All eyes on Bangladesh…
Yesterday I was enlightened through the East End Film Festival, at their screening of The Machinists. During my time in India I hope to come across as fantastically inspiring people as the featured members of the National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has over the past years been an excellent source of dirt cheap cotton clothing for the fashion industry. The local minimum wage is known for being amongst the world’s lowest and with great investment since the country became independent, the garment industry now provides around 80% of the countries economy.
It is no wonder then that living standards and working conditions are some of the lowest in the world. In the documentary The Machinists it is quoted form War Against Want that 60% of the women working in this industry are sexually harrassed and between 2005 and 2010 around 200 workers died working at the machines - and these are of course only the documented numbers.
Directed by Hannan Majid and Richard York The Machinists follows three garment workers; a member of a big family, the single breadwinner and a couple with just one child. They are all members of the National Garment Worker’s Federation which at the time in 2010 and today still continues to fight for a minimum wage of 5000 taka (€50 / £40). It was a great breakthrough when in 2010 they managed to have it raised to 3000 taka, but with the low value and decades without any adjustments of this rate to inflation, the wage is still ‘insultingly low’, according to Mosherafa Mish, leader of a workers federation.
- Photo: A demonstration to raise the minimum wage in Bangladesh to 5000 taka
Mohammad the more conservative figure, tells his wife, an active union member, that when ‘the kids’ demonstrate she should look down and keep working. This is because they have both worked hard and loyally enough for their factory to work in a more senior position where the monthly wage is secured and paid on time. They use their money to raise their single child in what Hannan Majid in the Q&A described as a proper building.
The biggest fighter of the people portrayed is Ratna. She has left her village behind to seek employment in the garment sector, supporting her mother, sisters and their children as the only breadwinner. She strongly believes that if people unite it is possible to gain power over the factory owners. She says of the factory owners’ excuse for paying workers so little:
How is it that we keep hearing of manager’s new big houses? How is it that we keep hearing of new factories? Built on our sweat and blood?
… I wish rich people would buy clothes with a conscience.
It is fantastic for me to know that union workers in Bangladesh know their true worth. Apparently any kid today with a laptop and cheap credit on their phones can in Bangladesh connect to the internet and learn the true worth of their labour. This knowledge of course spreads, and thus cheap technology is creating the third world’s industrial revolution - as we speak.
Right here and right now, several months of unrest have been going on in Bangladesh, with some hundreds factories having been shut down. This was mentioned in today’s Drapers by production manager of Ted Baker, Donald Browne, saying that the ‘problems’ in Bangladesh horrify him, and that therefore Ted Baker are looking elsewhere to build business.
Given the language with which rising labour costs are treated with in Drapers, you sometimes don’t want to imagine what governs the decision makers of sourcing. In the article ‘Making it Happen’ and interview with Jane Coppen, sourcing manager of M&CO:
[…] Chinese government’s introduction of social benefits has added 30% to that cost. Together with volatile raw material prices, this was a “double whammy” according to Coppen.
What is the position of Bangladeshi garment factories then, in this climate of uprisings at home and insecure buyers in the western multinationals?
The loss of orders facing factory owners if their workforce becomes too unstable will pressure the owner into giving in to demands of the workers. It should be enough for them to see their order delays and fines building up. But I also think this is a grand opportunity for the buying companies to step in and aid the workers federations and factories in negotiating sustainable solutions together. The factories’ margins are under a lot of pressure from both sides. If our high street chains pushed in a more positive direction right now, a massive difference could be obtained.
So even if it is dangerous that Bangladesh garment factories are losing orders in these times, if workers keep pressuring in unison with conscious consumers demanding from our high street a more ethical supply chain, we will some day be able to accomplish an implementation of proper working standards to machinists of the garment trade.