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BANGLADESH'S DIRT-POOR WORKERS BEHIND MULTI-BILLION GARMENT EXPORTS

by Qurratulain Ain Tahmina

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Bangladesh Clothing Industry Collapses (2001)

(IPS) DHAKA -- Bangladesh's garment industry may have survived the quota-free global trade regime but the eight billion dollar earnings it posted in the last fiscal year ending June, was built on the backs of two million workers barely able to keep body and soul together on dirt wages.

Against predictions by international lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that Bangladesh's garment industry could shrink by 30 percent after the quota regime ended in January 2005, exports actually showed a 24 percent increase thanks to the highly competitive prices on finished products offered by manufacturers.

But by May end severe labor unrest had gripped the Export Promotion Zones (EPZs) and factories set up around the capital city, compelling the government to intervene and set up a wage commission in which factory owners and workers were represented.


On Sept. 12, a divided commission came up with wages for seven grades of employment, to be implemented over the next three years. But the owners have rejected the new wages saying these are too high for the sustenance of the industry. Equally, the workers find the proposed wages too little for subsistence.

The situation continues to remain tense, with sporadic demonstrations by the workers, strong words at owners' meetings and messages from the government in support of the commission's proposals.

One mid-September evening, with debates on the wage commission's proposals raging, Tania, a garment worker sat before her bowl of rice and curry made from chicken claws in a dingy Dhaka slum. "The rich people eat chicken legs, and we occasionally get to eat the claws and even that is expensive for my family of seven," Tania's mother Rahima explained to IPS between embarrassed smiles.

Tania and her sister, both teenagers, are helpers in a T-shirt factory. This entry-point job earns each a monthly wage of Taka 1060 ($15 U.S.) with overtime work bringing in another 500 Taka (eight dollars).

The sisters bring in the family's regular income. The elderly father and a young brother work on uncertain daily wages. All seven live in a windowless six foot by eight foot room in a barrack-like building of a kind that is typical around the garment-producing zones. The rent is Taka 2,350 (35 dollars)a month.

Shila also earns altogether around Taka 1500 a month ($22) as a helper. She lives with a family, paying Taka 1100 ($16) for food and lodging. "Eight of us live in a tiny room," says Shila. "The morning meal is usually rice and mashed potato. They cook either dried fish or small fish for lunch. Often it's just greens to go with the rice."

These girls managed to get a tiny raise following the labor unrest in May. The minimum wage proposed for this year is Taka 1604 ($24). The third year will raise it to $31 for helpers.

The existing monthly minimum wage of Taka 930 ($14) was fixed by the government in 1994 against the newly proposed Taka 3000 ($45). Shabnam Hafiz, leader of a garment workers' association, puts it succinctly: "We only want enough to feed and take care of other essential needs for a family of four."

Owners say the minimum wage is given during the first year of ‘internship,' and that after that period a worker can bargain for more. But realities are different.

Halima, an operator in a shirt factory, has a monthly gross wage of Taka 1700 ($25), but her factory does not issue a regular attendance card that records hours of actual work. "They cheat you," says Halima. "I work well over 100 hours overtime but get just about Taka 500 (eight dollars) for that." She usually works seven 13-hour days a week. Night duty is frequent and a pittance is added as special allowance. She is fined Taka 100 (1.5 dollars) if absent for a day or is late for three cumulative days.

The latest proposed wage this year for the highest grade is $80- 90 in the third year. Anisul Huq, the owners' representative on the wage commission, told IPS that acceptance of such a wage structure would result in many of the factories shutting down. "Profit these days rarely exceeds three percent of the yearly turnover," claims Haq. ‘'Since the end of the quota system last year, the cutting and making charge on our income has been reduced by two-thirds for woven wear."

Economist A. Razzaque thinks that, calculated in a different way, the real profit would perhaps be up ten percent. But he admits that even a small raise would affect the industry adversely, because of its very nature. "To implement the proposed wages, a 500-worker factory would need to spend annually Taka 4.2 million ($60,000) more," says Razzaque. "That's a big amount for many." He adds that taking the 1994 minimum wage as benchmark, in the third year the proposed wages would reflect proper adjustment to inflation.

Sweater factory owner Rafez Alam Chowdhury feels raises would not help unless the government controls the prices of essential inputs. "Acute electricity shortages have raised our costs by 30 percent. About two to five percent of our costs are on account of bribes paid to various departments. Shipments are a mess and bank interests are high."

Chowdhury adds: "The government has absolutely failed to negotiate good deals at different international fora including the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The garment industry contributes 76 percent of the country's total export earnings. And about 80 percent of the workers are women. While garment profits thrived on cheap labor at the best of times, cheap labor is now seen as the key to its survival.

But the events of May and June signalled a need for drastic changes. For days, the largest garment zone of the country near Dhaka remained paralysed with attacks from angry and desperate workers. Hundreds of factories were ransacked and some were set on fire. Two workers died and hundreds were injured as police responded with force.

An agreement between the government, owners and workers' federations on Jun. 12 promized better pay, a weekly holiday, proper letters of appointment, maternity leave, and recognized workers' unions.

In June and August ‘Karmajibi Nari,' an NGO working for the rights of women workers, ran two consecutive surveys in 100 factories in and around Dhaka. The NGO's research and policy director Ziaul Haq Mukta says situation is improving slowly on working conditions, including regular hours, payments holidays and protection from abuse.

But Mukta has an apprehension, "Sporadic movements in the past failed to deliver results. This time the workers saw that violence forces the owners and the government to take steps. In the absence of factory-level unions, this could easily turn legitimate dissatisfaction into anarchy."

Although there are more than 30 federations of garment workers, rarely can any union work within a factory. Added to that the luxury cars and homes of factory owners are breeding resentment and anger among workers who are forced to live and work in notoriously appalling conditions.

Anisul Haq justifies the disparity. "If I drive a BMW today, considering my 20 years' turnover, the price divided will be nothing per worker."

In contrast to Haq's lifestyle, Nurun Nahar who works in a cap making factory run on South Korean investment lives in a hovel on the fringes of Dhaka. She makes about Taka 2500 (37 dollars) a month on which she has to raise two small children.

"The movement (in May and June) was for an absolutely just cause but if the factory closes down, how will I survive?" Nahar says with unerring logic. But she still cannot understand the luxurious lifestyles maintained by factory owners like Haq.



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Albion Monitor   October 3, 2006   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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