26 July 2012


 Hasna Begum is left with a paltry Tk 100 after paying her house rent. The tiny seven-by-seven shanty where she lives with her three children and husband is almost as costly as a commercial office space in the heart of Dhaka at almost Tk 60 per square feet notching up a monthly Tk 2,900.

A 'helper' at apparel manufacturer Architect Design, Hasna is luckier than many others. Her husband Rafiqul Islam has a better job at another Ashulia factory for Tk 3,800 per month.

"It's really a miracle that we survive at all!" said Rafiq sitting on his cot, the only furniture in the shanty, which happens to be one of the larger ones. The other rooms, in the long row-house, are just five-by-fives. Rafiq goes on to explain the miracle.

Living in Savar, about an hour away from Dhaka, the first thing that the couple does is make sure they have enough rice to last them a month. They spend Tk 1,800 for a sack of 50kg rice, which is followed by Tk 600 for firewood.

They save up Tk 800 for their son's school. The two other children have not yet Their two other children have not started going to school yet.

This means that the couple has just Tk 700 left to pay for everything else for the rest of the month including clothes, food, medicines or any other emergencies that might befall them.

They are hard pressed to make ends meet, even if the couple decides on just Tk 24-kg potatoes and rice for the whole month and nothing else.

The little hut is in the middle of a row. There are three other similar rows, which make up 42 rooms housing some 150 people, almost all of them garment workers, packed into a land less than fifth of an acre.

This tiny high density neighbourhood has 12 toilets and three open sky bathrooms for taking showers. As for stoves, there are several earthen stoves dug into the ground in the traditional fashion. Basic necessities like power or running water remain expensive luxuries.

"This is how the garment workers live. This is how they survive," said Rafiq alluding to what he says pittance for wages.

The garment industry earned some $18 billion out of $22 billion worth of exports in the first 11 months of the year, according to the Export Promotion Bureau. Making up over 80 percent of the national export revenue, the RMG sector is said to thrive on labour of 3.5 million workers, most of them women, in about 5,000 factories.

"Our children are growing up protein-starved. Even lentils cost Tk 115 a kg and an egg costs Tk 30! Let alone fish or meat," says Mahmuda, wife of a supervisor whose monthly Tk 10,000 salary is still not enough. "We cannot even invite relatives to our house once or twice a year."

There are times when Rafiq and Hasna together earn up to Tk 11,000. But that is only when there is a lot of work with overtime.

"Including overtime, a garment worker's monthly income comes to around Tk 6,000," said Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association President Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin to claim that only a tenth of the workers earn Tk 3,000, and that too when they begin.

"Strangely enough, the situation of garment workers is identical, just like our line of tiny shanties," Rafiq's neighbour and colleague Chameli tells bdnews24.com. "You can actually gauge the condition of garment workers through me," she continues standing outside her gloomy dwelling.

"What you see here are wretched prisoners huddled together in stinking cages," said Zakir, owner of a small grocery store. He has lost almost Tk 500,000 over the last four years. "That is because many workers have fled without paying their dues."

According to the International Labor Organisation (ILO) and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) the Bangladeshi garment worker is paid the lowest in the world although the apparel exporters together constitute the second largest source in the world's biggest markets.

Salary comparison by Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR) shows, hourly wage in India is $0.55-$0.68, more than twice than that in Bangladesh at $0.21. The rate is $.46, $.37, $.73 and $.93 in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Malaysia and China respectively.

Even countries like Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala have rates over $1 per hour while in the US it begins at $8.25 and at $7.58 in UK.

But the apparel exporters' president says such high wages would be rather ominous. "Garment industry only exists as long as the labour is cheap," Mohiuddin says.

The workers have had to take to the streets twice since 2006 to have their wages reviewed upwards. Till then the textile factory owners were rather adamant not to change a more than a decade old wage structure fixed in 1994.

The workers were paid as little as Tk 300-900 per month until 2006 and Tk 1,662.50 until 2010, though. According to Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association's (BKMEA) President AKMSalim Osman, profits were at least 25% during 1990s.

The recent workers unrest at Ashulia that continued for five days last month appears to have been inevitable, as the workers have been demanding at least Tk 5,000 per month since the last time their wage structure was reviewed.

Double digit inflation, exorbitant premiums on their house rent and other utilities have also meant that their wages are now worth far less than they were two years ago.

However, these did appear to be compelling enough to the factory owners or the political parties. They blamed international conspiracy for triggering last month's unrest in Ashulia when factories were forced to shut for several days.

State minister for labour, MonnojanSufian, said she saw no reason to raise the workers' salary immediately, while another junior minister stated that the government's role in settling disputes between workers and their politically influential employers was nothing more than that of a 'referee's.'

Head of the Communisty Party of Bangladesh accepted the possibility of a conspiracy by vested quarters. "But the question is how they are able to create such unrest."

He goes on to indicate that the workers' dissatisfaction and discontent has already created a fertile ground for instigating such outbursts.

"Workers' problems have to be acknowledged. Discontent still brews and unless it is resolved the industry cannot be saved."

On the other hand, factory owners enjoy substantial media coverage where they strive to justify the existing wages, low as they are, exaggerating their side of the problem.

But according to foreign reports large buyers like Primark, Tesco, Tommy Hilfiger, Asda, Wall-Mart, H&M, Gap, JCPenney, Marks & Spencer and Levi Strauss could easily force their suppliers to ensure living wages without even changing their prices.

Campaigners in UK estimate that as little as 3 percent of the RMG sector's annual income could raise the workers' salary up to Tk 12,600 ($154), which they say would be an acceptable level of 'living wage'.

BGMEA president Mohiuddin claims that owners do not even make 3 percent profit.

The campaigners also say, only 1.8 percent of the annual RMG income could raise the minimum wages to the much desired Tk 5,000. 

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