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The Rights of Garment Workers: A Call For Fairness

Image Source / NPR

The rights and struggles of garment workers, particularly in countries like Bangladesh, represent a poignant narrative within the larger context of global labour practices. These individuals, predominantly women, form the backbone of the garment industry, yet they grapple with an array of challenges that compromise their well-being and dignity. Despite the industry's significant contribution to the economy, the plight of these workers remains a critical issue. From inadequate wages to hazardous working conditions, limited unionisation rights to gender-based discrimination, the struggles faced by garment workers highlight systemic flaws within the industry. Their stories echo a broader call for equitable treatment, fair labour practices, and the recognition of fundamental human rights in workplaces across the globe. Understanding and addressing these challenges are crucial steps toward ensuring a more just and humane environment for these workers who play a pivotal role in the global supply chain.

The garment industry in Bangladesh specifically stands as a cornerstone of the country's economy. It is experiencing remarkable growth and emerging as one of the world's largest apparel exporters. This sector plays a pivotal role in Bangladesh's economic landscape. To demonstrate, it is contributing significantly to its GDP and employing millions of individuals, primarily women, across the nation. The industry's rapid expansion can be attributed to several factors, such as low labour costs, a vast and relatively inexpensive workforce, favourable trade agreements, and the ability to meet global demands for fast fashion at competitive prices. With numerous factories spread across the country, the garment industry has brought both economic opportunities and challenges. This is making Bangladesh a major player in the global textile and apparel market. However, the question of Bangladeshi garment worker’s rights cannot be ignored for the sake of market expansion.

Working Conditions of Garment Workers

Image Souce / The Guardian

Life as a garment worker is blood, sweat and tears with little reward. Bangladeshi garment workers face gruelling, long working hours as a norm within the industry. Statistics collected by the Garment Worker Diaries, a research project that studied labour violations among garment workers, indicate that 72% of these workers endure shifts that exceed the legal limit of 60 hours per week. Often, this is to meet production demands and tight deadlines set by global clothing brands. According to reports by the Bangladeshi Ministry of Labour and Employment in April 2022, many workers are required to work 12 to 14 hours per day, six or seven days a week. This significantly surpasses international labour standards. These extended hours not only strain the physical and mental well-being of the labour force but also contribute to a heightened risk of workplace accidents and fatigue-related issues. Despite efforts to regulate working hours, the pervasive nature of this practice continues to impact the lives and health of Bangladeshi garment workers.

Low wages persist as a pervasive issue among Bangladeshi garment workers, perpetuating poverty levels within this crucial workforce. According to Human Rights Watch in November 2023, a considerable number of these workers earned wages that barely meet subsistence levels, with many earning as little as $100 to $150 per month. These wages fall significantly below the living wage standards recommended for decent livelihoods. Workers are left on their wounded knees struggling to cover necessities such as food, shelter, healthcare, and education for their families. The prevalence of such meagre wages further exacerbates the cycle of poverty, trapping workers and their families in a perpetual struggle to make ends meet. Despite being an essential pillar of Bangladesh's economy, the garment industry's reliance on low-cost labour continues to perpetuate economic disparity and hinder the socio-economic progress of its workforce.

The Bangladeshi garment industry is furthermore fraught with pervasive health and safety hazards within its factory settings, leading to alarming rates of workplace accidents and fatalities. Statistics from various reports from the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research in April 2023 highlight the dire situation, indicating that each year, thousands of workers are injured or killed in workplace accidents. According to data compiled by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the sector witnessed a substantial number of incidents, with hundreds of workers suffering injuries due to fires, building collapses, electrical accidents, and machinery mishaps. Shockingly, fatalities resulting from these hazardous working conditions remain a grave concern, with reports citing a significant number of deaths annually. These tragedies often stem from inadequate fire safety measures, structural vulnerabilities of factory buildings, poor electrical wiring, and a lack of proper safety equipment. Despite increased awareness and occasional interventions, the persisting health and safety risks continue to jeopardize the well-being and lives of Bangladeshi garment workers.

Challenges Faced by Garment Workers

Image Source / Solidarity Centre

The absence of robust unionisation severely hampers Bangladeshi garment workers' capacity to effectively advocate for their rights within the industry. A study on the politicisation of trade unions published in the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations in April 2020 indicates that only 10% of the country's garment workforce is unionised due to various challenges, including legal barriers, anti-union tactics by factory owners, and the fear of reprisals against union activists. This lack of collective bargaining power significantly diminishes the workers' ability to negotiate for fair wages, improved working conditions, and better safety standards. Moreover, without strong unions to represent their interests, workers often face difficulties in voicing grievances, addressing workplace injustices, and accessing legal recourse for rights violations. The limited presence of unions leaves many garment workers vulnerable to exploitation, long hours, low pay, and unsafe working conditions, perpetuating a cycle of systemic inequality within the industry.

Aside from this, gender disparity in Bangladesh permeates various societal aspects, significantly impacting female garment workers within the industry. The Ethical Trading Initiative published a report in March 2023 revealing that around 53-55% of the country's garment workforce comprises women, often facing systemic discrimination and challenges due to their gender. Despite their significant contribution to the sector, female workers commonly encounter unequal treatment, including lower wages compared to their male counterparts, limited access to higher positions, and pervasive instances of harassment and gender-based violence within factory settings. Societal norms and cultural expectations often restrict women's mobility and decision-making power both at work and within their communities. Balancing work demands with domestic responsibilities further adds to their challenges. This results in increased stress and limited opportunities for advancement. Addressing gender disparity is crucial not only for the well-being of female garment workers but also for fostering a more equitable and inclusive workforce in Bangladesh.

