Millions of workers in the multi-billion-dollar garment industry are being exploited, activists say
Bangladeshi garment workers protest in the industrial area of Gazipur district near Dhaka on Nov. 9 to reject a minimum monthly wage of 12,500 taka (US$113) with trade unions calling the wage 'farcical.' (Photo: AFP)
The families of Anjuara Khatun, 26, and Russell Howlader, 25, shot and killed by police during a recent garment workers' protest for a fair minimum wage are not seeking justice for their lost loved ones.
"Who would I file the case against? Who would I seek justice from?" asked Hannan Howlader, Russel’s father.
Russell was among four workers killed and hundreds injured when police opened fire and used batons and tear gas to disperse tens of thousands of garment workers who had been demanding a fair wage since Oct 23. Russell was killed on Oct. 30.
Trade unions have demanded a minimum monthly wage of 23,000 taka (US$208) — up from the current rate of12,500 taka — citing ongoing inflation and devaluation of the local currency amid a staggering economy.
The authorities deployed hundreds of police and para-military Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) personnel to quell the protests that shut down hundreds of factories that stitch clothes for Western brands including Zara, Levi’s and H&M.
At least 34 criminal cases were filed against the protesters who pelted armed riot police with bricks and stones and vandalized some factories.
Families of the deceased workers are less interested in justice as they are frustrated and see no point in filing cases against the police.
The police registered the cases as “unnatural deaths” as nobody filed murder cases.
Anjuara was shot as she was returning to her residence in Gazipur district after her factory Islam Garments closed due to the unrest and was caught in clashes between workers and police on Nov. 9.
The mother of two was pronounced dead when taken to hospital. Shotgun pellets were found in her forehead, ears and other parts of the body.
Her husband, Mohammad Jamal, also a garment worker, said it was unnecessary to file a criminal case. He is considering returning to his village in northern Sirajganj district with two children, aged eight and seven.
"I am packing up my stuff," said Jamal.
Jamal received 630,000 taka as compensation for the loss of his wife from the factory and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association (BGMEA), the main trade body.
Meanwhile, Hannan was compensated 500,000 taka from the BGMEA for the loss of his son, the only earning member of the family. His factory paid nothing.
The unrest and exploitation of workers in Bangladesh’s export-oriented garment industry, the world’s second largest after China’s, are examples of human rights violations year after year, say experts and activists.
An economic lifeline of the South Asian nation, the industry earned US$47 billion last year. It was the largest industrial sector that accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s annual foreign exchange.
However, the industry has been notorious for poor labor practices, unsafe working conditions, and the deaths of hundreds of workers in accidents such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse of 2013.
The tragedy claimed more than 1,100 workers’ lives and put the industry under intense global scrutiny, prompting global brands to invest and press for major improvements in working conditions in their source factories.
Following the tragedy Pope Francis slammed the exploitation of Bangladeshi garment workers.
"This is called slave labor," he said.
"Not paying a fair wage, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking to make a profit, that goes against God."
Labor activists allege that despite notable structural changes the industry is still plagued by the exploitation of workers as factory owners are politically and financially powerful and continue to put profit before the welfare of workers.
Bangladeshi garment workers get one of the lowest minimum wages in the world, according to a report released last month by the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Dhaka-based think-tank.
The report said a garment worker’s wage is $110.59 in Pakistan, $170.35 in Vietnam, $171.18 in India, $242.94 in Indonesia, $200 in Cambodia, and $303.59 in China.
The CPD said that a Bangladesh garment worker earns $2.4 per day, barely above the global poverty level of $2.15 set by the World Bank in 2022.
"The garment sector minimum wage has never been enough," said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, CPD’s research director, reminding the country’s average per capita income announced in May was $2,765.
Bangladesh’s garment workers have historically been poorly paid, beginning with $30 in 1986.
It is supposed to rise every five years, but each time it has been marked with deadly violence.
The Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies recorded five deaths during 2018-19 wage protests.
Garment workers suffered arrest, harassment, torture and incarceration during previous minimum wage protests in 2013, 2010, 2006 and 1994.
"Influential garment factory owners never wanted to pay more with successive governments always taking their side," said Rashadul Alam Raju, general secretary of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation, who has been involved in the trade union movement since 1995.
The CPD report revealed that over 40 percent of factories it surveyed did not follow grades as mentioned in the wage board for employing workers while a fifth of those who implemented the wage board grades did not give their workers yearly increments or promote them on time.
Garment workers can barely spend half of what they need to buy food in 2023 — 16,529 taka — without any protein for adults, a month, according to the CPD.
“An unholy alliance”
In April 2014, the UK-based Amnesty International described Bangladesh’s garment industry as “an unholy alliance of business and government in Bangladesh and around the world” and blamed the alliance for pursuing profit at the expense of people.
An analysis of prices paid by international buyers since 2012 exposed their exploitation of Bangladeshi workers.
Garment items exported to Europe saw a maximum price increase of 0.74 percent. Some items saw their price drop over the years by 0.17 percent.
A category of garment items exported to the US saw a 42 percent increase in price. In another category, items exported to the US, the price increased by just 0.17 per cent.
"International buyers were always against increasing their prices. They still are," said Faruque Hassan, president of the BGMEA.
He admitted that less innovative Bangladeshi garment businessmen, replicating the established business model of producing a few garment items — T-shirts, singlets, tank tops, trousers, shorts, brace overalls, sweaters, pullovers, sweatshirts and vests — increased internal competition, offering international buyers an ideal condition for a bargain.
The production cost, on the other hand, went up because the government failed to provide affordable energy, he said, justifying the low wage.
Substantial income growth from the strengthening of the dollar and the rapid increase in export volume over the years has not been enough to give workers better pay, said Hassan.
The low wages and huge demands for fast fashion made Bangladesh a global clothing hub, analysts say.
From 10 exporters in second half of the 1970s when the industry kicked off, Bangladesh now has 1,500.
Millions of workers who keep the industry moving have remained neglected for years with rights groups equating their conditions to a form of modern-day slavery.
"We have nothing. No workplace security or familial or social protection,’ said Durlobh Chandra Dev, 35, a garment worker.
“We are worthless human beings who even lack the courage to become robbers."
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