Keep buying!

At work in the Luman factory in Dhaka. A 10-hour day is the norm for Bangladeshi garment makers, but bosses are trying to up it to 12 hours.

Luftor Rahman, factory owner, is livid. ‘Write this!’ he tells me, pointing his finger. ‘Tell them we don’t want 97 per cent if it excludes textiles! I can’t export helicopters. Give us 3 per cent, but include textiles!’ This needs explaining. I’ve stopped off in Bangladesh on my way back from the Hong Kong trade summit where industrialized countries offered to open their markets, duty free, to imports from the poorest countries. It’s meant to be a concession, taking the plight of developing countries to heart.

At first glance it seems like quite something – 97 per cent! But there is a catch: the other 3 per cent. This includes textiles into the US market and rice into Japan. Both are massive markets. For Bangladesh it’s a kick in the teeth – yet, embarrassingly, it took the Bangladeshi trade representative a while to register it. He came out of the talks proclaiming victory for Bangladesh. He’s not the first – nor will he be the last – to make that kind of mistake at a WTO summit.

Textiles are Bangladesh’s number one business. The capital Dhaka, with its plethora of garment factories, provides immediate visual proof. Two million Bangladeshis work in the industry – some say it’s closer to three million – and 85 per cent of them are women. Garments account for 76 per cent of the country’s export earnings – no other country is so reliant on just one manufactured export. Such a heavy reliance makes Bangladesh extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of world trade. This poor and densely populated country is living, in every sense of the word, on the edge.

Despite the end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement – which gave Bangladesh firm quotas – exports held up during 2005, partly thanks to the West’s ‘bra wars’ with China. In fact, exports to the US increased by 19 per cent.

So Rahman and fellow factory owners should be laughing. But they aren’t. Nor are their workers. Volume may be increasing, but prices keep getting ratcheted down by foreign buyers. ‘If I say “no”, the buyers will go elsewhere,’ says Rahman.

So workers are pressured to increase productivity and do more overtime. Already most work 10 hours a day, but bosses want the legal maximum to be increased to 12.

Unlike most factory owners in Bangladesh these days, Rahman is prepared to let a journalist see his factory. A couple of recent scandals have made others close their doors to visitors. Some say they have been forbidden by the foreign buyers to let anyone in without their written permission.

The collapse of the Spectrum Sweater factory, killing 74 workers and injuring 80 in April 2005, got worldwide coverage. It came out that large European retailers such as Zara, Karstadt Quelle, Carrefour and Cotton Group had been sourcing from Spectrum. Warnings about the state of the illegal nine-storey building had been ignored.

Then, in December 2005, the Radio Canada programme _Zone Libre_ exposed Wal-Mart for using child labour at two factories in Bangladesh. Children between 10 and 14 years old were discovered working in the factories making ‘Simply Basic’ and other Wal-Mart-branded products for export to Canada. A Wal-Mart spokesperson claimed that the factories were sub-contract facilities and declared that his company was cutting off all future orders.

Accompanying me on my visit to Luftor Rahman’s factory is former textile worker and labour rights activist, Nazma Akter. As we enter, I am reminded of photos of factories back in the 1940s. The room is crowded, the equipment old-fashioned; but it is not the dark, Dickensian, dust-choked sweatshop of my imagining.

The workers glance up at us fleetingly. They have quotas to fill. They are currently making children’s and sports leisure wear for the German label Shamp, which in Europe sells shorts for the equivalent of 50 cents a piece, leggings for $1.50. This factory works with fabrics largely imported from China.

Like many others it survives by selling experienced, plentiful labour – very, very cheap. The word both owners and workers hate to hear is ‘China’. Buyers are quick to point out that Chinese suppliers can fulfil orders much more quickly.

‘But Chinese workers have no right to speak out at all!’ exclaims Nazma. ‘They have to work all hours. Often they are living in the factory!’

The people working at Luman earn between $42 and $51 a month – the legal minimum is around $17. Bangladesh keeps ‘competitive’ by curtailing labour rights. It is quite common for workers to lose their jobs and get blacklisted for raising their voices. This was Nazma’s experience. She became a textile worker at the age of 11. By the time she was in her teens she was already speaking out against injustice. ‘My family was angry. They said: “Why can’t you keep quiet?” But I couldn’t.’

Although there are dozens of garment workers’ unions in Bangladesh, only three per cent of the women are unionized. Just two or three factories in the country give union recognition.

But, according to Nazma, health and safety conditions in factories have improved considerably in recent years. She has no doubt that this has come about as a direct result of pressure from NGOs, consumers and campaign groups, such as No Sweat, Maquila Solidarity Network, Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label and others (see Action).

Today, the Bangladeshi companies with direct contracts with the well-known foreign chains (especially ones that have been campaigned against) tend to have the best conditions; the worst are the sub-contractors. The message going out to bosses is that ‘compliance’ with codes such as the Ethical Trading Initiative and ILO standards is key to gaining the better contracts.

According to Nazma the NGOs must now insist on an ethical price too. And foreign companies should contribute to the cost of making a factory compliant.

Another owner, MA Baset of Asia Knit – which supplies several large chains including Matalan, Jerzees and Decathlon – wants a uniform code of compliance.

In the shadow of the mill

But what about the workers themselves? To find out what they have to say we need to go to their homes on Friday, their day off.

Nazma and two colleagues from AWAJ (which roughly translates as ‘Workers Voice’) take me to Katchpur, an industrial area on the outskirts of Dhaka. It’s called a ‘village’ but is in fact a warren of corrugated shacks overlooked by the vast factories that rule the lives of all around here.

Inside her two-roomed home, complete with the ubiquitous treadle sewing-machine, we talk to 20-year-old Kamrun before an audience of all the neighbours who can squeeze themselves in.

She makes jeans for a European buyer but is not sure which. She earns just $17 a month. Out of this she has to pay $14 rent for the house she shares with her husband and their two-year-old.

‘The company wants higher productivity so you have to keep working faster and faster,’ she says. ‘If you fall ill, you don’t get paid.’

Then there’s Shafali, aged 30, who works for Cynthia Multifibre. She is a machinist making jeans, jackets and T-shirts. Again, she does not know (or isn’t allowed to say) the name of the foreign company she is making them for. She earns $25 a month. Since her husband left, she cannot afford to look after her five-year-old child.

My family was angry. They said: ‘Why can’t you keep quiet?’ But I couldn’t

I ask various workers what they would do if they were not happy about something at work. ‘I would have to leave,’ is the most common response. Some, however, have resorted to strike action when the company failed to pay their wages. ‘After two months we were paid,’ says one.

‘Many workers here do not know their rights,’ says Nazma. ‘They do not think that way.’

If you find yourself wondering how that new T- shirt – made in Bangladesh – was so amazingly cheap, the answer is right here, in places like Katchpur. So what’s the answer? You might be tempted to avoid cheap Bangladeshi goods.

‘No!’ yells Nazma Akter. ‘Keep buying!’

‘Keep buying!’ says the factory owner, Lutfor Rahman. ‘And tell your NGO and human-rights people to defend Bangladeshi jobs! Where are they now that we need them to shout about this 97 per cent?’ Unlike the owners, the labour activists are also saying: ‘Keep up the pressure for workers’ rights.’

Jehanara Begum, who has more than 20 years of labour activism under her belt, is now pushing for crèche facilities in factories. She says: ‘If the buyers put pressure on the suppliers for improvements, these changes will come. We know it, we have seen it.’

New Internationalist issue 388 magazine cover This article is from the April 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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