If we want sustainability, we must put workers’ issues at the heart of the discussion
The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Exporter Association (BGMEA) has recently published its first Sustainability Report. This report on part of the BGMEA is a consolidated effort to assess its performance in terms of overhauling the overall business practices that would ensure positive social, economic, and environmental impacts.
The report contains information about supposedly improved governance structure, stakeholder engagement, economic impact, care for the society, as well as environmental sustainability. This report also acknowledges the changing business landscape following the Covid-19 pandemic.
BGMEA followed Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) sustainability reporting framework that industrialists use worldwide. These elaborate reports are publicized widely and usually display capital owners’ efforts and commitment in ensuring a fair world.
A look at the media reports of the first week of 2021 reveals that on January 6, workers of A-One BD Limited -- an Italian RMG factory -- demonstrated demanding unpaid salaries and allowance. The factory has reportedly been closed since April 18, 2020 without paying salaries and arrears of 1,100 workers. The National Garment Workers’ Federation (NGWF) claimed that the workers did not receive any support from the Department of Factories and Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA) about receiving their compensation.
The irony in industrialists’ efforts for sustainability is clear from the fact that while the appalling situation of workers continues, BGMEA has been requesting the government to extend the moratorium on the Covid-19 stimulus package by six months and the tenure of the loan by one year.
However, the workers’ appeals for getting their rightful salaries stay unheard.
Despite the fact that a stimulus package of Tk 50 billion was announced for the RMG sector, during April-May 2020 alone, 18,000 workers were dismissed as per estimates of the Department of Inspection of Factories and Establishments. Moreover, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has found that as much as 42% of the RMG workers, mostly employed in micro, small, and medium-sized factories, did not receive help from the stimulus package.
The insensitive approach of the industrialists is further proven by the fact that about 43% of female garment workers in Bangladesh suffer from malnutrition. Why do they not eat enough nutritious foods? Among many reasons, the primary issue is the level of income -- with which RMG workers cannot afford their food requirements. If a billion-dollar industry is being run by workers who suffer from malnutrition, we can easily imagine how meagre the salaries of these workers are.
The legal minimum wage for garment workers in the country is Tk 8,000 ($94.32) a month. This is insufficient if we consider it in comparison with the poverty line income, or the cost of basic needs. According to the latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016, the minimum amount that a person requires just to stay out of poverty is $26.84 per month. Frankly, a family of four members struggles to survive with only one worker’s monthly income.
Ultimately, any growth in wage is distributed through house rent, medical care, education for children, just to live by. The scenario becomes even more dismal if we consider the higher thresholds of poverty line benchmarked by the World Bank, which is $3.2 or $5.5 per person per day, instead of $1.9 -- typical of lower-upper middle-income countries.
With such low wages, RMG workers often feel compelled to take on large amounts of overtime to make ends meet. Consequently, overtime income continues to be a significant portion of the monthly salary of the workers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, workers’ income was significantly reduced due to lack of work orders and consequent curtailment of overtime.
The reduction in income has made it harder for workers to survive the pandemic days. Worryingly, recently Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) has requested the government to suspend the 5% annual increment of garment workers’ wages for the next two years. If this demand is met, workers will experience hardship even more.
The effect of low salary is widespread, it creates a cycle of exploitation -- workers find it hard to make a living and cut expenditure on all the essential needs, including food and education, hence depriving the generations to come. As such, the fallen-back generations are forced to continue working cheaply in these industries. It can be argued that low salary of workers ensures “sustainability” of the industry, enabling global market competitiveness as the industrialists usually claim -- but it does so in a very unsustainable manner.
The fallacies promoted by the large-scale “Sustainability Report” are also proven by a review of the “Care for the Society” chapter of the report: The report flaunts RMG industries’ contribution in generating over 10 million direct or indirect jobs, including workers in the backward and forward linkage industries, and claims that nearly 40 million people are dependent on this sector, but does not talk about workers’ salaries.
Besides, the report claims: “Workers can also lodge complaints to BGMEA in case they face any discrimination regarding maternity leave” but does not provide any further information on whether they received any complaints and how did they remedy the issues (if any) in support of the workers.
Workers’ suffering is obvious as the report mentions: The main reasons for owner and worker disputes are the unpaid wages and overtime claims. The other major causes of industrial disputes centre around increase of salary and benefits, employment contracts, and lay-offs.
Though industrialists talk about sustainability and workers’ benefit, the truth is that workers are always at the losing end.
Because of the unsafe working conditions, many have died in the past and those who are not directly hurt in accidents continue to suffer due to low income that results in a lack of food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.
If we want sustainability, we must put workers’ issues at the heart of the discussion. Without ensuring workers’ justifiable share from the overall income of the industry, any talk of sustainability is just façade and fallacy.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.