Brands can be ‘agents of change’ in Bangladesh

The fast fashion business model of decreasing prices and reduced lead times contributes directly to the cycle of low wages, protest, and repression in Bangladesh. Something’s got to give.


In recent years, Bangladesh has seen wage strikes and strong repression against workers speaking out for higher wages. And in the past month, Clean Clothes Campaign received criticism on its work supporting garment workers in Bangladesh, and fighting back against the most recent spate of repression that began roughly a year ago. It is important to understand CCC’s work in a broader context, including its aim to address the root causes of cycles of protest and repression. Bangladesh is the world’s second largest garment exporter, thanks to its abundant, underpaid, and largely female workforce. In 2013, before the Rana Plaza disaster put a spotlight on the desperate labour conditions in the country’s garment industry, workers on the minimum wage were earning less than US$40 (3,000 taka) per month. In the wake of the tragedy, it became clear that poverty wages contributed to the large scale of this disaster, with worker after worker reporting having been faced with the impossible choice between assured destitution should they lose their wages that day and entering a building with visibly growing cracks in the walls.


After the tragedy, minimum wages were raised to US$68 (5,300 taka) and a five-year review cycle of the minimum wage was instituted. While ensuring a periodic review cycle was an important step, five years is an extremely long wait when daily needs of families are not being met. Inflation depreciated the value of workers’ wages so much so that by 2018 garment workers could buy 6.5 per cent less on their salaries than in 2013. Therefore, it is not surprising that spontaneous wage protests repeatedly sprung up while workers waited for the next wage review. Some of these protests garnered international attention, such as the walkouts in Ashulia in December 2016 and January 2017, which were followed by extensive repression, including arrests of dozens of worker leaders, trumped-up criminal charges and dismissals. A subtle yet ruthless tactic that was employed to quash further worker dissent and protest was the charging of unnamed workers, which meant that any worker at any time could be picked up and courted off to jail by police. Eventually, after massive international protest, the arrested were released and charges were dropped, but the crackdown continues to have a chilling effect on garment worker protest and activism in Bangladesh. By the time the scheduled minimum wage revision arrived in 2018, the political environment in Bangladesh was not conducive for meaningful worker engagement in the process, with limited worker representation, and ongoing repression of wage demonstrations.


Bangladesh’ unions were demanding a minimum wage increase to US$188 per month (16,000 taka) – a notable increase, but still short of a living wage in Bangladesh. Regardless, the wage review committee in November 2018 announced an increase to just US$94 (8,000 taka), only half of the unions’ demand - perpetuating the prevailing poverty wages. The new wage meant a 2,700 taka increase for those earning the minimum wage, but most workers in higher pay grades received less than that, and given inflation in the country, the raise did only little to lessen the significant financial burdens of day to day life. This set the stage for a new round of strikes. In December 2018, after workers saw what the wage hike amounted to in their pay checks, for some just a few cents, tens of thousands took to the streets. The protests lasted for several weeks and were met with intense repression. On 8 January 2019, the police dispersed about 10,000 garment workers using water cannons, tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets, killing one worker and wounding over 50. Finally, in order to quell worker discontent, on 13 January, a small additional wage increase for workers in pay grades above the minimum was announced, and workers were urged to return to their factories the following week. During and after the strikes, thousands of workers were subjected to an unprecedented level of repression, the scale of which many workers had never seen in their lifetime and which the Worker Rights Consortium described as being the worst they had documented in two decades of work in the country. Thousands were fired in retaliation. Many workers were then blacklisted by factory owners, who posted workers names and photos on billboards outside of factory gates. At least 33 trumped-up criminal cases were filed under Bangladesh’s penal code by factory groups and industrial police, against hundreds of named and thousands of unnamed garment workers. Clean Clothes Campaign has been working closely with its partners in Bangladesh to fight back against this recent crackdown since the strikes began in December 2018.


The excessive response to these recent wage protests reflects the dynamics of the race to the bottom in the global garment industry, where the government and factory owners believe that Bangladesh’s competitive advantage of poverty wages needs to be maintained at all costs. There are fears that buyers might move on to cheaper locations if the minimum wage in Bangladesh grows too high, and that buyers will not adapt their prices accordingly, which will leave the factory owners to bear the costs of higher wages, when margins are already incredibly tight. Concerns about the purchasing practices of brands are indeed legitimate.


Research has shown how the fast fashion model – decreasing prices and shorter lead times – is a major driver of labour rights violations. In fact, since 2013, and despite minimum wage increases, prices paid by buyers have actually declined. A global survey of the International Labour Organisation carried out in 2016 among suppliers across different industries, showed that suppliers reported an on average 12 week-gap between having to pay a new minimum wage and being able to increase sourcing prices for the buyer. Given the power that brands have to affect working conditions in the garment industry, CCC has always demanded that brands change their practices. In 2018, CCC called on all major global sourcing from Bangladesh to show support for the workers’ minimum wage demand by publicly committing to maintain their sourcing volumes from Bangladesh after an increase to the wage demanded by the unions. This would have reassured employers and the government that higher wages would not mean loss of orders, but only one brand, Inditex, was willing to publicly support the workers' demand.


Instead of being an agent of change for the industry, apparel companies continue to deflect responsibility to anyone and everyone besides themselves: governments in charge of minimum wage levels; factory owners and unions responsible for worker-employee negotiations; consumers responsible for demanding low prices. Meanwhile, the power global brands retain in the market means that governments and employers will do everything in their power to keep prices low in order to keep buyers engaged in production in their country. To address the current situation, twofold action is needed from all apparel companies sourcing from Bangladesh in cooperation with their suppliers and the government of Bangladesh. First of all, they should do justice to the workers who suffered in the most recent waves of repression. Almost all trumped-up cases were filed by factories producing for major international brands, including C&A, H&M, Next, Primark, Mango, Marks & Spencer, and Inditex. While several apparel companies have engaged with their suppliers in response to public outcry and several factories have filed for cases to be dropped, still a wide range of companies are sourcing from factories that have active cases pending against hundreds of workers. All companies sourcing from Bangladesh should together with their suppliers take decisive action to make sure that charges are dropped, that workers who were dismissed or forced to resign are reinstated and compensated, and that the practice of blacklisting is abandoned.


But moreover, apparel companies have a decisive role to play to break through the vicious cycle of poverty wages, protest and repression. Only by instilling trust that higher prices will not stand in the way of continued sourcing relationships, by expressing public support for worker demands, and by actually paying higher prices – with an earmarked part for wages – can apparel companies truly work towards sustainable employment conditions. Apparel companies need to recognise that they retain the power in this industry to ensure workers work and live in dignity by paying higher prices. The saying “where there is a will there is a way” has never been so true as when referring to the potential for apparel brand action leading to industry change.


Published by Apparel Insider, Issue 11, Jan. 2020, p. 30-31