Author: Kalesh Loakman, LLM
December 21, 2023
Garment Factory Workers in Bangladesh Protesting Human Rights Abuses Met with More Human Rights Abuses
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest manufacturer and exporter of apparel, and the factories in the country service many big fast-fashion brands such as H&M, Zara, Gap, as well as more upmarket brands such as Hugo Boss and Lululemon. Economically, this industry generates approximately 16% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is representative of 80% of the country’s export earnings, and more than $40 billion a year in revenue. It’s therefore very easy to see why this booming industry in Bangladesh is the lifeline of approximately 4.2 million workers, many of whom are women. What consumers do not see, especially those in the Western world, is the true price tag of mass-producing affordable clothing that is not reflected on what we find on the in-store clothing items. The industry was beset with numerous reprehensible practices, many of which featured violations of human rights, so it was no surprise that a tipping point had been met.
Background: A Notorious Record of Safety Violations
In 2013, tragedy hit the garment manufacturing industry in Bangladesh following the collapse of Rana Plaza, one of the factories near Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. While it wasn’t the first reported incident of this nature, it was the deadliest disaster in garment manufacturing history. This tragedy resulted in the death of at least 1,134 factory workers, many of whom were young women, and left more than 2,500 others injured. The factory had reached its literal breaking point because the owner of the factory chose to ignore patent cracks on the wall which indicated that the structural integrity of the building had been compromised, having been constructed from substandard materials. Despite fears expressed by workers regarding entering the factory, workers were forced back to work and a tragic price was paid because the economic consideration of meeting foreign buyers’ demands took paramountcy. It took this tragedy to motivate policymakers in government, with the initiative of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and backed by major clothing retailers and workers’ unions, to design laws geared towards ensuring safety standards in factories are implemented and enforced.
State of Affairs a Decade Post- Rana Plaza
While the Rana Plaza collapse triggered some improvement with regards to working conditions, it did not cure all of the flaws. One of the primary reasons Bangladesh’s garment industry maintains competitiveness is because the unit cost of production within its factories is significantly cheaper than the competition abroad. Ineluctably, low production costs means that workers are consequently being paid significantly low wages as well.
Workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry are subjected to long hours of work, while being paid next to nothing, with the legal minimum wage being set at the equivalent of $73 per month. There is stark disparity between the legal minimum wage and the living wage in 2021, calculated to be $255 per month.
The Present Workers’ Protest
The events of October 2023 do not mark the first time garment factory workers in Bangladesh have mounted protests in response to unacceptable wages. Notably troubling is that workers’ strike actions have been met with retaliatory charges filed against dismissed workers and have been deemed unlawful by state authorities. The almost two-week-long protest outside of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, has renewed the call for rights of workers to be respected.
Inflation is now at the highest it has been in a decade. This has caused the price of everyday goods in Bangladesh to become more expensive, putting a strain on spending budgets of factory workers who were already struggling to provide for their own needs and those of their families. Bangladeshi garment factory workers who were previously making $75 a month demanded that the monthly wages be increased to $205. However, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country’s largest trade association, instead implemented a $113 monthly wage. This spurred thousands of workers to take to the streets in protest. This represents merely half of the new wage demanded by workers. Consequently, the uptick in wages has led the BGMEA to call on US clothing brands to pay higher prices for the manufacture of their apparel, so that workers can then be paid the higher wage which is to take effect on December 1, 2023.
The most patent human rights violation concerns the wages which these workers are being paid. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) clearly states that “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work”, and in this respect, at the very minimum, States must ensure “fair wages”. The deliberate neglect of the government of Bangladesh to ensure that workers in garment manufacturing industries receive wages that are on par or above the minimum living wage not only has sparked protest but is in complete violation of international human rights law obligations. Moreover, the Constitution of Bangladesh, the supreme law of Bangladesh, guarantees in respect for fundamental rights in article 11, and article 15 places on the State a “fundamental responsibility” a constant increase of productive force so as to ensure that “the right to work, that is the right to guaranteed employment at a reasonable wage” is upheld.
Concomitant with fair wage concerns is the manner in which the state authorities as well as factory owners have responded regarding the protest actions of garment factory workers. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is binding on all states, enshrines and protects the right to peaceful assembly, and peaceful assembly is defined to include protests and strikes. Workers on strike have been reportedly threatened and beaten, while others have been threatened with dismissal for participating in strikes and protests. The Bangladeshi police have also reportedly used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesting factory workers.
Fashioning A Way Forward: Recommendations
Importantly, corporations are not exempt from bearing corporate responsibility to ensure that human rights standards are respected and promoted. The responsibilities of businesses exist independently but in addition to a country’s primary responsibility- through government ministries and departments- to ensure that workers’ rights are protected. Additionally, as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights enunciates, states must clearly enunciate that businesses respect human rights throughout the operations within the State. While the workers’ treatment is the responsibility of the garment factory owners at this stage of the global supply chain, fashion brands ought to put pressure on factories - which depend on the brands for work and revenue generation- to ensure and implement human rights standards.
Fast fashion brands should no longer be allowed to plead innocent oversight. A checks and balance system vis-a-vis a requirement for these fashion companies to first obtain verification that their respective supplying factories are certified as being human rights compliant before proceeding to engage garment factories for manufacturing and production. Transparency mechanisms often tend to promote accountability and consequently, more corporate responsibility. Having fashion brands disclose manufacturing factories on a public-access database so that consumers can look up rights infringements associated with factories will coax fashion brands to be more mindful of practices down the supply chain. Big fashion brands will be more invested in human rights if their business and profit-making can be influenced by reported rights violations.
Moreover, local garment factories should be subjected to routine inspections and consultations with factory workers. In addition to the already active trade union efforts, monetary penalties, and other sanctions such as suspension of business licenses by the government will discourage factories from being complicit or liable for not respecting and protecting workers’ rights.
The Bangladeshi government also has a critically continuous role to play as well. First, vis-a-vis its Labor Ministry should implement an anonymous labor complaints mechanism which hears and investigates workers’ complaints. Fast fashion brands are only required to pay garment factory workers the legal minimum wage, which is significantly below the minimum living wage, and therefore requires these businesses to set aside purely economic considerations and ensure that the human rights of these workers are respected, promoted, and protected. Second, continual monitoring of socio-economic trends will ensure that the nationally set minimum wages are continually adjusted commensurate with the cost of living.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP)- comprised of all the goods and services produced for sale on the market within an economy.
Minimum wage- the minimum amount of money an employer is required to pay its workers for work performed within a specific time period.
Minimum living wage- the wage which should be paid to should be paid to a worker and should be adequate enough to maintain a reasonable standard of life in keeping with the time and factors relating to the country in which the worker lives and/or is working.
Supply chain - this is a map which traces the processes involved in producing goods from raw materials to finished products ready for sale to consumers. A global supply chain refers to where this process spans across countries and economies.