On a recent Friday, the only day off for Bangladesh garment workers—if they get a day off—I went to visit workers at their homes to better understand how the people who stitch our clothes live their lives. Walking through the puzzling narrow alleys, I entered a tin shed-like building. A corridor tore through the center and on each side were rooms for families. It was in one of these dimly lit rooms where I met Konika, who worked as a sewing operator in a nearby garment factory in Gazipur. In the tiny space where she lived with two children and her husband, she revealed the conditions at her workplace.
A garment factory in Gazipur. Credit: Solidarity Center/Istiak Ahmed Inam
“We are under intense pressure to meet the target production,” she says. “I used to produce 70 pieces an hour but now, after our minimum wage has been increased by the government, I must produce 90 pieces. I have to think twice if I want to use the washroom. What if I miss my deadline? What if my production manager sees me? I rest only if there’s a problem with my machine and am lucky if the mechanic is not close by.”
Worker Safety under Threat Again
Six years after the deadly April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,134 garment workers and injured hundreds more, the government is on the verge of rolling back international safety inspections even as employers and the government are blocking workers’ ability to exercise their right to form unions to improve working conditions.
Disasters like Rana Plaza or the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire, which together killed more than 112 garment workers, prompted global outrage and mobilized workers in protest of unsafe and deadly working conditions, forcing major fashion brands and Bangladesh suppliers to address safety issues. As a result, unions, suppliers and many international brands formed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a binding agreement that helped make many garment factories safer. Despite its success, however, the accord may be dismantled, leaving workers at the mercy of a system unprepared to improve factory safety, according to a recent report.
Meanwhile, fashion companies often send their own inspection teams to factories, but the effectiveness of these visits is debatable.
“Our managers make us tell the foreigners [safety inspectors] we don’t work until 10 p.m., that we receive our wages regularly and we even receive our doctor’s fees. None of this is true,” says Konika. On many occasions, the inspection team strolls around the factory, only gathering data from factory management and not from the workers, thus releasing inaccurate reports.
Konika and her co-workers face odds that would dishearten many: factory owners escalating pressure to produce and depriving workers of their basic rights, and corporations wearing a mask of “doing all they can” for workers, while in fact, doing nothing.
Yet Konika, on her day off, enjoys time with her family, despite recognizing the injustices she is likely to face tomorrow.
More than five years after the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashion disasters killed more than a thousand garment workers and injured many more, workers in ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh still struggle to make ends meet. And even now, garment workers often are forced to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
Workers recently interviewed by the Solidarity Center say their employers set harsh production demands with short timelines. In fact, following the government’s recent minimum wage increase from $63 a month to $95, management in some factories pre-emptively set higher production targets. As a result, workers face unbearable pressure to work more quickly and produce more.
Verbal abuse and insults, such as name calling, is routine, workers say.
Many, like Shefali, also suffer from severe health problems after working between 10 and 14 hours per day.
Shefali, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of retaliation, says she is unable to sleep for several hours at a stretch because of pain. Other workers who stand long hours on factory lines say they are unable to sit for extended periods because of joint pain.
Putting Solidarity Center Fire Safety Training into Practice
And for many workers, fire safety is still a danger in many factories. To address the issue, the Solidarity Center’s ongoing fire safety trainings have reached thousands of garment workers, who learn how to extinguish fires, provide first-aid during incidents and safely handle chemicals. They also learn how to identify risks in building safety, abrasions in wiring and machine equipment and how to report those risks to management to help prevent their factories from becoming another Rana Plaza.
The trainings also provide workers with a platform to come together and share their workplace hardships and strategies for improving their work environment.
Lucky, who participated in one of the safety trainings, has put the lessons into practice.
“Once, there was fire in our factory and everyone rushed at the gates to escape. I saw a pregnant woman who was injured, and I could not leave her there alone. It is not by fire that people die but from the struggle during escape that causes death. So, I grabbed another colleague of mine and went to her to help. I wrapped my scarf around her as quickly as possible and pulled her out to safety,” she said.
Lucky added: “In another instance, I helped put out a fire at my neighbor’s home when no one could do it. I dipped a sack in the nearby river and threw it over the gas burner. People were amazed and said, ‘How can a woman do this?’ I learned this from all the training sessions I participated in over the years. It was really fruitful as I implemented what I learned a number of times inside and outside of my workplace.”
