ASIA/BANGLADESH - “Clothing Workers’ Uprising”: Big brands in the fashion industry should do their part

Monday, 13 November 2023 human rights   work   women  

Dhaka (Agenzia Fides) - Ten years ago, in 2014, a documentary by the British newspaper "Guardian" entitled "The shirt on your back" showed in words and images the human cost of a cotton T-shirt made in Bangladesh, retracing the entire supply chain of the so-called "fast fashion industry", the consumer-based clothing industry that has grown dramatically in Western countries in recent years. The report, which exposes the human and environmental costs of the system, denounces the inhumane conditions of workers, especially women, who are the last link in the production chain of the giants of the global textile industry. The documentary was made after the tragedy that brought this phenomenon to the center of global news coverage: on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building, collapsed in Savar, a district of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. In the worst fatal textile factory accident in the country's history, a total of 1,138 people died, buried under the collapsing building, which had already been declared inaccessible and which housed a number of clothing factories and workshops of companies that had been commissioned to produce clothing at low cost.
The tragedy attracted international media attention and calls for agreements to guarantee workers' basic rights. But just a few months ago, on the tenth anniversary of the accident, thousands of Bangladeshi workers demonstrated for justice and pointed out the impunity of those responsible: "Ten years have passed and the owners of clothing factory and the owner of the building have not been punished for the murder of 1,138 workers", said the relatives of the victims, recalling the sensational case of Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, who forced workers to work despite cracks in the building . The man, one of the 38 accused of murder, is still on trial, while no charges have been brought against the large textile industry giants who are the "customers" of the exploitation of cheap labor without the slightest security guarantees. After the disaster, two oversight bodies were set up to improve labor standards and a review of wages was undertaken for the country's four million workers, mostly women, who work in Bangladesh's textile sector, a key asset of the domestic industry accounts for about 85% of the country's exports. Today the topic is relevant again: The precarious situation in the textile sector in Bangladesh has brought millions of workers together in strikes and protests in recent weeks for a decent wage. The demonstrations began peacefully in late October to demand an increase in the minimum wage and turned violent as the days went by because there was no progress. Clashes with police left four workers dead and nearly a hundred people arrested, while industrial activity was slowed: 123 factories were damaged by vandalism and more than 100 were forced to stop production, police said. The protest was dubbed the "garment workers' uprising" because the vast majority of workers in the industry are women. The focus of the protests is a demand for an increase in the minimum wage to 23,000 taka (about 209 USD), while the current amount remains frozen at 8,000 taka (nearly 73 USD) as of 2018. According to the workers, the increase is urgently needed given the inflation in the Asian country. The government announced last week that it would increase the salary to 12,500 taka (about $112), but workers rejected the measure and decided to continue their protest. Faruque Hasan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the business owners' association, pointed out that if workers' demands were met, "many factories would close and workers would lose their jobs" as labor costs were unaffordable. For their part, union leaders who insist that the industry will not stop growing, point out that the owners are using the profits to expand their operations and open more factories, rather than to improve the conditions of their workers, like Joly Talukder, general secretary of the “Garment Workers Union Center” in Bangladesh. According to some economists and independent observers, there is still room to increase workers' wages and avoid factory closures by finding a middle ground between the demands of both sides, but this would also require the multinational clothing companies that commission the products to take on the topic. “There is a way to increase wages. According to our estimates, the salary could be 17,568 taka (158 USD). If the big brands or buyers increase the price by 6 or 7 percent, this can be a viable option. It shouldn't always be the responsibility of the factory owners," said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, director of the independent think tank Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD). Bangladesh has over 3,500 textile factories, generating 85% of the country's $55 billion in annual exports and employing over 4 million women and men. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 13/11/2023)