Secrets at the seams: The reality of the rag trade

By KATHERINE CANNON:

Dirty deeds done dirt-cheap. Well so it would seem. As it stands there is currently an estimated 3.6 million ready-made garment workers employed throughout Bangladesh, 2.8 million of those are women. The ready-made garment industry has the potential in terms of employment and foreign exchange exports, to reduce poverty numbers and contribute to the national economy, as more than 78% of Bangladesh’s export earnings come from the RMG industry. However, working conditions in this sector are poor, with the industry lagging behind on social compliance and labor practices. Non-for-profit organisations like Oxfam Australia have been campaigning for workers rights in the RMG sector since the mid-nineties, starting in Indonesia. Spokesperson Daisy Gardener discusses how Oxfam has been advocating this issue for some time.

“Since starting out in Indonesia in 1995, we took our campaign further throughout other regions of Asia. We started to campaign for workers rights in Bangladesh in the year 2000. We’ve been fighting for workers rights for 20 years”. Bangladesh is now considered one of the world’s largest garment trading manufacturers. According to the ABC’s Four Corners program, it’s estimated that the RMG sector in Bangladesh will succeed that of China’s manufacturing trade, becoming the biggest in the world. Although behind all this growth and gain, are the secrets that surround this booming, but corrupt industry. It is not uncommon to walk in to an RMG factory or sweatshop in Bangladesh, and discover that most of the people employed are illiterate and desperate to provide for their families.

The majority of workers as mentioned, are predominantly female. Most young women who work in these sweatshops have moved from their rural villages to the city, in Dhaka, to escape the extreme poverty that can been seen all over the country. As Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in the world, it seems that western clothing traders/companies have exploited this fact; with Bangladesh awarding its workers some of the world’s poorest wages, and with it the reputation of the lowest paid workers in the world. On average a worker may earn no more than $4 a day (AUD), with some earning less than, $1.90 – $2.40 a day, (AUD).The issue of wages has been on the agenda for Oxfam to amend this daylight-robbery. Ms. Gardener believes, “ Right across Bangladesh, India, and Asia workers are paid very low wages, most on the minimum rate. There is no way they can help themselves or their families out of poverty”.

Job security is also an issue of concern. Most workers are on six-month contracts, and if they complain about the rate of pay or conditions of the factories, they are generally dismissed. In addition there continues to be little union rights or representation for these people. As a consequence if they speak out to seek help they are often threatened. Author Ahamd Ferdous, speaks openly about the appalling social compliance and labour practices that occur in these Bangladesh sweatshops. “The working conditions are poor. The recruitment policies are highly informal. Many workers are venerable to losing their jobs. In fact compared to other employment industries in Bangladesh, job insecurity is higher in the RMG sector”.

In contrast with Australian working conditions, the Workplace Relations Act of Australia contains provisions protecting employees from losing their jobs unfairly, by unlawful termination. So what about the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse? On April 24th 2013 Rana Plaza, an eight story commercial building that contained clothing factories collapsed in Savar, a sub district of Dhaka, in Bangladesh. As a result of the collapse thousands of people died with many being buried alive. Over 2,500 people were rescued from the site with most having either limbs amputated or ongoing health issues.

Rana plaza Disaster 2013 Source: Flickr.com

Rana plaza Disaster 2013 Source: Flickr.com

Some can still hear the haunting screams of their fellow colleagues, as they cried out for help. For those who died their screams fell short of silent. A re-occurring nightmare, for those who survived. With many remembering as they fall asleep at night, the smell of decomposing bodies and the trail of insects that were left behind, as they were pulled out of the wreckage. The majority of the workers who were recused have received little or no compensation. For example, clothing giant Benetton who has over 6,500 stores in 120 countries, denied ever using the factory.

However ABC reporter Sarah Ferguson, found on the ground of the disaster site, various emails and documents, which detailed orders and stock lists that were linked to the clothing company. Even after this revelation, the company still only compensated workers the bare minimum of what they were entitled too. The sad reality is, the Rana Plaza catastrophe was only one in a long line of many that have occurred over the years. It’s reported that over an 18month period, there has been 43 factory fires. Occupational health and safety standards can be considered in these factories and sweatshops as non-existent. The numerous incidents that have happened over time could well be avoided if premises were thoroughly inspected and western clothing companies showing an interest of where their clothing/products are being made.

