Bangladeshi RMG workers stuck between quarrelling retailers and suppliers

Bangladeshi RMG workers stuck between quarrelling retailers and suppliers
Courtesy: France 24

Union leaders in Bangladesh say that over 23 000 RMG (Ready-made Garments) workers have had cases filed against them by police as protests continue in Gazipur, Mirpur and Savar over wages.


In late October, during a Minimum Wage Board for Garment Workers meeting, factory owners dismissed demands from labour leaders to raise minimum wages to 23 000 TK per month ($208) from their current 8 000 TK per month ($72). Following their rebuttal of a meagre rise to 10 000 TK, an $18 increase, protests erupted across industrial and garment areas


Since, it has been reported that four workers have been killed in the ensuing clashes with police. Earlier this month, impACT reported two deaths, Rasel Hawlader and another unidentified person. The second has been identified as Imran Hussain, a 32-year-old ABM Fashion worker. Another two have been killed as police opened fire on protestors, 42-year-old, Jalal Uddin and Anjuara Khatun, 26. 100 workers have been arrested so far, as factories continue to close and clashes between police and workers continue.


IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC) President, Amirul Haque Amin, has since demanded the unconditional release of those arrested, for factory owners to ensure that workers injured in the protests are treated and also to compensate the families of those killed. Further, IBC Vice President Babur Akhter has also threatened to lodge complaints with buyers against the factories if they “prepare any blacklist of the workers who agitated”. Certainly, labour leaders and organisers, historically, have faced possible violence and blacklisting within the RMG industry. In a report from 2015, numerous accounts of factory owners identifying ‘troublemakers’ surfaced. Informal ‘blacklists’ have been, among other organisations, illuminated by Human Rights Watch. Only in June, Shahidul Islam, a 45-year-old labour leader was beaten to death outside of a factory after demanding that factory owners give workers unpaid wages before Eid.


CNN have recently reported that in 2019, 84% of the nations total export earnings were derived from the garment industry. RMG workers do not feel adequately compensated for their contribution and are “condemned to starvation”. In an interview with The Guardian, an anonymous worker with young children asked: “the leggings I make retail for more than my entire month’s salary … why should my children go hungry?”. This notion was recently reflected by Nazma Akter, founder and director of the worker rights group, Awaj Foundation. Stating that industry wage suggestions were “not logical at all” and that “workers had been made a mockery of”. 


Though under fire for general poor treatment of employees, factory-owners, like Fazlul Hoque, have refuted that they are able to increase wages to demanded levels. Stating, “suppliers have very little bargaining power, whereas buyers can pick and choose who they want to work with” further suggesting that the “responsibility of the buyers to come forward and offer proactively higher prices”. 


Recent global events have only served to exacerbate financial conditions for RMG workers. Inflationary pressures such as the Invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic have meant the nation has been subject to huge inflationary pressures. Between 2022 and 2023, inflation rose to 9%, the worst it’s been in 12 years. 


What impACT suggests are asymmetric business partnerships between factories and global fashion brands, mean RMG workers are rarely considered in decision-making. Large fashion brands do not own factories in Bangladesh, rather, they contract factory groups, who source materials and pay workers, to make items. Retail brands continue to see Bangladesh as a suitable destination to source cheap retail items, BGMEA data suggests that prices that buyers pay for items have “barely budged over the past decade”. During the early stages of the pandemic, the uneven nature of this relationship was made evident when brands cancelled $40bn worth of orders from factories. This left factories with vast amounts of unsellable materials and finished garments and workers without wages. Only through a grassroots campaign, “Pay Up”, was $22bn repaid to the Bangladeshi RMG industry. Further, a report from January has indicated that the majority of factories receive financial support from the Bangladeshi state in order to remain afloat and supply brands with garments. Meanwhile, owners, very eager to maintain lucrative business partnerships illustrated by the BGMEA's message to protestors to "not do anything that tarnishes their image", continue to mistreat RMG workers. What is clear is that normal Bangladeshis are the losers in this situation, factories service retailers with incredibly cheap bulk items, who sell at exponentially higher prices, whilst working people are unable to afford basic requirements.


Workers are stuck between retailers and factory owners, who continue to blame each other for their suffering but wish to return to productive normalcy. More than a dozen brands, some of fashions largest, have recently written to the Bangladeshi state to settle on a minimum wage that would cover garment workers’ needs. The likes of Adidas, American Eagle Outfitters, Gap Inc., Hugo Boss, Levi Strauss, Lululemon, Patagonia, PVH Corp. and Under Armour signed a letter asking for the state to recognise an annually adjusted minimum wage to “take into account the persistently high inflation”. Meanwhile, factory owners continue to blame consistently low costs for retailers as a limiting factory in their ability to pay working people.


As industry advocacy groups and factory owners continue to battle over who has the responsibility to better conditions on the factory floor, workers continue to suffer. If interested parties are really interested in returning to production, rather than maintaining current levels of inequality, they must listen to unions and labour organisers. It has been made clear that current conditions for workers are unliveable, and forcing them to return to work with such low wages should not be an option. impACT suggests that, in order to raise wages to expected levels, retailers and factory owners come discuss changes in their agreements to facilitate this rather than continuing to attempt to place each other at fault. The Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank, has laid out ways in which to increase wages by increasing supplier prices by just 7 cents without imposing “undue burden”, though this would not increase the minimum wage to the desired amount (only 17 569 TK, roughly $150), it illustrates that both retailers and suppliers have the opportunity to create a more suitable and liveable environment for working people in Bangladesh. They must choose to better conditions if they are to expect production to return. 


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