The Awami League party (one of the two major political parties of Bangladesh), along with garment industry employers, have intensified their crackdown on apparel workers following mass walkouts over wages and working conditions in December.
In recent weeks, the international media and giant international retailers, alike, have voiced concerns about the situation in Bangladesh after tens of thousands of workers took to protest in connection with the conditions of their employment, namely the harsh conditions and poverty-level wages. The Bangladesh government and garment factory owners fear the eruption of such protest efforts will negatively impact investor profits.
One of the largest exporters of cheap apparel and accessories, Bangladesh’s garment industry earned $28.1 billion or 82 percent of exports last year. Around 4.5 million individuals – 80 percent of which are women – are employed in over 4,500 sweatshops throughout the country. The industry is highly lucrative for Bangladesh factory owners, as the country – which maintains much lower wages than other industrial centers, such as China, and extremely lax human rights laws – is a hotbed for international big businesses seeking cheap manufacturing. The country’s garment sector is a major source of profit for giant retail corporations in the U.S. and Europe, such as Wal-Mart, H&M, and Marks & Spencer, among others.
Commenting on the garment industry – which came under fire on an international scale particularly in 2013 after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which housed a large array of garment factories that served as suppliers to popular Western brands, killing 1,135 laborers – at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, stated: “We are highly committed to ensuring compliance with regard to labor rights, workplace safety and environmental standards in the industry.” As noted by various human rights groups, as Hasina made these remarks, her government was stepping up its repression against garment workers.
On December 11, for instance, a group of workers at Windy Apparels factory in Ashulia walked out on strike and were quickly joined by about 150,000 workers from more than two dozen factories. The strike continued for 10 days over 16 specific demands, including a wage increase to 16,000 taka ($US200) a month, up from the current below poverty-level 5,300 taka.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (“BGMEA”) responded to the strike by locking out workers at 55 factories. An estimated 1,600 workers were fired in connection with their protest efforts, although some reports claim the number was much higher, at over 3,500. Around 249 workers, including 14 local union leaders, were arrested. Many workers and union officials went into hiding to escape from house raids by security forces. Union offices have been vandalized and forcibly shut down, with membership documents burned and furniture removed.
Many of those arrested were charged under the Special Powers Act, a law introduced by the Awami League in 1974 to quash so-called “threats to state security.”
One of those arrested, brutally beaten and threatened with death by Bangladeshi police in connection with the larger protest efforts was Nazmul Huda, a well-known native journalist. Huda has been charged with violating section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act, which carries a minimum sentence of seven years’ jail.
On January 22, the New York Times published an article entitled, “Protests in Bangladesh Shake a Global Workshop for Apparel,” voicing concerns now being raised in the U.S. and Europe. The newspaper interviewed Jhorna Begum, the wife of Jahangir Alam, a local trade union president in Ashulia, one of those still imprisoned by Bangladesh authorities.
Begum told the Times that police raided their home in search of her husband. After he failed to return home, she hired a lawyer to track him down and discovered that he was being detained in an extremely dark and crowded cell. Begum was only able to speak to him briefly. “We live hand to mouth, waiting for the pay check at the end of the month,” she told the Times.
Following the death of garment union leader Aminul Islam, who was found tortured and murdered in April 2012, many garment workers are cautious about speaking to the media. Islam went missing near the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity office in Ashulia, where he worked as a senior organizer. His body was later dumped near the Ghatail police station.
In addition to coverage by the New York Times, which stated that “the brutal recent crackdown on protesting garment workers is proof that clothing manufactured in Bangladesh is still exacting a terrible price from the people who make it” and that “failure by the garment industry and Ms. Hasina’s government to adhere to its principles stains an industry and threatens the economy and stability of Bangladesh” – Forbes recently reported that a Bangladeshi garment worker earns $0.13 an hour, compared to $7,283 an hour (pre-tax) compensation for one of the 350 top chief executive officers (CEOs) in the United States. “This would roughly equate to the hourly rates of 16,000 employees from Bangladesh combined.”
Still yet, Pennsylvania State University associate professor Mark Anner told the Financial Times last month that production costs and the real value of Bangladesh workers’ wages have been declining in recent years. Since 2013, he said, the dollar price for a pair of cotton trousers has dropped 9.3 percent in real terms. The ongoing expansion of the Bangladesh garment industry was “based largely on its cost competitiveness.”
Still yet, BGMEA vice president Mohammed Nasir told the Financial Times: “The buyers go to each factory and get a detailed quote for the work … then they take the cheapest deal offered for each part of the work and demand that factories meet that overall price … Factories are desperate, so they agree. It means retailers pay around $5 for a piece of denim clothing that would sell in the west for $60.”
Twenty major international apparel retailers, including H&M, C&A, Esprit, GAP, Li & Fung and others, have issued a statement warning Prime Minister Hasina that industrial unrest in Bangladesh may damage the country’s reputation as a reliable sourcing market. They called on the government to form a new wage board for the garment workers. At the same time, the giant retailers said they “do not condone illegal activities by workers, labor groups.”
The call for a new garment industry wage board is an interesting one, consider that the existing wage board’s efforts have proven futile. The board failed to review workers’ pay last year, for instance, in contravention of existing labor laws, and some factories still refuse to grant a pay rise recommended by the wage board in 2013. It would not be entirely surprising if the aforementioned retailers were merely trying to save face, particularly given that their businesses dependent entirely on the cheap goods, such as the ones that they can export from Bangladesh.