Though it wasn’t until the collapse of Rana Plaza, that the companies realised the kind of conditions these workers had to endure on a daily basis. After the revelations illustrated on Four Corners, Australian retailers Kmart and Target agreed to join a major Bangladeshi health and safety accord to help protect the safety of thousands of workers. “This will greatly improve safety for Bangladeshi workers in garment factories as it allows them to refuse dangerous work and mandates independent building inspections, workers’ health and safety training as well as repairs and renovations to unsafe factories,” Ms. Gardener said.

However there are still brands refusing to sign the accord and answer the hard questions. Clothing manufacturers, Nike, Adidas, Puma, and Fila are among those which still exercise sub-standard labor practices, and therefore have not signed the safety accord. Oxfam Australia as a part of their workers rights campaign has pledged to improve the standards of working conditions and rate of pay. The NGO has in the past contacted the clothing traders directly, raising cases where workers claim their rights have been violated.

However, Sports Brand International, which owns Fila, ranked the lowest in efforts to address labour abuses in its supply chain. This begs the question as to who’s at fault, the clothing companies or the consumers? Ethical Clothing Australia accreditation advisor Sabina Crawley believes consumers contribute to the vicious cycle of hunting down a bargain. “It is the retailers who customarily drive down prices (and therefore wages for overseas workers) asking for garments to be made at a very low price. This puts immense pressure on the overseas factory owner to produce an order at a low rate”. Ethical Clothing Australia establishes itself to promote ethical working conditions throughout the supply chain and to protect the rights of factory workers. Although ECA’s accreditation only extends to Australia, the company is often asked to comment on overseas accreditation practices.

“Our accreditation only extends to local, Australian made manufacturing. However ECA are often asked to comment on overseas supply chains as our accreditation system is recognised as a leader in compliance audits (using independent third party compliance audits on an ongoing basis),” Ms. Crawley said. Sabina believes that in order for a consumer to fully understand what they’re purchasing they should consider the costs involved, “A retailer would be best placed to find out what the living wage is (a wage that is enough to cover rent, food, basics, as opposed to a minimum wage which may not cover this) – and ensure they are paying enough for all the workers in their supply chain to ensure all are paid this. It is imperative that they know where their clothes are being made, right down to the bottom tier of makers. Generally speaking, if a t-shirt is being sold for a low price i.e. $5 or similar, it will have been purchased at a very low price below living or minimum wage”. So what measures can be implemented in order to improve the current standards?

Consumers in the west need to make a larger contribution when it comes to the checkout. By buying these cheap ready -made garments, we the consumer condone these practices that occur in the east. We need to demand that clothing companies sign the safety accord, and improve standards. This includes inspections of factory premises, regular health and safety audits, and increasing the rate of pay for sweatshop workers. By putting pressure on international buyers, they are more likely to pay higher prices for garments, which in turn mean higher wages for workers. The government also has an obligation to oversee that these sweatshops are run efficiently and that regular inspections and audits, as suggested above, are carried out.

What research has revealed is that many of the western traders and consumers, which source their products from Bangladesh, have no idea of the conditions their clothes are made under. Holding the companies to account is another step that can improve the current standards; it can help to compensate workers who may be injured as a result of a work place accident. It’s hard to believe there isn’t anyone who hasn’t benefitted from cheap clothing.

With an estimated 5,000 garment factories situated in Bangladesh, it’s hard to escape the fact we all have contributed to the heinous practice of ready made clothing. Everyone should be aware of the realities of how cheap clothing is made, and the issues of social compliance in these factories. As consumers, we all need to be advocating for a better quality and price. If we champion this ideal, it becomes a win-win for all. The higher we pay, the more in return the workers deserve to receive.

THUMBNAIL IMAGE: COURTESY Of Flickr.com

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