In recent years, the global garment supply chain has seen a significant shift towards Bangladesh from China. How has this impacted production and factory conditions in Bangladesh?
The industry started in Bangladesh as a result of the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA) in the 1970s. The MFA basically guaranteed market share through an international system of quotas. It was designed for the Global North countries who were worried that they were going to get an influx of cheap imports, and so it was implemented as a restrictive measure. Bangladesh, along with other countries in the region, took advantage of the new system and started producing garments for export. The MFA was phased out in 2005, but over the last several decades, the industry expanded rapidly in a haphazard and unregulated way, the effects of which are still seen today. By 2011, Bangladesh was second to China in garment exports, an amazing fact because Bangladesh did not plan to be a top garment exporter. The industry has done a lot for the country’s economic growth; it has improved livelihoods, particularly for many women, and has brought economic success for many factory owners. However, we also know that regulation is lacking, there is a huge subcontracting sector that is completely unregulated, and there is a lack of protection for workers, which makes it a very precarious industry and one that is difficult to work in.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected these developments?
Bangladesh is heavily dependent on the garment sector as it accounts for more than 80 percent of its exports. Because the economy is not diversified at all, it is very vulnerable to outside shocks, COVID serving as a prime example. The pandemic has caused a massive crisis to the industry. Initially, many brands refused to pay for orders that were already produced. This is a reflection of the kind of relationships that are in place between global retailers and suppliers throughout the Global South and the unequal power dynamics within the industry. Suppliers typically get paid after they have produced and shipped their products. Many movements sprung up in response to the payment refusals. International and domestic media coverage followed around March and April highlighting the brands that were not paying for their products. This is extremely detrimental for suppliers in a country like Bangladesh, although the global retailers were certainly suffering economically as well. In Bangladesh, if you do not pay suppliers for what they have already produced, the cost is not just to them, it spirals down to the workers. The data on this is not clear yet, but already there have been reports as to certain groups of workers who are being laid off, such as pregnant women and those affiliated with unions as a targeted repression. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, workers did not receive full wages or the bonuses they were supposed to get, and there have been impacts on their nutritional health.
There were mixed messages for garment workers during the lockdown. Many were not sure whether they were supposed to travel back to work from their villages outside the major cities, a process that risked their exposure to the virus. In the densely packed factories, social distancing is next to impossible. Now, there is more awareness than there was early on and factories owners and managers appear to be more explicit in their guidance. Workers are still very worried about contracting COVID. Provisions such as healthcare or health insurance are not always readily available and there is a huge strain across the country. Many have gone back to work and some brands are resuming business. At the same time, however, the concern remains that other brands will not continue their orders.
Where does the protection of labor rights currently fall among the Bangladeshi government’s priorities?
For decades, the government was not focused on labor rights. As I mentioned earlier, the sector has been central to Bangladesh’s economic growth and has lifted the country into middle-income status over the last few years. The government was primarily focused on the business side, since many factory owners are also a part of the government, there has long been a strong business connection. Worker rights and factory conditions for decades were basically neglected. In the 1990s, there was a series of catastrophes and fires, and with that, more awareness about sweatshops and their poor conditions spread around the world. There were a variety of different pieces of legislation, around 50 or so, related to labor standards. Some were created under colonial rule and were outdated for the most part. The Bangladesh Labor Act of 2006 strengthened the capacity of the institutions responsible for inspections. However, in 2013, when the Rana Plaza disaster happened and received negative attention all around the world, the government realized it could not continue the way it had been. Following the disaster, there was a reform of the Labor Act that focused more on rights like freedom of association and health and safety. However, there is a disconnect between the laws that are on the books and what is actually being implemented. For example, despite the reforms, union density remains extremely low in Bangladesh, at about three percent. The violent repression of labor organizing has continued. There have been some positive changes from the government side, but there is a long way to go in terms of actual implementation of new legislation.
How did the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster transform the Bangladeshi government’s labor policy in practice? Has the government since renewed efforts to bring its Labor Act into compliance with international labor standards?
