We are launching the London chapter of DP with the theme of workers and their life in the garments industry of Bangladesh. Many British companies, including major brand names, buy from Bangladesh and are increasingly having to deal with a consumer backlash against sweatshop conditions. Bangladesh faces increasing pressure in saving its most important export oriented industry from possible pull out from the buyers. Here are some questions and answers about our event and its purpose.
Why the theme of garment workers?
The garment industry is by far the country’s most important manufacturer, earning around $5 billion annually and accounting for about two thirds of all exports. Bangladesh has about 2,500 garment factories with upto 10 million livelihoods dependent on it directly or indirectly. About 80 per cent of garment workers are women. The Ready Made Garments sector has more potential than any other sector to contribute to the reduction of of poverty. Despite the phenomenal success of the RMG sector the working conditions and wages of workers in the industry are cause for serious concern. Bangladesh’s current position as a leading garments exporting nation needs to be consolidated. The economy-wide reverberations of failure would be disastrous. We believe it is in everybody’s interest to sustain this industry – an industry which changed the lives of so many people, particularly women, in Bangladesh.
What are the some of the problems?
The problems in the industry pre-date the riots which took place just over a month ago and which were attended by deaths, injuries and the destruction of property. Over the years, hazardous working conditions have resulted in the deaths of many workers through factory fires and collapses.The Spectrum Factory building collapse of April 2005 killed 64 people, injured over 70 and left hundreds jobless. In February 2006 a fire destroyed the four-story KTS Textile Industries in Bangladesh’s port city of Chittagong again killing scores of mostly young and female workers. Workers, who are mostly young women, also face an acutely difficult working environment – wages are low, hours are long, forced labour is practised, child labour exists, sexual harassment exists, freedom is curtailed, whether it be locked doors or rights of association, and there are a multititude of other practices which go against international labour standards and codes of conduct (= non-compliance). At the level of legislation and business dealings, lack of implementation of laws, restrictive laws and unfair buying practices by buyers compound the issue of non-compliance.
What is to be done?
What has emerged quite emphatically is that for the Bangladesh industry to survive it has to take on board the issue of “compliance” with internationally recognised social, labour and environmental standards. There are many initiatives underway – buyers have their corporate social responsibility initiatives, the government has set up task forces and fora, there are the Memoranda of Understanding with the trade unions and the manufacturers’ and exporters’ associations. There are many stakeholders, and dialogue is imperative and all important. There needs to be the capacity and will amongst all the stakeholders, and particularly the government, to take forward and develop “compliance” and create an industry with an enhanced global image and global recognition of performance.
The Spectrum disaster of 2005 was supposed to have generated an impetus for change in the industry. The riots of May 2006 have again brought to the fore the need for urgent and meaningful change. The apparel industry in Bangladesh will face difficult challenges in 2008 when it enters a new trading environment. Aside from compliance, which is difficult enough, there are other issues of buyer practices, turnaround time, infrastructural development, trade development etc. Given this context, the urgency for change in this key and pivotal industry is considerable. This is not an option. It is a must in order to save the future of millions of Jamila’s. The story of one such Jamila, for whom its a choice between joblessness and poverty on the one hand and unfair and unsafe work on the other, is what you will hear through the dance drama today. Everyone wins by having a strong industry.. The garments industry in Bangladesh needs to be sustained for the benefit of all.