Workers in the industry that powers Bangladesh’s economy face a soaring cost of living and long workdays, say union leaders for the garment sector and its 3.5 million employees.
Workers have not benefited from a wage hike issued late last year as they have seen prices increase for goods and services they need while factory owners, in an effort to maintain profit levels, set higher production targets, according to union officials.
After factory owners agreed to increase wages in December, prices for housing, food, medical supplies and transportation all increased the next month, said Mahbubur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garments Textile Federation union.
“The buying capacity for workers is now worse than ever,” he told BenarNews.
At least 2 million government employees receive food rations, while garment workers for more than a decade have requested that they receive the same treatment, he said.
However, there is no plan to introduce a rationing system for the factory workers but the government is considering offering them compensation should they be injured on the job, according to Labor Secretary K.M. Ali Azam.
In addition, since the increase that boosted wages from U.S. $95 per month (8,000 taka) at the bottom of the scale to $215 (18,153 taka) at the top took effect, workers have been fired in a series of termination phases, union leaders said.
“About 400 workers received termination letters with their salary and festival bonus. Most of them were in the [labor] movement,” K.M. Mintu, organizing secretary of the Garments Sramik Trade Union Kendra told BenarNews, referring to Eid-ul-Adha festivities this week.
The same thing happened during the Eid-al-Fitr holiday in June, the labor leader said, adding that factory owners claim they are trying to maintain their profits.
Factory owners would rather have workers quit and not pay compensation than fire them, Mintu said.
Ali Azam said the government was limited in controlling when factory owners get rid of employees.
“The government has nothing to do with it if the factory owners fire workers after paying all their wages and other benefits,” he told BenarNews. “If any factory owner fires any worker without paying the wages, the government will surely take action, but victims have to lodge complaints with the government.”
The vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) representing factory owners blamed the job losses on a downturn in demand.
“We are not aware of firing workers before Eid, but factories manufacturing woven items such as shirts or trousers do not have the volume of orders this time of the year,” Moshiul Alam told BenarNews. “That’s why factory owners feel some pressure.”
BGMEA officials said 33 factories closed in the last three months, and Ali Azam, the labor secretary, said more than 200 could be closing in the future, but he did not set a timeframe. Factory owners blamed lower profits for going out of business.
While hundreds of garment workers have lost their jobs, many others are choosing to leave because of increased pressure to produce in the workplace, union leaders told BenarNews.
“Workers who used to stitch 100 pieces of apparel in one hour are now being ordered to stitch 120 to 130 pieces,” Mintu said.
Another BGMEA official, Abdus Salam, said workers should expect to produce more.
“Wages increased by 30 percent to 40 percent. Production has to be increased to meet the expenditure. That’s why workers are being asked to manufacture more,” he said. “Vietnamese workers do 40 percent more than Bangladeshi workers. Our workers must achieve that level of efficiency.”
He said factory owners were setting up new, more efficient machines to reduce production costs.
“It will lessen labor dependency and boost production,” he told BenarNews.
Rahman said shifts run 12 to 13 hours a day and workers are expected to work overtime and weekends as well.
Ali Azam said many workers ask for the extra hours because of the extra pay.
“Factory owners must ask permission from the ministry if they want workers to work more than eight hours,” he said, adding, “workers willingly ask for such permission to earn some more money through overtime.”
Zafrul Hasan, executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS), said some factory owners might be taking advantage of lax government oversight of the overtime law.
Industry dominates exports
According to figures from Bangladesh’s Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), the garment industry exported products valued at $34.13 billion (2.8 trillion taka) in the 2018-19 fiscal year, up from $30.61 billion (2.58 trillion taka) the previous year. Garment exports in 2018-19 accounted for 84 percent of the South Asian nation’s total exports, the bureau’s figures showed.
Analysts said garment factory owners are influential in social and political sections of Bangladesh, which is why the government sometimes ignores labor rights.
Rahman, of the Garments Textile Federation union, said many factory owners serve as government ministers and members of parliament.
“They can enact laws according to their wish. They are enjoying all types of perks from the government including tax rebates,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hasan, head of the labor studies institute, said garment factory employees could suffer.
“There should have been professional groups to stand for the workers,” he told BenarNews, adding “the factory owners do not allow them to form trade unions easily.
“There are some trade unions but they survived by negotiating with factory owners,” Zafrul said.
Factory safety has also been an issue in Bangladesh as the nation looks to move up from its status as a least-developed country. As many as 1,400 people have died in large-scale industrial accidents dating back to 2010, including more than 1,100 who died in 2013 when the eight-story Rana Plaza building housing five garment factories collapsed.