The unprecedented scale of the tragedy and the international focus had a big impact. The Bangladeshi Government certainly does not want to be known as a country with terrible labor conditions. There were changes made as a result in terms of structural improvements, such as improvements to fire and electrical safety. There is still a significantly long way to go and there needs to be a combination of government regulation and multi-stakeholder private initiatives that will work together to improve standards. The majority of workers still do not receive anywhere near a living wage. There have been severe crackdowns on organizing. Moreover, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse is rampant. While conditions have improved structurally in registered factories, and these might not be the same sweatshops we saw in the 1980s, conditions remain very difficult for workers. There is also a huge subcontracting sector that operates without any regulation or oversight. Hence, there is always a risk of another Rana Plaza happening in such facilities.
To your second point, the government is trying to focus on factory compliance. There are domestic initiatives working to take over the compliance and monitoring side. This has focused more on the structural side of things, such as by ensuring factories are meeting the criteria that were put forth over the last five to seven years. The government has placed an emphasis on that, but in many other areas of the industry, as discussed, there has not been much significant change.
In “Beyond Third-Party Monitoring: Post-Rana Plaza Interventions” (2017), you argue that top-down, third-party monitoring approaches are ineffective in securing labor reforms. What success have local movements had to date in bringing about reform
Bangladesh has a long history of vibrant and vocal labor movements, especially with female-led organizations and with female organizers who have been workers in the garment industry themselves. They are really the ones who have made a big difference in the industry over time. Local activists have sought to secure higher wages, maternity leave, education for children, and better housing, as well as combatting sexual harassment. Through local activism, the situation is better than it was before, but it needs to continue in this direction as many issues remain. Often times, when international organizations or international multi-stakeholder initiatives say they are taking into account the views of workers or the views of labor unions, it usually means they are taking those people into account who are based in the Global North. These bodies are doing great work, but it takes away from the real grassroots kind of organizing, composed of those who do not have access to the same media outlets or resources. Their voices tend to get pushed out and that is something we need to be aware of.
How can consumers hold accountable the global brands profiting off the low-wage, high-risk labor in the international garment industry?
There are many consumer-based advocacy groups that have brought awareness to the issue. Part of the issue is just making people aware, a lot of people in the West probably do not even know where Bangladesh is, let alone that their clothes are made there. While awareness is spreading, a lot of people still do not realize the extent of the hardship faced by workers. It was not until I started doing research in this area fifteen years ago that I fully grasped the extent of it. You really have to delve deep to find out because we do not hear about it otherwise.
As of now, with the abundance of cheap clothing, the pressure to reduce prices for those producing these clothes is extremely high. That said, the profit margins are extremely high for the global retailers. If global retailers were willing to reduce their profit just slightly and pay a little bit more, we would perhaps see a different balance with the consumers for these types of clothes. There is research that suggests consumers would be willing to pay a few more dollars for things like t-shirts and jeans. The whole fast fashion model of doing business in the industry has proven detrimental to both labor rights and the environment. The rampant consumerism and wasteful society that we are living in means that a lot of the time people are literally throwing away clothes to stay on par with the new influx of fashion seasons. We know this has had a big impact on the garment workers, such as with working overtime and having to produce large quantities very quickly. It is a chicken and egg scenario: are consumers demanding more frequent changes to the fashion season and then global brands are giving into it or are global brands presenting this and consumers are responding? I am not sure which way it is going, but if consumers refused to be a part of it anymore, it would have a big impact. COVID will likely lead to a dramatic shift as to where people will purchase their clothes and the fast fashion model might be subject to change.
What other groups, beyond consumers, can put meaningful pressure on multinational companies to improve the conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh?
There are international organizations, for example, the United Nations and the International Labor Organization, that provide business and human rights guidelines. They have set frameworks to make brands liable and accountable to what is happening in their supply chains. The issue is that these guidelines are not necessarily legally binding. So, it is a reliance on soft measures and other aspects, like public image and ethics, that might push retailers to do the right thing rather than continue in an exploitive way. Without legal ramifications, it is hard to guarantee that these outcomes will be realized. Certainly, having these guidelines and principles are very important, but so are multi-stakeholder initiatives, the ones that are not just representing international labor rights groups, but are actually bringing in the voice of workers in Bangladesh. We also cannot let the government off the hook. It needs to enact laws that improves workers’ rights and enforce that legislation. While that is not always possible, a combination of private initiatives, multi-stakeholder initiatives, corporate initiatives, and consumer pressure is ultimately necessary to make a change. One focus or one avenue is not enough. We have not come to the ideal framework in any country. Change in this industry is slow, but we have definitely seen some progress happen over the last several decades.
Fahad Faisal / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)