So We Can Have Cheap T-shirts, Bangladeshi Workers Are Still Dying
Months after the death of 1,135 garment workers in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, measures to improve the lives and safety of workers have yet to be carried out by the Bangladeshi government and Western retailers. Government officials, union leaders and garment manufacturers have also still not reached an accord to raise the minimum wage for the country’s 4 million garment workers and not a single factory has yet been inspected under a large-scale inspection plan that many European retailers have pledged their support for.
Bangladesh’s Minimal Minimum Wage
Bangladesh’s minimum wage is currently $39 a month before overtime for a 6-day work week. The government last raised the minimum wage in 2010 and it remains far below that paid to workers in Cambodia, China and Vietnam.
Back in August, union official Sirajul Islam Rony had demanded that the minimum wage be increased to $104.36. At that time, he warned that more protests could occur if it was not increased sufficiently,
A number of increases proposed by a government panel have not met the demands of unions and workers. Strikes occurred in Bangladesh in October after an increase of 20 percent, to $46.30, was proposed; hundreds of thousands of workers demonstrated in the streets and clashed with police and some factories were set on fire. On October 15, the Industrial Police, a riot force created to quell unrest among garment workers, was called in. At the very end of October, factory owners proposed a 50 percent increase, to $57.88 but this too was rejected.
On Monday, the government proposed yet another raise in the minimum wage by 77 percent, to $68. Whether this will be passed remains unclear as factory bosses have only agreed to a raise above $54.
Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of garments in the world and the thousands of women, men and children who make up the country’s garment factory workforce comprise a huge part of its economy. In view of this, it is still possible that current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, eager to win votes before January elections, could raise the minimum wage to a level pleasing to unions at the last minute.
The Search for Standards for Factory Inspections
The Dutch and British governments and the International Labor Organization (ILO) are providing $24.2 million in funding for a program to support the Bangladeshi government inspections. It is the implementation of factory inspections that has become a problem. So far, these are behind schedule and very much hampered by the existence of different inspection standards.
Bangladesh has about 5,000 garment factories and it is crucial to have one inspection standard for all of them. Figuring this out has proved to be challenging, to say the least. No less than three different inspection standards have been proposed.
European retailers including the operator of the H&M chain are supporting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The most progress has occurred in regard to this standard, with the first international staffers having arrived in Bangladesh in late October.
The second proposed standard is the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which a number of North American retailers including Gap and Wal-Mart (who refused to join European retailers and the ILO in their plan to increase factory safety) created. The Alliance has yet to get any inspections staff in place and is still describing the list of the factories that its member brands use as a “work in progress.”
The third proposed standard is the Bangladeshi government’s own Tripartite National Action Plan. This standard is to inspect any factories not covered under the first two standards. The list of factories to be inspected and exactly who will carry out inspections has yet to be determined.
To add to the complications of figuring out one standard for factory inspections, local garment lobbying groups including the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) must also have their perspectives incorporated.
Clearly instituting standards for inspections is challenging. The need for these remains paramount. Nine workers died in early October in a Dhaka suburb, in a fire at a factory which produced fabric that other factories (supplying Wal-Mart, among other stores) used to make clothes.
Factory owners and retailers both need the pressure of an outside body to carry out much-needed reforms. Wal-Mart, for instance, has said it will carry out more rigorous inspections of the 279 factories that it buys from in Bangladesh, publicize these results in June and complete and publicly report about all the reviews by mid-November. It is now November — and Wal-Mart has yet to release any results.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons