More concerted efforts are needed to boost the rights of hundreds of thousands of workers in Bangladesh’s apparel industry, the vast majority women, who work long hours for very low wages in poor health and safety settings, an expert says.
The apparel workers on average work 12 hours a day at least six days a week, and sometimes longer if there is an urgent shipment, Dr Ahmed Ziauddin, a member of Odhikar, the Bangladesh Coalition for Human Rights, said in an interview.
In theory they are supposed to receive bonuses for extra work, but they don’t, he said, adding: “Working conditions are still in a horrible shape in many ways.” Asked about the recent violent industrial unrest, he stressed that that apparel employees work flat out and get $50 a month, and their demand is to get somewhere close to $100.
But Dr Ziauddin said the Bangladesh garment owners association – the most powerful in the country – has 37 members in Parliament, so when labour groups try to advocate for legislation to improve wages, and conditions, “the owners block from within.”
He said the apparel industry is tremendously important to Bangladesh’s economy, but also noted there are numerous incidents of fire and other industrial accidents because of poor safety conditions and the poor state of core labour rights for apparel workers.
“They do not have trade union rights in export processing zones, and also in the apparel sector there are no trade union rights. We feel this is a fundamental right, and is also in our constitution, but generally absent in this sector [apparel] because owners are not interested.”
Asked about the role of major foreign companies, he said some like French retailer Carrefour generally have their own physical presence, “so they do control a lot and have an influence what goes on inside production plants.
He said where major foreign companies are present, the conditions seem to be relatively better – with slightly higher wages, some provide workers with free lunch, and improved staff and working facilities.
But Dr Ziauddin stresses these conditions “are not standard trade practice but the exception rather than the rule.”
Also we don’t feel they exert enough pressure, he said, on Bangladeshi apparel manufacturers to comply with certain standards. However, under immense pressure from consumers in rich nations, one they have been very strict on is child labour, he noted. But the reality is that it can be very difficult to prove whether someone is 14 or 16.
Most of the apparel work, he emphasises, is done by the sub-contractors, and here there is no way to monitor compliance because Bangladesh’s garment industry “doesn’t feel that’s what should be done because they have vested interests in running the business as they like.”

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