New Solidarity Center Report Details Hard Life of “Voiceless and Vulnerable” Shrimp Workers in Bangladesh

Despite a labor code that addresses pay, working hours, and on-the-job conditions, Bangladeshi shrimp-processing workers say they still face inadequate health and safety protections at work and receive less than the minimum wage, among other violations of their rights, according to a new report by the Solidarity Center.

Based on in-depth interviews with workers in southwestern Bangladesh, the report finds that the largely female workforce earns less than men at work, fears speaking out about poor working conditions, and works overtime without commensurate pay.

According to the report, the situation is particularly grim for contract workers, who comprise 70 to 80 percent of the workforce at the processing plants during the peak work season. Contract workers said they received almost none of the benefits and rights to which they are entitled.

“The majority of shrimp-processing workers are highly vulnerable,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center. “They are mostly women with little education who must fend for their families as best they can and who are unable to stand up for—or are even aware of—their rights. This makes it easy for a very profitable industry to take advantage of them. Indeed, many work in harsh conditions in factories where labor law goes largely unenforced.”

Among the report’s other key findings:

  • Contract workers reported working far longer hours and for many more days per month than the timeframes specified by Bangladesh’s labor act.
  • Very few workers—only 2 percent of permanent workers and 3 percent of contract workers—reported receiving the leave to which they were entitled.
  • Nearly 97 percent of female contract workers said there was no possibility of taking maternity leave.
  • The majority of workers, contract and permanent, did not receive the overtime pay that they had earned.
  • Regulations require factory management to provide workers with masks and gloves in compliance with international food safety standards. While the majority of permanent workers receive the mandated equipment, more than half of contract workers do not.
  • Child labor continues to exist in plants processing shrimp for export.

Bangladesh’s shrimp industry provides the country with an important source of export revenue, second after garments. The country is the sixth-largest aquaculture producer in the world. The industry employs about 1 million people during peak season across the supply chain, the majority in the country’s south, where good jobs are few and poverty is overwhelming.

In 2005, the Solidarity Center, which partners with local trade unions and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to monitor labor conditions around the world, began working with Bangladeshi NGOs to look at ways to ensure that the rights of shrimp workers are protected at the workplace. For this survey, it partnered with a local NGO, Social Activities For Environment (SAFE), which has been advocating for improved worker rights in Bangladesh’s shrimp sector since 2003.

This study specifically examines the working conditions of more than 700 permanent and contract workers at 36 seafood-processing plants in Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat and Jessore, in southwestern Bangladesh, who were interviewed about such issues as wages and how they are paid; hygiene, health and safety; labor laws and their enforcement; and working conditions.

While Bangladesh has a labor code that enshrines many rights for its workers, a lack of implementation and enforcement of the law leaves working women and men with few protections. Complicating this scenario is that emerging unions—which could raise safety, health, discrimination, and violations of worker rights issues to employers and authorities—face a climate of intimidation and resistance from factory management.

“A voice on the job through genuine, grassroots representation could support workers as they seek better, safer working conditions, dignity on the job, and the legal rights and privileges they are due by law,” said Bader-Blau. “We know from experience that workers who know their rights and feel empowered can improve the working environment. But in Bangladesh, workers who try to organize unions often are threatened and lose their jobs—which ultimately means that the women and men who put shrimp on dinner tables around the world remain voiceless and vulnerable.”