Author: Gisela Burckhardt
In Bangladesh, there are some 5,000 factories with around four million employees. Approximately 70 percent are young women aged between 18 and 30. The country lives off export earnings from the garment industry, which accounts for about 70 percent of Bangladesh’s income. Numerous factory owners sit in parliament and speak for their own interests, not for those of their employees.
Minor improvements after the disastrous collapse of the Rana Plaza building
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013 buried more than 1,000 textile workers, most of them women. It also resulted in 2,500 workers becoming disabled. The disaster put the spotlight on the catastrophic working conditions in the garment industry. Even before the incident, there were repeated disasters. These included the fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh in 2012, which killed over 100 people and injured close to 200, and one at the Ali Enterprise factory in Pakistan in 2012, which killed over 250 people.
“The work of trade unions and NGOs
in Bangladesh and India has become
increasingly difficult in recent years.
In both countries, governments are
increasingly controlling remittances.”
In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building led to a landmark agreement on structural, fire safety and electrical engineering, the Accord, which at the time was signed by nearly 200 brands. In June 2022, the importance of occupational health and safety was highlighted by the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) decision to upgrade its core labour standards. The ILO’s core labour standards (no child labour, no forced labour, no discrimination, right to freedom of organisation) are mandatory for all countries, whether or not they have ratified the standards. Nevertheless, they are subject to massive violations in many manufacturing countries. The Accord improved the safety situation in factories, but working conditions have remained the same: a minimum wage that is far too low and not enough to live on (a wage that is around three times higher is needed), a very high level of manufacturing pressure that forces staff to work overtime, gender-based harassment and violence in the workplace and factory management that prevents workers from organising.
The pandemic has made a bad situation for workers worse
The coronavirus pandemic has only made the situation for workers worse. Brands and retailers around the world have responded to COVID-19 by cancelling orders without paying for goods that have already been manufactured, delaying placement of new orders and demanding discounts for products that have already been produced. By doing so, they have offloaded the main risks and costs of the crisis on to the people who are least able to afford it.
According to McKinsey (2020), more than half of all companies have renegotiated delivery terms, such as by demanding price reductions. Factories were forced to close due to the decline in orders, while workers lost their jobs or were sent home temporarily without income. When production resumed, often fewer workers were hired. Factory management used the pandemic to eliminate organised workers, which meant unionised staff were hit particularly hard. Many workers went into debt just to pay the rent. According to estimates from the Clean Clothes Campaign (2020), workers in the garment industry around the world are owed between $US 3.2 and 5.8 billion in wages just for the first three months of the pandemic. In response, CCC has launched the campaign #PayYourWorkers.
While the pandemic and the resulting economic crises are global phenomena, the speed and scale of the economic impacts felt in the garment sector reveal the fragility of its businesses and jobs. This is especially true in countries where the state provides a weak healthcare and social welfare system and companies have very limited insurance policies for this purpose. In these circumstances, large numbers of vulnerable workers and their families will quickly slide into poverty.
In Bangladesh, the government called for factories to close from March to May 2020, but most factories did not respond to a call for another lockdown in 2021. Losses were too high, and instead of closure, safety measures were implemented in the factories to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Masks were distributed. However, workers live in cramped quarters, often several in one room, sharing toilets, washing areas and cooking facilities with many others. These conditions made the containment of the pandemic almost impossible. It is believed – exact figures are unknown – that around 300,000 workers at least temporarily lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, without receiving the severance pay that is required by law.
Speaking up against gender-based violence is taboo
In the patriarchal societies of Bangladesh and India, sexualised violence in the workplace – irrespective of COVID-19 – is an enormous problem. In a survey of some 420 workers in Bangladesh, 76 percent of respondents said they had experienced gender-based violence in the workplace (Haque Chunnu 2020). Women may be verbally insulted, have their hair pulled or be forced to provide sexual services to their supervisors. They may also become victims of rape and murder (FEMNET 2022a). 70 percent of these cases go unreported because the women do not trust the internal complaints mechanism in their factory, if such a procedure exists at all.
It is true that there are some workers who defend themselves against labour rights violations with the help of trade unions. This action is also supported by German NGOs (FEMNET 2022b), but it very rarely addresses gender-based violence. The topic is taboo, as often women blame themselves and therefore do not dare to go public with it.
The work of trade unions and NGOs in Bangladesh and India has become increasingly difficult in recent years. In both countries, governments are increasingly controlling remittances. In India, NGOs now have to register their projects with the government if they wish to receive money from abroad. They are also subjected to strict controls, including accounting-related measures. The government has even banned NGOs such as Amnesty International and Oxfam from accepting money from abroad. In Bangladesh, NGOs are also required to register their projects with a government agency and to apply for permission to transfer money from abroad. These “shrinking spaces” all hinder freedom of expression and ultimately constitute a threat to the continued existence of NGOs.
Gisela Burckhardt is Founder and Chairperson of FEMNET e.V. (@FEMNET_eV).
Clean Clothes Campaign (2020): Un(der)paid in the pandemic:an estimate of what the garment industry owes its workers, https://cleanclothes.org/file-repository/underpaid-in-thepandemic.pdf/view.
FEMNET (2022a): Huge success in India: H&M signs contract with Indian producer Eastman to stop gender specific violence, https://femnet.de/en/news/news/2021/2114-killing-of-female-textile-worker-sheds-newlights-on-structural-violence-in-indian-factories.html.
FEMNET (2022b): Know rights - Enforce rights, https://femnet.de/en/what-we-do/campaigns-current-actions/solidarityworks-our-workin-production-countries/legal-assistance.html.
Haque Chunnu, M. (2020): Violence and harassment in the garment industry of Bangladesh: evidence on root causes and challenges to address GBV, Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity/FEMNET, https://femnet.de/images/downloads/gbv/GBV_Stop-Violence_Report_BCWS-FEMNET-2020.pdf.
McKinsey & Company (2020): Time for change: how to use the crisis to make fashion sourcing more agile and sustainable, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/time-for-change-how-to-usethe-crisis-to-make-fashion-sourcing-more-agile-and-sustainable.