Too poor? Shut up and work harder! How the BGMEA president tries to gloss over poverty wages

The flawed new minimum wage for ready-made garment workers in Bangladesh has led to a global outcry. 12,500 taka per month will keep the countries’ 4 to 4.5 million garment workers trapped in poverty. Instead of revising the disgraceful decision, Faruque Hassan, president of the business owners’ association BGMEA, felt compelled to publish a “clarification” note. However, the only thing the note clarifies is the dimension of disrespect of the employers’ president for the labour law and the lack of empathy for the dire situation of the workforce.

The “clarification” note can be found here. Let’s take a look at the main arguments:

1. But the actual net amount workers are taking home is much higher!
Faruque Hassan writes: “Therefore, the actual net amount ABC is taking home after a month is 17,744 taka if worked 2 hours overtime per day, or 19,419 taka if worked 3 hours overtime per day, or 21,094 taka if worked 4 hours overtime per day throughout the month.”

This is a red herring: because the guaranteed minimum wage is far too low, and everybody knows that. Faruque Hassan pretends that the actual take home wage is much higher. But in his calculation, this is only due to allowance of high amounts of overtime. So basically, the president says workers who are not happy with their due salary should simply sacrifice their rest time and work overtime to make ends meet. It is crystal clear that the regular wage must be enough to cover needs – if it does not and working overtime is the only way to cope, that is a form of forced labour.

2. Who cares about legal working hour limits?
Faruque Hassan writes “On top of it, the worker ABC works in extended hour (overtime which is allowed up to maximum 4 hours per day) for (sic!) draws 64.42 taka per hour of overtime work.”

Either the employers’ president Faruque Hassan does not know the country’s Labour Act, or he simply does not care. Art. 102 of the Labour Act fixes the regular working week to a maximum of 48 hours. Including overtime, the limit is 60 hours per week, but on average, it must not exceed 56 hours. The law allows the government - in exceptional situations - to extend the provision, but only for a maximum of 6 months. The government in the past has made excessive use of these waivers, however this cannot justify framing 12 hours working days as normal, as the president does in his note.

3. Worker’s rest time is dispensable.
Faruque Hassan writes “Plus, the workers are allowed to encash 50% of their annual earned leave legally, though factories usually pay the full amount of the actual earned leave.”

Paid leave periods of at least three weeks per year are an internationally recognized worker right. Such rest times are indispensable also for health and well-being, for social and familiar needs. But apparently for the BMGEA president, a worker counts only as a worker - the life outside of the factory does not matter. If workers are not happy with their wages, they should simply sacrifice parts of their leave time to for the factory and trade away their right to rest for a few urgently needed takas more. This is disgraceful.

4. For you, that’s already enough.
Faruque Hassan writes “In fact, 17,744-21,094 taka take home for a worker of 23-24 years should be enough considering their household profile.”

This sentence reveals the classism in the president’s mindset. He obviously feels entitled to judge what is enough for young workers in typical workers “household profile“. There is obviously a complete disrespect even for the legitimacy of workers call to higher wages. And is Faruque Hassen ignoring that many of the predominately female workers in the suggested age group have children to take care for, and that in “their household profile” there are also elderly family members that often also depend on the wage?
The statement further shows that the BGMEA president apparently does not care about professional Cost of Living studies such as those conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) and Living wage estimates such as of the Global Living Wage Coalition(GLWC) that clearly show that wages should not be lower that 23,000 Taka.

5. Stop complaining, others live in even greater misery.
Faruque Hassan writes “There are 44 industrial sectors in our economy having official minimum wages. Considering the requirement of skills, education and experience, the work hazard of respective industries, a comparative analysis of different sectors need to be done, and an evaluation of garment workers compared to others to be realized. The garment workers are unfoundedly better off than any other sectors.”

This is a preferred trick by people holding economic and political power: playing off people in poverty against each other and arguing that it can always be worse. Nobody disregards the fact that in Bangladesh, many people are trapped in poverty, and that the RMG sector is not the end of the scale. Indeed, social inequality in Bangladesh is extreme, and many deserve a pay rise. But this is nothing the BGMEA president calls for, obviously: greater social justice would require a fairer re-distribution of the value-added in the economy. But the factory owners, of which many belong to the country’s millionaire class, apparently prefer safeguarding their privileged position by sowing greed amongst the poorest. The argument also ignores that higher pay to workers (in contrast to higher profits to wealthy investors) will lead to more in-country spending, thus supporting local economic development.

No empathy without empathy – finding common ground?
BGMEA’s Faruque Hassan deplores a “one-sided narrative against the new wage” that “is hurting our industry and economy”, that “empathy toward the industry remains absent”.

Well, probably far more empathy and support for “the industry” would arise if employers genuinely start treating workers as an integral part of it, and not just in their public speeches and sustainability reports. Ensure that wages are sufficient to make a living, stop the repression, criminalization and killing of trade unions and worker rights activists, and negotiate respectfully and at eye the working conditions in the industry – this is what may build the common ground needed to achieving better terms of trade with international buyers. The industry, collectively, needs to learn to saying no to cut throat purchasing practices and stop the vicious circle of ever cheaper production. It is time for the BGMEA to stop patronizing people, and to treat workers with respect and dignity.