The news that wages for Bangladeshi garment factory workers are set to rise after factory owners agreed to a proposed 77% increase in the minimum wage has been welcomed by many in the industry but others say the raise is not enough. The powerful businessmen who control the factories in the country, the world’s second biggest exporter of clothes after China, had initially opposed demands for higher wages. However, following a week of street violence, protests and a four-day shutdown of many factories in addition to increased global pressure, factory bosses relented and agreed to the wage hike. The country’s labour minister, Rajiuddin Ahmed Raju, revealed the final minimum wage of 5,300 taka, or £42 at current exchange, a month for the garment industry which will take effect on 01 December.
The new wage will still be the lowest for garment workers in the world, said Khandaker Golam Moazzem, a research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue think-tank. Workers demanding 7764 taka a month took to the streets, blocking major roads and attacking factories -for them, the raise simply isn’t enough. ”We will continue protesting until we realise our demand,” a protester told Reuters.
Following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory that killed 1,129 people last April, the world united in solidarity to help the victims, prevent future incidents and improve the working conditions of Bangladesh’s garment workers. The story was front page news across the globe. The fashion industry quickly rallied and drew up an accord committed to the goal of a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi garment industry. Politicians declared it a ‘terrible and avoidable catastrophe’ and consumers vowed to shop more ethically and avoid the fast fashion retailers known to use the offending factories. Even the Pope got involved declaring it ‘against God’. But as time goes by, people forget. How many politicians mention the subject now it’s out of the media spotlight? How many fashion retailers actually signed up to the accord? And in an unstable economy, how many of us have given much thought to the origin of that steal of a jumper on sale in H&M?
In addition to dangerous working conditions, many employees work under slave labour type conditions. A report by Swedish documentary Kalla Facta which aired in November 2012 accused H&M of paying garment workers less than 25% of a living wage. They also alleged that the factories were overcrowded and have poor working conditions. The camera crew followed garment worker Deuar Sophon who told them that she is forced to take out high-interest loans to purchase food despite working 70 hours per week making garments for H&M. In February 2013 it was also reported that Spanish retail giant Zara has been accused of employing immigrant workers, including children, to produce clothes in “degrading” sweatshop conditions in Argentina. The Bolivian workers claimed that they were made to work for more than 13 hours a day and were not allowed leave the factory without permission.
Bangladesh is the second biggest exporter of clothes in the world and its £13billion textiles industry provides money and jobs for millions of workers. Pulling out of the country would cripple a nation so heavily reliant on its garment exports which account for a staggering 80% of total exports. Providing a fair wage and safe working conditions surely isn’t too much to ask?
Remember, don’t let the retailers get complacent, don’t let the politicians forget their promises and think before you buy. There is a reason the clothes are cheap – someone else is paying the price, often with their lives…