Additionally, migrant workers in the Bangladeshi garment industry face a multitude of challenges, including exploitation and discrimination, which exacerbate their already vulnerable position within the workforce. Data collected by the London School of Economics in November 2021 underscore the prevalence of such issues, as 73.7% of the industry's labour force comprises migrants, often compelled by economic hardship to seek work in urban centres. These workers frequently encounter discriminatory practices such as lower wages, limited job security, and exclusion from benefits afforded to local workers. Additionally, their migrant status often leaves them susceptible to exploitation, as they may lack proper legal protections, face language barriers, and experience difficulty accessing essential services. Moreover, some migrants encounter exploitative recruitment processes, where they incur hefty debts to secure employment, further perpetuating their vulnerability to exploitation within the garment industry. Addressing these systemic issues is crucial to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all workers, regardless of their migrant status, and to uphold fundamental human rights within the industry.

Efforts for Improving Worker’s Rights

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Bangladesh has several labour laws and regulations aimed at safeguarding the rights of garment workers, although enforcement and implementation remain areas of concern. The Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006 serves as a fundamental legislation covering various aspects of employment, including working hours, wages, occupational safety, and workers' welfare. This act establishes provisions for minimum wages, standard working hours, and overtime pay. Additionally, it addresses issues related to child labour, discrimination, and workers' rights to organize and form trade unions. The law mandates the formation of workplace safety committees, yet the effectiveness of these measures has faced scrutiny due to challenges in enforcement and inadequate resources for inspections. Despite these regulations, gaps persist, requiring continual improvement, effective implementation, and stronger enforcement mechanisms to ensure the comprehensive protection of Bangladeshi garment workers' rights.

Numerous NGOs and advocacy groups in Bangladesh have taken significant initiatives to support and advocate for the rights and welfare of garment workers. Organizations such as the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), and the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) have been actively involved in empowering workers through education on labour rights, providing legal assistance, and organising workers to collectively voice their concerns. Other initiatives include the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE) which focuses on workplace safety and health training, while organisations like the Solidarity Center work on capacity-building programs and supporting the formation of unions for workers to negotiate better conditions. These NGOs and advocacy groups play a crucial role in amplifying the voices of garment workers, advocating for policy reforms, and offering support services that aim to improve the working conditions and rights of those employed in Bangladesh's garment industry.

International organisations have played a pivotal role in promoting better working conditions for Bangladeshi garment workers by leveraging international law and advocating for industry-wide reforms. Entities such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) have been instrumental in setting global labour standards and promoting decent work conditions through conventions and recommendations that member countries are encouraged to adopt. These standards encompass various aspects of workers' rights, including safety, fair wages, freedom of association, and collective bargaining. Moreover, organisations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank have supported initiatives aimed at enhancing the social and economic well-being of workers in Bangladesh's garment industry, providing technical assistance and funding for capacity-building programs. International law, through conventions such as the ILO's Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, serves as a framework for ensuring that member countries uphold these standards, exerting pressure on governments and industries to comply with international norms. Efforts by international organisations to monitor, assess, and advise on compliance with these standards can significantly influence policies, regulations, and practices, ultimately contributing to the improvement of working conditions for Bangladeshi garment workers.

Recent Developments and Progress

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In recent years, the garment industry in Bangladesh has witnessed several positive changes and reforms aimed at enhancing the welfare of workers. Notably, the implementation of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety led to substantial improvements in factory safety standards, including structural assessments, fire safety measures, and employee training programs. Furthermore, the government has taken steps to increase the minimum wage for garment workers, albeit modestly, aiming to improve their standard of living. Additionally, various initiatives and programs by non-governmental organisations and international entities have been instrumental in providing training on workers' rights, empowering women in the workplace, and supporting the establishment of grievance mechanisms to address labour-related issues. While these reforms represent significant strides forward, ongoing efforts and collaboration among stakeholders remain crucial to sustainably improve the working conditions and rights of Bangladeshi garment workers.

Global pressure and consumer activism have played pivotal roles in driving positive changes toward improving garment workers' rights in Bangladesh. Increased awareness and advocacy campaigns by international organizations, consumer groups, and human rights activists have brought attention to the plight of Bangladeshi garment workers, compelling multinational corporations and brands to reassess their supply chain practices. Heightened scrutiny and public pressure on companies regarding ethical sourcing and responsible business practices have led to some corporations adopting stricter supplier standards, prioritizing worker safety, fair wages, and better working conditions. Moreover, consumer activism, including boycotts, social media campaigns, and demand for transparency, has influenced companies to prioritize ethical sourcing and accountability within their supply chains. This collective pressure has spurred commitments from some brands to ensure greater transparency, accountability, and respect for the rights of garment workers in Bangladesh and beyond, signalling a growing recognition of the importance of ethical practices throughout the global garment industry.

The struggle and liberation of garment workers in Bangladesh persists as a poignant reminder of the challenges within the global supply chain. Efforts to improve their conditions must involve a collective commitment from governments, factory owners, international brands, and consumers. Upholding worker rights, ensuring fair wages, providing safe working conditions, and empowering these workers are essential steps toward a more equitable and dignified future for all involved in the garment industry. Ultimately, the dignity and fair treatment of garment workers must be a priority, reflecting the broader need for social justice and human rights in the global workforce.

Image Source / France 24


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