Sewing in dire circumstances: workers' rights in the Bangladesh garment industry

Sewing in dire circumstances: workers' rights in the Bangladesh garment industry

Shabnaz Wali 
Researcher at ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies

With about 3,5 to 4 million workers employed in the garments industry, Bangladesh is second only to China in the export of ready-made-garments. The destination of 60% of the country’s garment production is Europe, which makes the continent their biggest market. Garments valued at more than $19.6 billion were exported to Europe in fiscal year 2018-2019. These statistics demonstrate that a major proportion of Bangladesh’s economy is dependant on its textile industry. Yet, the conditions in which its workers toil continue to violate the international standards of human rights.

"The ready-made garment industry is a safer place to work now than it was before," Dan Rees, director of the Better Work Program for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), said in a discussion at the European Parliament last year. Likewise, the Bangladesh Garment Exporters and Manufacturers Association (BGMEA) has reported that more than 3,800 export-oriented garment factories have been inspected to ensure safer infrastructure. Rees added that much more progress is still needed and that "safety is not just about buildings, it is equally about people.”

One of the continuing concerns is the treatment of female workers, who make up nearly 70% of the individuals working in the garment industry, according to DW News. These concerns include the conditions for menstruating women. 

"Many times, I got my period when I was at work and except for lunch break, I was given no time to attend to my needs. Access to clean water in the factory is also not always available," a worker told DW News. A survey found that 78.5% of the women were forced to use rags to catch their flow, creating poor hygienic conditions.

A collaborative effort of depoliticized international, national, and local communities might be able to turn the situation into a healthy one for garment workers.

Workers also report being forced to work long shifts. A Dhaka-based NGO called Karmojibi Nari found that 94.5% of the workers were not allowed even one break, except the lunch break, during their 10-hour factory shift. Additionally, almost all workers work overtime, which is widely considered to be mandatory.

Factory worker Ashiq stated in an interview with Maria Zimmerman, "It was very hard work. When we got home we were very, very tired and exhausted.”  The workers get a very low salary, which can barely pay for the rent and food. This means they do not have enough for something like health insurance, which compromises their health. Since Bangladesh only guarantees a national minimum wage of 35 euros per month, it is difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations also reported that the workers in local garment factories of Bangladesh are not safe, since they face increased physical and sexual harassment. The report states: “Labour rights have declined precipitously in recent years as union organizers contend with pressure on freedoms to associate, organize, and demonstrate. Worse, workers are being abused - verbally, physically, and sexually.”

The Bangladesh government shows that they are open to negotiation in the stated context. K.M. Ali Azam, the now former secretary at the Ministry of Labour and Employment, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “We want to work with the international community”. He added: “We will have a discussion regarding this report and work on including the suggestions that are possible to include”.

Since Europe is the largest importer of Bangladesh’s garments, the working conditions of workers have been discussed at the European Parliament in Brussels. Inspections held by European researchers have helped identify loopholes and the weak infrastructure of several factory outlets. In recent resolutions, the European parliament has stated that labour conditions, health and safety standards, and the position of unions need to be improved. European authorities have, however, complained about the lack of cooperation by the Bangladesh government. This was followed by official orders from the court to European inspection teams to halt their activities given the petition filed by a local garment factory.  

Ultimately, workers have to be able to oversee their own safety. This can be done by empowering the unions and depoliticizing them. Independent and representative unions, who are in direct contact with the labour community, can be accommodating in designing the desired policies. A collaborative effort of depoliticized international, national, and local communities might be able to turn the situation into a healthy one for garment workers.

The textile sector is of emphatic importance for Bangladesh’s economy as well as for the European markets, so it is fundamental to understand the inadequacies regarding worker’s rights. The introduction of new laws and a reconsideration of policies can reinforce the pragmatic solutions available to solve the distressing situations workers currently have to deal with.



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