesh. Of the 4500 garment factories in the country only about 50 of them recognise trade unions. Even then, it is difficult for unions to operate in them. 'If a worker joins a union then they are usually sacked immediately' explains Anam. 'The employer nearly always gets away with this'.
After years of government repression of trade unions, including military rule under a state of emergency, the new government elected towards the end of 2008 has been an improvement. It has made positive noises about the importance of respecting trade unions, yet many workers have been arrested or threatened following the recent national campaign and strikes across the country for better wages.
Another part of the problem is that Bangladesh's trade union movement has been incredibly fragmented, with dozens of small organisations, many of them highly politicised, being unable to present a united front to employers and the government. To build unity across the movement, the ITGLWF - the global union federation representing workers in the sector - helped bring together some 16 unions in the sector under a national platform called the Bangladesh National Council of textile and garment workers (BNC). Officially registered as a trade union, the BNC has built on a good track record of coordinating the movement, particularly around the recent wage campaign, and is looking to formalise its work.
It is also working to stamp out some of the worst practices in the sector. 'Our members are always worried about factory fires', says Anam. 'The other day I was inspecting the ruins of a factory that had caught on fire. Workers were forced to jump to their deaths from the fourth floor. It was horrible. A common problem is that doors are blocked or locked. But we have been training workers and working with companies on fire safety. It can be as simple as making sure that the fire exit doors are not locked. The big brands can help support our training programmes like this.'
Anam also acknowledges the need to better represent women workers. '90 percent of workers in the industry are women, and about 95 percent of them do not know how to read and write,' says Anam. 'So it is difficult for them to know about their rights, and about their conditions and wages.' But it is difficult because, 'If I ask the women to raise their voice, they are often absent. We need to think of ways to build the confidence of women to join and become more active within trade unions.'
While the challenges are many, the union movement in this country has signaled its solidarity - passing an emergency motion at TUC Congress, supporting the struggle of Bangladeshi Garment workers, and calling on the big brands and governments around the globe to ensure that Bangladesh's garment workers can finally enjoy decent work.
Anam addressed a series of events in London in early October, including 'Stand up for Decent Work', the TUC celebration of the World Day for Decent Work on 7 October 2010. He was also interviewed by radiolabour.