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As the 72-hour blockade imposed by the opposition party lifts briefly in Dhaka, 26-year-old Mina walks briskly to her factory in Tejgaon, in the central part of the Bangladeshi capital. There is an element of fear and uncertainty, and police are posted around the street, alert after days of violent protests that have included arson, attacks and deaths.
Mina, who is a senior machine operator in a garment factory, moved to the city to work in the industry when she was 17. For many years, she has faced long working hours. “I feel sometimes that the production pressure may be impossible to endure,” says Mina, “because some days we work 12 hours, or 15 hours or more to meet it. But we are even more afraid that the factories may close down and we will be out of a job.”
She is one of the 3.8 million garment workers in Bangladesh, more than 85 percent of whom are women.
Mina is the face of what has become an industry black eye, and what has made the Bangladeshi worker WWD’s Newsmaker of the Year. While conditions had been poor and accidents had been occurring for some time, the situation crystallized on April 24. Already reeling from a factory fire six months earlier that saw 112 workers perish, the global apparel industry was rocked when 1,132 workers died in the building collapse at Rana Plaza in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka. Efforts to find survivors went on for weeks, and it is estimated that it will cost more than $70 million to compensate victims’ families and survivors.
The tragedy stirred a global outcry and raised a fundamental question: What is the human price of cheap fashion?
The controversy continues to divide the industry, with 115 mainly European firms agreeing to follow one set of legally enforceable working standards drawn up by unions and major U.S. retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Gap Inc. following another. Western governments, meanwhile, are pressuring Bangladesh to improve industry conditions.
Estimates of the number of garment factories in the country vary between 3,500 and 4,500 and as Bangladesh has rapidly grown to be the second-largest exporter of apparel in the world, many of them have grown as well. But the nation’s regulations and laws governing working conditions, safety, the right to form unions and minimum wages have not kept up that pace, and complaints about sweatshops, with workers in cramped conditions and working long hours, are rife.
But in the last few months, change has been sweeping through the industry, spurred by the global attention. Workers say that they are beginning to notice a difference on the factory floor, even if it’s only a more conciliatory tone from their employers.
Also, for the first time, workers and employers are being drawn together as politicians clash in advance of the Bangladesh election scheduled for Jan. 5. Violence has increased and 72-hour blockades of major cities have become commonplace. Reports of arson, deaths and violent attacks have become part of daily life. Owners of garment factories said meeting production schedules has become their biggest challenge, including getting completed orders to the port city of Chittagong. They’re losing millions of dollars from having to send orders by air freight.
“The country is facing a volatile situation because of a lack of understanding between politicians. We want peace to do business,” said Kazi Akram Uddin Ahmed, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
“We were just beginning to hope that our lives would be better,” said Mohd Islam Hussein, a worker who said he has begun to awaken to his rights and those of his colleagues. “But now, we are not sure whether our factories will survive another year.”
Amid it all, workers admit there has been progress in their working conditions in the last six months. These include a recent agreement for a minimum wage increase to 5,300 taka, or $68, a month, a rise of 77 percent from the existing $38 a month. The monthly minimum wage for entry-level workers in other major garment-exporting countries is much higher, such as India ($71), Sri Lanka ($73), Pakistan ($79), Vietnam ($78) and Cambodia ($80). Until last month, Bangladesh, at $38, was close to half of those amounts.
“We are really happy with this wage increase but also are still expecting more to meet the situation of inflation,” said Ogusa Begum, who works at a factory in northern Dhaka.
Recent studies, including one by the Center for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, have suggested that $68 is a minimum living wage. However, many of the workers support more than half a dozen people, often including their parents and siblings. Employers, on the other hand, say higher wages would put them out of business and they are under too much financial pressure already.
“The employers are addressing safety, building issues, payment issues, many things have changed,” said Mina.
There have been other small changes, such as in sanitation, the addition of water coolers, meal timings and agreed-upon maternity leave. One of the major stumbling blocks is the fact that a majority of the owners of garment factories are men, as are most of the supervisors on the factory floors. “But we have learned not to be intimidated by that,” Begum said, “especially when we can speak with each other and take a stand on what we believe is right.”
She, and other workers at her factory, are no longer afraid to express themselves or to form a union. “I feel very strong now. The workers have more unity and this makes me feel very confident,” she said.
But on top of fears about potential further tragedies, workers say they have other worries.