By Aarushi Gupta
On the eve of the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr, the conclusion of the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan, Delwar Hossain promised all of the employees in his garment factory in Dhaka an ‘Eid bonus,’ analogous to Christmas bonuses around the holiday season in most Western countries. In a country like Bangladesh, with the third highest population density in the world (behind only Singapore and Bahrain) and extremely low wages, extra money around the holiday season, or in general, is always welcome. Eid came and went, and the mostly female workers in Hossain’s factory did not receive their bonuses. In most countries similar to Bangladesh, with a subservient female population and weak economic status in many industries, this would not have become an issue for Hossain – business would have continued as usual. However, due to the increase in lobbies and unions in Bangladesh for these garment workers, the workers were able to fight for their promised wages. On Saturday, October 12, 900 women went to Hossain’s factory and demanded Eid bonuses from their boss. This in itself is a major deviation from the norm in Bangladesh or any third-world country. But these 900 women went one step further; when Hossain claimed that the factory did not have enough money to give the employees their bonuses, the women locked him in his own office for 18 long hours.
This seems extreme; why would so many workers hold out that long for an Eid bonus? Here’s something to think about: the minimum wage for a textile worker in Bangladesh is equivalent to $38 a month, less than half of what Cambodian garment workers are paid and a fifth of what workers in China are paid. According to The Economist, some 3,000 workers were squished into a workspace “the size of a football pitch”. In essence, they work in small, crowded spaces for less than a living wage – eerily similar to a pre-Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in America. On top of that, many of the garment factories export to well-known, high-end fashion labels such as Benetton, Primark, Joe Fresh and Kik. The workers could have been paid more, if the chain of command had acquiesced to it. However, because they were not paid nearly enough in normal wages, they needed to take matters into their own hands for their bonuses. By demanding their bonuses from Hossain, the female workers displayed the solidarity and unity that a constructive union can bestow upon workers who are in need of labor rights and justice. However, this is just one example of garment workers in Bengal actually getting the justice and somewhat fair payment that they deserve – there are many prior examples that did not end as well for the workers.
The most prominent case of Bengal garment workers not receiving fair compensation is the case of the April crash of the Rana Plaza in Savar, a town 10km out of Dhaka – 550 workers died in the collapse of a garment factory that had shown signs of decay and negligence before it collapsed. Both the owner and the government were partially responsible– as there are no formal building codes in Bangladesh, no compliance measures were taken to ensure the safety of the workers in the factory. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has said, “90% of Bangladesh’s buildings meet no building codes.” Because of the high population density in Bangladesh (the third highest in the world – 1,034 people per square kilometer), the government finds it easy to neglect certain aspects of its administration, which is by no means an excuse - especially for the textile industry, which is Bangladesh’s primary source of GDP, coming just behind China’s textile industry internationally. With such a huge part of Bangladesh’s economy invested in its largest industry, it is important for the government to ensure the workers’ safety and fair payment. A union group, BGMEA, has been established to stand up for the rights of garment workers. However, those in power have also corrupted the BGMEA. Small-time politicians who are looking to get an extra dose of power often sell out to make a few extra bucks, but the collective mission of the labor union is so far more resolute than the few politicians who have corrupted it.
Another reason that the collapse of the Rana Plaza was so effective in unmasking the vast injustices present in the Bangladeshi Garment industry is that the Bangla government actually refused assistance from the United Nations for foreign aid and rescue assistance. Instead, it preferred to have minimal numbers of soldiers and firemen present to rescue victims from the rubble – ultimately, it was up to locals to brave the debris and find remaining survivors and drag the bodies to safety. When these bystanders grew fed up with the police force and began pelting them with rocks and stones, the authorities actually sprayed tear gas at citizens. This blatant use of force against civilians, coupled with the inability of the local and federal authorities to organize rescue missions, also contributed to the uncovering of the Bangla textile industry’s inequities and corruption. The worst part? This is the third such case in the past year, though it is the first where the architects in charge as well as the building manager were successfully arrested.
Compared to the outcome for the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse and their families, the factory workers from Dhaka seem to have nothing to worry about. However, similar building collapses and worker abuse stories are still occurring in places like India and Pakistan, which seems to suggest that there is a bigger force at work. Inept government systems that operate on foreign rents (such as Pakistan) don’t seem to place value on workers’ rights and equality at all. Combine this with the frequent sexual abuse of female workers in the industry (a trend that has not been completely eradicated from western businesses either), and these women’s actions are realized as a supreme act of courage and unity – partly due to the success of the BGMEA in the industry. They successfully ensured that 900 workers received their promised Eid bonuses, but the mission to restore equality and worker rights in Bangladesh will continue.
A great deal needs to change in these countries, especially if textiles or something similar are their primary source of income, Protecting workers should be just as important as protecting their industry and both ideas should be going hand in hand. Unfortunately, this seems to be too idealistic an idea for many countries to grasp. However, with the harsh spotlight on them from the West, there is a possibility that the Bangla government could change policy and implement stronger laws to protect garment workers. This could include anything from infrastructure laws to more proactive human rights laws, but in the state that the industry is in now, anything would help to sew the pieces back together.
Image by Jorge Cortell