In response to the low Covid-19 infection rates among garment workers, Rubana Huq, the president of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturing and Exporters Association (BGMEA), recently stated that “the poor have some sort of an exceptional strength”. If so, this is a strength they need to survive irrespective of Covid-19.
While garment workers have jobs in an economy that offers limited options, they are deprived of their due share from this multi-billion-dollar fashion industry and are far from earning a living wage.
In addition, the dire state of basic healthcare services for urban slum dwellers, most of whom are industrial workers, and inadequate social protection, exacerbates their difficulties.
Nazma’s predicament is illustrative. She is a single mother of three who earns Taka 9,100 ($107) per month. She works as a junior operator at an Export Processing Zones (EPZ) factory, where minimum wages are slightly higher than factories outside the zones. Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, she earned an additional Taka 1,000-2,000 ($12-23) with overtime. After paying for rent (Taka 4,000, $47) and other expenses, she has to use a regular monthly credit provided by her local convenience store to stretch this meagre income. Arguably, she is amongst the “lucky ones” who still has a job during a pandemic and has received Taka 7,000 ($ 82) for the month her factory was closed during lockdown.
Her most pressing concern, however, is her young daughter who has been coughing up blood lately. Even after spending Taka 2,200 ($26) on medical expenses, she has not received a diagnosis. Nazma has been employed in the garment sector for eight years, so why is she still struggling to make ends meet?
The last minimum wage revision in Bangladesh was finalised in January 2019 to Taka 8,000 ($94) for the lowest grade of garment workers in non-EPZ garment factories. Around this time, a study by Bangladesh’s Centre for Policy Dialogue recommended that for a family of two income earners, the minimum wage of a grade VI level worker should be Taka 10,028 ($118) – which is Taka 2,028 ($24) more than the current minimum. It also indicated that 32.2% of workers took personal loans and that the cost of living was higher in places like Dhaka, Tongi and Gazipur regions.
With such wages, it is unsurprising to see the growing evidence of malnutrition and reduced working life of garment workers, particularly women. Workers face a myriad of often inadequately addressed health problems such as anaemia and respiratory problems from regular exposure to fabric dust and harmful work processes. As a result of reduced payments during Covid-19, a September 2020 study, involving BRAC’s School of Public Health amongst others, indicated that 77% of the surveyed workers struggled to feed their families resorting to a diet of rice and lentils. With nearly four decades of this flourishing garment sector in Bangladesh, a staggering majority of workers still struggle to feed themselves.
Any discussions on improving wages are shuffled by the local stakeholders onto the shoulders of international buyers, and there is indeed some undisputed justification to this. Following the Rana Plaza tragedy, costly efforts to improve workplace safety and a 22.13% rise in cotton prices has increased the cost of production. In spite of all this, the cut and make price for garments has been decreasing over the years and purchasing practices by fast fashion brands has pushed greater production pressure onto the shoulders of underpaid workers.
Since Covid-19, international brands have also cancelled orders and forced price discounts onto manufacturers, which directly cost the workers who lack adequate savings or safety nets to fall back on. The European Union (EU) pledged a fund of Euro 334 million to Bangladesh, but only about 33% was for direct cash assistance to workers in. This dwarfs in comparison to the $ 6.5 billion reduction in garment exports to the EU between April and May 2020.
This is not just recent news. Besides cancelling “£9m of orders in Bangladesh alone” this year, back in 2015, the Arcadia Group which owns brands like Topshop had forced 2% price discounts from orders in production.
The burden of accountability in the fashion supply chain has been skewed to stakeholders within manufacturing countries. The international community — particularly donor countries, development organisations and a wider range of civil society stakeholders among consumer countries – should give an equal amount of scrutiny to monitor international brands and set minimum purchasing and costing standards aligned with the provision of living wages. Only then can brand funded CSR-activities such as to “educate” workers on nutrition have a real impact, once workers can afford to purchase nutritious food.
At the national level, apart from receiving a fair wage, workers should also be allowed to exercise their basic right as citizens to voice their concerns without the threat of arrests or being doused by hot water by the industrial police. This is what Anwar had to face along with 1,085 of his co-workers at A-One Ltd who continue to wait for unpaid salaries since January 2020. Anwar and his co-workers at the Dhaka EPZ-based factory have been demonstrating during Covid-19 with hope of receiving their dues even after being intimidated and pushed around for ten months.
Haphazardly implemented Covid-related lockdowns in the garment sectors starkly reflects the inadequacy of workers’ representation in sectoral decisions in Bangladesh. Prior to this crisis, prominent workers’ organisations that had demanded a higher minimum wage were not even included in the initial tripartite wage committee formed in February 2018, which only comprised ruling party-affiliated unions representatives from the Bangladesh Sramik League. Other worker representatives were only consulted with after persistent protests and workers’ detentions and arrests.
Acknowledging workers’ concerns is not a refutation of positive efforts within the industry; it is a critical part of the process to ensure “dignified jobs” through the garment sector.
Covid-19 is just an added dimension to the vulnerable lives of underpaid garment workers. The question remains whether the subsequent months and years will be spent on rhetoric calling stakeholders to take action, or will there in fact be urgent actions taken to fundamentally change the practice of exploitative wages in the fashion industry. Poor people may have “exceptional strength”, but they still need to feed themselves tomorrow.●
Adiba Afros is a researcher and consultant.