Garment workers in Bangladesh have hit the headlines in global media for many reasons over the last few years. Many lives were lost in several high-profile industrial disasters in the country following which local garment factories have taken extensive safety measures in face of growing national and international pressure.
While the ongoing initiatives at RMG factories have focused on workers’ physical safety issues, there needs to be given due importance on their general health, wellbeing and quality of life.
Due to the increased participation of women in paid work, the issues of their safety and security in the workplace and on the commute to work have now come to the fore.
A decent and standard working environment highly influences workers’ efficiency and health and protects them from a work-related injuries. For Illness and injury, workers have to spend more money for health purposes, which limits their access to other basic needs.
If simple workplace policies and practices like ensuring building and electrical safety, firefighting capabilities, and access to appropriate emergency exits had been taken, many valuable lives could have been saved in the past.
The conflagration in the Tazreen Fashions factory in November 2012 killed at least 117 workers and injured 200 others. Many victims burned beyond recognition in the horrible incident. What is more, more than 1,000 workers died an immature death as the building named Rana Plaza (which housed their factories) collapsed in April 2013.
As the call for ensuring the safety of workers’ lives got louder, dozens of retailers and brands formed the accord on fire and building safety. They actively participated and supervised many re-modeling and re-mediation efforts through their two platforms (Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety).
Countries such as Bangladesh are popular places for offering cheap labor alongside expertise in clothing manufacture. Brands flock here to source more than $30 billion worth of “ready-made garments,” or RMG, making Bangladesh the world’s second-largest apparel manufacturing center, after China.
The legal minimum wage for garment workers in the country is 8,000 taka (£73.85) a month. Campaigners say workers need 16,000Tk to live a comfortable life in Bangladesh. With such low wages, employees often feel compelled to take on a large amount of overtime to make ends meet.
According to the persons specialized in the RMG sector, increasing wages is considered first way to address workers’ rights. A standard salary is crucial for leading a standard life. When workers cannot meet their basic needs with the salary they earn, they become frustrated. These frustrations give birth to anger and hamper healthy relations between workers and the industry resulting in threatening incidents. Low-paid salary is the reason behind labor unrest in the Bangladesh garment industry.
COVID-19 and RMG Industry
According to the media reports, thousands of workers have lost their jobs across the country due to the impact of COVID-19. Moreover, during lockdown hundreds of thousands of workers were not paid for their finished work. Work conditions have deteriorated drastically since the onset of the pandemic.
Mark Sebastian Anner, a Professor of labor and employment relations at Penn State University and an expert on the Bangladeshi garment industry, warns that the combination of massive job losses and the purging of union activists could lead to worsening conditions for employees, including forced labor.
“This is a profound international crisis that has disproportionately affected the people at the bottom of the supply chain, to the extent that their very survival is at stake,” said Anner. “We’ll be seeing the repercussions for years to come.”
While firing pregnant workers is illegal, Nazma Akter, the President of the union Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), has seen a spike since brands began canceling orders in early 2020.
Pregnant workers said that working conditions set by the factories were quite unfavorable to their physical condition.
Health is a basic human right. It also makes an important contribution to economic progress, as healthy people live longer, are more productive, and can save more.
According to the reports published in different local media, garment workers in large numbers suffer from a host of chronic health issues. Generally, women of low socioeconomic status in developing countries are in some of these non-fatal or non-traumatic health conditions.
The following health conditions are reported to be the most prevalent among garment workers: dysuria; joint pain; hypertension; vision problems; insomnia; asthma; anxiety; gout; diabetes; and heart attack.
It is not surprising that a health condition like dysuria (painful or difficult urination) is so highly prevalent among young female garment workers. Urinary tract infection, vaginitis, urinary retention, sexually transmitted conditions are related to dysuria.
Many garment and textile workers are said to have been affected by Asthma while working in factories. Their living arrangements (deplorable housing conditions coupled with exposure to air pollution outside) exacerbate this.
According to Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), a Swiss-based international organization, about 43 percent of workers in the country’s lucrative RMG industry are suffering from malnutrition,
About 7.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Bangladesh is lost annually due to anemia among the workers, said Moniruzzaman Bipul, portfolio lead of GAIN.
A good number of workers, mostly women, live in cramped quarters and half their wages often go towards rent. Married female RMG workers often live with their family, including their husbands and children, in one room and share the bathroom and kitchen with other garment workers and their family members.
The minimum wage went up from Tk 3,000 in 2010 to Tk 8,000 in 2019. Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s garment workers’ overall cost of living has increased by 86 percent between 2013 and 2018 where food cost increased by 56.8 percent and non-food cost increased by 115.4 percent, according to a study by CPD. With a hike in wages in the sector, housing costs go up every time. “So, there would be no tangible improvement in the workers’ quality of life after the wage rise,” CPD’s Dr. Khondaker Golam Moazzem.
A survey conducted by a non-governmental organization found numerous garment workers in Dhaka and Gazipur without any appointment letters. Having a contract carries significance for garment workers when it comes to making claims, especially in cases of workplace accidents like the Rana Plaza collapse and Tazreen Fashions fire.
Brands need to keep their commitments
There is a policy commitment from all fashion brands to ensure workers are paid for making their clothes. Manufacturers and brands are equally responsible to ensure a standard life for the garment workers.
However, a recent investigation by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) showed eight factories supplying 16 major fashion brands and found nearly 10,000 workers fighting for wages and benefits legally owed.
The workers are not paid in full for work the factories supplying the 16 fashion brands including H&M, Nike & Levi’s. In the last six months of 2020 alone, the brands they produced brought at least US$10 billion in profits combined.