Five years is a lifetime in the fashion industry. The fast fashion cycle demands quicker and quicker turnarounds, sometimes in months or even weeks. This puts downward pressure on suppliers in terms of prices for the goods they produce and increases demands on workers, usually to work more for less. The last five years in the Bangladesh garment industry have been particularly dizzying, following the deadly November 24, 2012, Tazreen Fashions fire—and the Rana Plaza collapse six months after—that impelled intense, though not-quite permanent changes.
For workers and their unions, some changes have been historic and empowering. In an unprecedented burst of organizing in 40 years of the garment industry in Bangladesh, more than 400 unions recruited 90,000 new members. Now, however, we are seeing the government’s and industry’s reactions to that empowerment. Their dismissive attitude toward workers, their rights and their role in a booming sector runs the risk of harming not only Bangladesh garment workers but the very trade deals that make the country’s garment and textile sector its economic engine.
The young women union leaders of Bangladesh have surged forward against difficult odds, and the scars of the Tazreen factory fire that killed 112 garment workers are still raw. Many workers who were badly injured in the disaster, as documented by the Solidarity Center, are still unable to work. And the unions that workers continue to organize are facing an uphill battle for recognition, dignity and rights at work.
In 2012, prior to Tazreen, 12 unions applied for registration, a government requirement, and only one received it. Following Tazreen and with the world focused on how our clothes are made, 157 unions applied for registration and 84 were registered in 2013. Through their unions, the mostly woman workforce learned fire safety, gained maternity benefits and even improved their wages. But a backlash began to set in by 2015. Intimidated by employers determined to limit organizations that would represent worker interests, workers formed fewer unions.
Last December widespread labor unrest over poor wages in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka, led to hundreds of fired workers, police repression and trumped-up legal charges against worker rights activists. In response many Western clothing brands boycotted the annual high-profile “garment summit” in February, organized by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). In the spring the European Union (EU) held a first-ever meeting in Dhaka to discuss Bangladesh’s ill-treatment of workers and disregard for freedom of association in light of the garment industry’s preferential trade status. Still not getting the message, the Bangladesh police surveilled union activists, temporarily shut down union offices and raided worker education programs supported by the U.S. government, while ignoring coordinated attacks, verbal and otherwise, on labor organizers.
The events of the past year are building to a moment of truth for the government of Bangladesh and its garment sector. Bangladesh lost its preferential tariff benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) in 2013, when the U.S. Trade Representative suspended it from the program. The EU has a similar tariff program and has demanded significant changes, to be unveiled this month, in Bangladesh’s labor law and practice in order to keep those benefits.
In a new white paper, the Clean Clothes Campaign, European Trade Union Confederation, International Trade Union Confederation and the IndustriALL and UNI global unions provide clear evidence that, despite signing a sustainability compact with the EU a year after the Tazreen fire, Bangladesh remains in violation of the deal. In the compact, the government pledged to reform labor laws, implement freedom of association in export-processing zones, improve union registration and curtail anti-union discrimination.
International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow says, “The government of Bangladesh is consistently failing to meet its obligations under international law to protect workers’ rights. The result is continued exploitation and poverty wages for workers in the garment industry. An EU investigation would help break the stranglehold that factory owners in Bangladesh have over the parliament and government, and would provide vital support for workers and their families.”
The EU has an important choice to make: whether to accept more empty promises from the Bangladesh government or institute a review of GSP trade benefits, the report’s authors say.
“Despite promises made, it is still extremely difficult for workers in Bangladesh to exercise their fundamental labor rights,” says Jenny Holdcroft, IndustriALL assistant general secretary. “The continued failure of the Bangladeshi government to take the necessary action to protect workers’ rights is ample reason for the EU to launch the much-needed trade investigation.” Bangladesh’s powerful employers and government have demonstrated little interest in changing the status quo, but a day of reckoning may be upon them. They can grant workers the respect and rights they deserve, or they can risk their flagship industry and economy. After five years, garment workers familiar with fast fashion are counting on eventual justice.
This is a crosspost from Thompson-Reuters.