Rage Against the Wage

In Global Issues, Labor on December 12, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Bangladeshi garment workers, some of the least-paid in the world, protested lacking wage increases.

The Bangladeshi government recently passed a measure to increase the minimum wage of garment workers from $25 per month to $43. This measure has not been implemented by many factories across the country, triggering protests from thousands of garment workers. In their encounter with the police yesterday, many of them were confronted with tear gas, rubber pellets and three workers died in the attacks.

While this situation is rather unfortunate in itself, it is rather indicative of a trend in global production outsourcing that is increasing the development gap between the 1st and 3rd world by keeping majority of the people in poverty for the advancement of the rich. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost bought a shirt or a jacket, only to find that it’s “Made in India” or “Made in Bangladesh”. Looking at that label every time makes me wonder if the purchase I’m about to make will truly benefit someone in those countries trying to make a living.

Why Bangladesh? Well, China’s novelty as the manufacturing capital of the world is slowly wearing out, since so many

Actually, it's plateauing slowly due to rising wages.

companies have invested in it that wages are actually starting to go up. Now that China’s becoming expensive, many companies are shifting their production HQs to south and south-east Asia, where there are almost as many people willing to do work for less-than-minimum wage. In Bangladesh, companies have actually united with the worker unions, who have been demanding  greater wage legislation from the government for years. Take this H&M clothing chain factory in Bangladesh, for example. With wages set at $25 per month, an employee of this factory would make $300 annually. To compare, the average poverty threshold for an individual in the US, with no dependents, is $11,161 annually. The company only has to invest $30,000 annually to exploit 100 workers for their work.

Given the lifestyles of these factory workers, a hike to $43 per month would be helpful, but only barely. Factory floors are cramped, accidents are frequent, and chains of commands are fuzzy. Especially in Bangladesh, which is given a rating of 2.4 (largely corrupt) by Transparency International, giving more money to factory managers and owners doesn’t fix the problem either, since the money doesn’t trickle down to the workers. I thought this comment by Shikdar Mesbahuddin Ahmed, a director with Korean company Youngone, about the protesting workers, was very indicative of the gap between workers and owners. He said, “Our deputy director [of the factory] is seriously injured. He will be flown to Bangkok for treatment.” If you can afford to fly your deputy director to Bangkok for treatment, I’m sure you can afford to pay your workers more than minimum wage.

The Ready-Made Garments (RMG) industry employs almost 40% of the national workforce, or 2.5 million people, and garments make up 80% of Bangladesh’s exports altogether. Famous brands such as JCPenney, Tesco, Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Levi-Strauss, Tommy Hilfiger, and Marks and Spencers all have branches in Bangladesh. Many of the workers in these workers put in close to (or sometimes more than) 80 hours a week for their jobs. Not to mention that this heavy work takes a huge toll on their bodies–many suffer from malnutrition, anemia, dysentery, diarrhea, respiratory problems, gynecological problems, tuberculosis and urine infections. Ever bought bargain clothing for “a steal”? It literally is: huge companies are basically stealing these peoples’ lives and wages in order to offer Western consumers rock-bottom prices.

We pay for brands rather than our values.

Many Western companies have tried to remedy this situation, to their credit. But their efforts largely seem to be image-saving measures rather than true concern for their workers. For examples, Asda installed two cameras in their factories in Bangladesh to show consumers that they were not using sweatshop labor. Many companies flat out will NOT accept that they employ unfair labor standards, or they issue public statements such as “We use huge volumes, deal directly with suppliers cutting out the middlemen and do not advertise. That’s how we get best value.” But we need to push companies to take action and provide more for their workers that are truly doing all the work.

… and I thought being a broke college students in the US was bad.

What can you do?

Of course, the question that follows is “What can I do to make this better?”. Well, there are a couple of measures we can all take that will echo down the supply chain.

  • Sad but true. Let's pledge to NOT let this happen.

    Buy sweatshop-free, ethical clothing: these designations are confusing in themselves, particularly because sweatshop free doesn’t always imply good working conditions. Many providers have now switched to the “ethical” model that goes by the saying “look good outside, feel good inside”. There are many companies and online stores, such as Ethical Threads, American Apparel, and No Sweat apparel that make ILO-certified, sweat-shop free clothing. Also, the National Green Pages have a complete listing of manufacturers that make “green and ethical” clothing. Or, if you’d like to have more fun than plain shopping, organize a clothing swap in your area. Here’s a guide on how to make a party out of it! 🙂
    Even though it seems sometimes that small consumer decisions don’t make that much of a difference, it CAN change something down the line. If we all, for example, bought only sweatshop-free clothes, the outsourced market will not make any profits, and therefore, will succumb to consumer demand and implement fair labor practices. As always, check labels and do research beforehand to ensure the clothing you’re about to buy doesn’t come from a factory with unfair labor practices.

  • Lobby to reduce duties on imports: I was surprised to read recently that the US has a 20% duty on garment imports into the country, while the US enjoys duty-free access to LEDC (Lesser Economically Developed Country) markets like Bangladesh’s. That is basically charging one of the world’s poorest countries for its products, which is very hurtful since 80% of Bangladeshi exports are destined to the US. Shockingly enough, the US government collected $563 million from goods worth $3.7 billion from Bangladesh in 2009: a rate of 15.2%.. This is grossly unfair in comparison to the UK, which enjoys a 0.6% duty from the US. There was a bill in Congress to pass the New Partnership and Development Act in April 2010, but it has still not been passed into law, and given the nature of American priorities right now, is destined towards nothing. The passage of such a bill would allow Bangladesh to retain more of its wealth, and thus utilize it for development programs inside the country. Urge your congressman/congresswoman to re-initiate this bill and get it passed so better living conditions can be implemented.
  • Support Fair Labor organizations: Groups like the International Labour Organization, Labour Behind the Label, Clean Clothes Campaign and  Fair Labor Association could always use your help in their efforts to end unfair labor practices. Also, if possible, before buying your clothes, look up the manufacturer or factory it was manufactured in. Even if it is just a simple petition signature, your voice can make a difference.
  1. […] Rage Against the Wage « Yes I Care: My Take on the Wor… […]

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