Pushpa Rani Shaha, gives a victory wave to fellow garment workers Pushpa Rani Shaha, gives a victory wave to fellow garment workers. Source: ILO Asia-Pacific - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The cost-of-living crisis on top of the extreme exploitative conditions of the garment industry has erupted into a major outbreak of workers’ unrest, reports John Clarke

A huge round of protests is underway in Bangladesh, with thousands of garment workers walking out of their factories and taking to the streets of Dhaka and the industrial district of Gazipur to demand substantial increases in their monthly minimum wage. This wave of action follows an offer by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to increase the wage to $90, instead of the $208 that had been demanded. With inflation taking a devastating toll on living standards, the employers’ offer is hopelessly inadequate and this has sparked outrage among the workers.

Bangladesh is second only to China as a garment-producing country, with some four million mainly female workers employed in nearly 3,500 factories. Their labour creates about $55 billion in export earnings annually. The present struggle for major wage increases comes up against the determined opposition of local employers and poses a threat to the interests of the Western brand-name companies that profit from the intense exploitation in the garment industry.

On 30 October, the police used extreme violence to try to prevent the protests from gaining greater momentum. They opened fire on the workers, killing one and injuring another, while also arresting key union organisers. Apoorva Kaiwar, south Asia regional secretary of IndustriALL, noted that this display of state repression and employer intransigence flies in the face of commitments to honour the terms of an International Labour Organisation (ILO) plan to improve working conditions and respect union rights.

Exploitation and resistance

The present cost-of-living crisis may be the immediate spark for the round of struggle that is now underway, but it is also part of an ongoing fight to limit the severe exploitation and appallingly dangerous conditions of work with which garment workers in Bangladesh have to contend.

International attention was suddenly focused on the garment industry in Bangladesh when the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, with four garment factories operating within it, collapsed in April 2013. On that terrible occasion, 1,129 workers were killed and more than 2,500 injured. Though this was by far the worst disaster of its kind, it was still part of an ongoing tragedy. Between 2005 and 2014, 1,500 garment workers in Bangladesh died in building collapses and preventable fires. This included a fire at the Tazreen garment factory in 2012 that took 112 lives.

Shortly after the Rana Plaza disaster, Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), undertook a speaking tour in Canada to highlight the conditions faced by garment workers. She noted that many ‘Western companies are benefiting from the exploitation of poor Bangladeshi women on a massive scale, including WalMart, The Gap, Sears, J.C. Penney, H & M, Hudson’s Bay, Loblaws, and Lulu Lemon. These companies are responsible for the killing of thousands of Bangladeshi workers.’

The intense exploitation and dangerous working conditions faced by garment workers boosts the profits of Western brand-name companies, but they avoid directly employing these workers by contracting with local suppliers. Though they set the terms of the agreements and ensure that the industry will be highly exploitative, the Western companies are able to avoid clear lines of responsibility in this way.

The global pandemic had a catastrophic impact on the garment industry in Bangladesh and caused enormous hardship for its workers. In a report released at the beginning of this year, Aberdeen University and the advocacy group Transform Trade found that ‘major international fashion brands, including Zara, H&M and GAP, are exploiting Bangladesh garment industry workers, with some of them involved in unfair practices and paying the suppliers below the cost of production.’

A thousand garment factories were surveyed for the report and it was found that many of them were paid the same rate for their products during the pandemic, despite substantially increased costs. The fashion brands were able to avoid additional costs, but the workers in the industry suffered the consequences.

The garment factories faced ‘order cancellations, refusal to pay, price reductions or delayed payment for goods.’ Indeed, Primark acknowledged that it had taken ‘the incredibly difficult decision in March 2020 to cancel all orders which had not yet been handed over.’ Predictably, such ‘unfair trading practices impacted suppliers’ employment practices resulting in worker turnover, loss of jobs and lower wages.

Many of the brand names have provided assurances around workplace safety and improved conditions. However, as the rampant abuses that took place during the pandemic show, the drive for profits and the dominant bargaining position of these Western-based companies makes it very difficult to win substantial undertakings from them and even harder to ensure compliance or accountability.

In 2019, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to deal with a case that had been brought forward against Loblaws, one of Canada’s largest supermarket chains, by victims of the Rana Plaza disaster. ‘Arati Rani Das, who lost a limb and whose mother was killed in the collapse, and three other Bangladeshi citizens launched a proposed class action in Ontario against Loblaws and three affiliates.’ After unfavourable rulings by the lower courts, the appeal to the Supreme Court was the last legal option available.

The plaintiffs argued that Loblaws, as a buyer of the clothing produced inside Rana Plaza, ‘knew workplaces in Bangladesh were dangerous, and had to ensure the buildings in which Joe Fresh garments were made were safe.’ An initial Superior Court ruling, however, found that ‘Loblaws owed no “duty of care” to the proposed class members.’

After this, the Court of Appeal ‘found that Loblaws had little control over the factories and had never promised to audit Rana Plaza for structural safety.’ For good measure, it ‘ordered the plaintiffs to pay Loblaws almost $1 million in legal costs — a decision the Supreme Court also left undisturbed.’ The near impunity of the brand-name companies was upheld at the highest level.

Cost-of-living crisis

The minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh increased by less than 1% between 2019 and 2022. Meanwhile, ‘the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics shows inflation in Bangladesh rose to 9.02% in 2022-23 – the highest average inflation rate in 12 years.’ After years of working under dreadful conditions to enrich Western fashion brands, the dislocation of the pandemic drove garment workers into deeper poverty. Now, the global cost-of-living crisis is taking another harsh toll on their meagre living standards.

Garment workers in Bangladesh have taken up a decisive struggle in the face of an inflationary crisis that is impacting upon workers all across the world. All possible support must be given to these mainly female workers, as they challenge the brand companies and local employers by fighting for substantial wage increases and safe working conditions in the face of lethal state repression.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.