On Thursday, the Bangladesh police reported that numerous garment factories in Bangladesh have closed down due to violent protests by thousands of workers who are demanding a substantial increase in their wages, nearly three times their current pay.
The nearly 3,500 garment factories in Bangladesh play a significant role, contributing to roughly 85 percent of the country’s annual exports, which amount to around US$55 billion. These factories are crucial suppliers for major Western brands such as Adidas, Gap, H&M, and Levi Strauss.
The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013, resulted in the loss of 1,138 lives. In response to this incident, the Bangladesh Accord was established in 2013, empowering unions and placing legal responsibility on fashion brands to ensure the safety of factories. Ultimately, more than 220 brands joined the initial accord, which was in effect until 2018 and has subsequently been renewed under the name “International Accord.”
What is the International Accord?
The International Accord stands as a legally binding pact involving garment brands and global trade unions, united in their commitment to secure safe workplaces within the textile and garment industry. This agreement advances worker safety through impartial inspections, remedial actions, and educational initiatives, all while upholding the rights of workers to organize, decline hazardous tasks, and voice concerns about health and safety. Signatories to this accord include well-known brands like Adidas, ASOS, H&M, Puma, and many others.
The RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) functions as an autonomous, national, and tri-partite organization dedicated to overseeing safety measures in Bangladesh’s Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector. Notably, on June 1, 2020, the RSC assumed operational control and inherited the workforce, policies, and infrastructure of the local Bangladesh Accord office.
Signatories to the International Accord have pledged to uphold their commitments in Bangladesh by actively participating in the RSC. To facilitate this collaboration, a Secretariat based in Amsterdam serves as a hub for supporting, coordinating, and maintaining communication with the RSC. This ensures that the brand obligations outlined in the Accord agreement are effectively carried out within the context of the RSC’s safety monitoring efforts in Bangladesh. The RSC and the International Accord, thus, work in concert to enhance safety standards in the RMG sector.
The Recent Protests
On Tuesday, thousands of garment factory workers in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, and the industrial district of Gazipur, staged protests to demand improved wages. According to labor unions and workers, they currently receive a monthly minimum wage of 8,300 takas or USD 75 but often have to work overtime to make ends meet.
In Gazipur, protesters were observed throwing stones at various shops, while in Dhaka’s Mirpur area, hundreds of demonstrators chanted slogans calling for better wages. Some individuals were seen damaging vehicles, and others voiced their concerns as security personnel patrolled the area. One garment worker, Shahida Akhter, expressed her financial difficulties and mentioned, “Reducing the price of essential goods would alleviate the need for a wage increase. The cost of supporting a family is substantial, especially when there are children to care for.”
Speaking to AP, Raihan Mia, a fire department official in Gazipur, reported that protesters set fire to an electrical goods showroom and vandalized a medical clinic and several other shops.
In response to these events, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) urged the protesters not to resort to violence or damage their factories. Local media reports indicated that two workers lost their lives in clashes with the police in Gazipur, while some individuals blocked roads, started fires, and vandalized several factories.
In 2018, Bangladesh conducted its most recent minimum wage negotiations, establishing a modest monthly wage of BDT 8,000 (equivalent to USD 95) for garment workers. For the past five years, Bangladeshi garment workers have continued to receive these wages, which are considered at the poverty level. This has been particularly challenging due to the rising cost of living and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of April 2023, the trade unions have been calling for a substantial increase in the Bangladesh minimum wage, which currently stands at 8,000 Bangladeshi Taka (BDT) per month, approximately $74 based on the current exchange rate. They are advocating for the wage to be raised to a range of 22,000-24,000 BDT, equivalent to $203-$222.
Additionally, they are requesting that the government review the minimum wage annually, rather than the current five-year interval.
The Working Conditions
Since the Rana Plaza collapse, the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh has witnessed notable advancements in various aspects, including factory safety, infrastructure risk mitigation, worker well-being, empowerment, and the working environment. These improvements have been significantly influenced by foreign buyer initiatives like the Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
The Alliance concluded its activities in December 2018 and transitioned its responsibilities to Nirapon, a non-profit organization. On June 1, 2020, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) assumed control of the Accord’s operations, becoming the safety monitoring body for the RMG sector in Bangladesh.
Despite the substantial progress achieved in the RMG industry, several issues persist. Before the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, the minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh stood at 3,000 taka (equivalent to approximately $28 based on current exchange rates) per month. This was subsequently raised to 5,300 taka in November 2013 and further increased to 8,000 taka in 2018. To make ends meet, many workers rely on overtime, which results in prolonged working hours and adverse effects on their health.
While there have been improvements in the ability to establish trade unions to safeguard workers’ rights since the tragedy, challenges remain. Although workers technically have the freedom to form trade unions, many are reluctant to do so due to concerns about intimidation and potential job loss. The process of registering new trade unions is also challenging, with frequent rejections of registration applications. Workers encounter difficulties when seeking work leaves, where sick leaves are often treated as absences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the hardships faced by RMG industry workers, as factory closures and reduced demand for clothing have led to job losses. Many workers have experienced income loss and struggled to provide for their families.
The combined efforts of buyer unions, such as the Accord and Alliance, the government, and the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), have undeniably yielded significant improvements in implementing safety measures to enhance worker safety within garment factories. However, a notable gap remains in addressing safety concerns in subcontractor factories, which are typically contracted for specific production stages. These subcontractor factories often function independently and adhere to lower safety standards, potentially leading to labor violations. This discrepancy is primarily attributed to resource constraints and limited oversight compared to larger factories within the safety initiatives.
International brands opt for sourcing from Bangladesh primarily because of the comparatively lower labor and production costs available in the country. However, this cost-cutting approach adopted by factory owners often results in the exploitation of workers who receive inadequate wages and grapple with financial challenges in the face of rising living expenses.
The Rana Plaza tragedy serves as an enduring and haunting reminder of the human toll associated with unsafe working conditions and exploitative practices within the global garment industry. Despite the progress achieved over the past decade, thanks to the collective initiatives and endeavors of various stakeholders, there is still much work to be undertaken to ensure fair and dignified treatment of workers. Protests related to wages and subpar safety conditions continue to flare up in Bangladesh.
Notably, in 2006, protestors set fire to at least 16 factories during wage-related demonstrations, resulting in several fatalities. Addressing these issues is of utmost importance and urgency.