Garment Factories: The female worker experience in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh

A look inside a garment factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka
             A look inside a garment factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka

          In the previous post, I discussed some of that human rights violations that take place at Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, specifically the issue of forced sterilization. Unfortunately, human rights issues expand beyond Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. Garment factories are another dominant source of the inequalities female workers face throughout developing nations; I will focus on Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, in particular. Due to strenuous working hours, threats and intimidation by authorities, and a lack of attention to safety standards, women continue to be exploited in the industrial workforce.  

            Working hours for the majority of garment workers are from about 7am-4pm; tardiness is punished by wage cuts (Samarasinghe, 1998). Quota targets are set for each individual worker, and the inability to meet such production targets often results in various punishments, including working overtime without pay and being subjected to humiliating practices. An example of these humiliating practices is placing a black flag on the individual’s work table, which requires the worker to stand in front of the others (Samarasinghe, 1998). The use of bathroom breaks during work hours is strictly controlled and medical facilities are either minimal or nonexistent. This is problematic because there are laws that have been rescinded by governments in order to promote export production. For example, in 1982, the Sri Lanka government withdrew from ILO convention No. 89 which prohibited night work for women employees because they wanted women to work night shifts (Samarasinghe, 1998). Specifically, night work became an option in which women had to choice to be apart of. However, in reality, women do not have the choice to work a night shift or not because due to their subordinate position, they do not have the power to refuse to work when asked by management.  

          Altering and/or failing to properly acknowledge the presence of legal documents is violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations General Assembly ratified the declaration on December 10, 1948 in hopes of universally protecting fundamental human rights. I want to pay close attention to articles three and five in particular. Article three states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person”; article five exclaims that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment” (UDHR, 1948) Denying female workers reasonable working hours and wages is violating article three because they do not have the “right” or “power” to stand up to business owners. Their freedom is evidently limited because if they refute the commands of owners, they will be punished. Workers do not have the freedom to do certain things that we may take for granted, such as using the restroom without strict supervision and being provided with necessary medical care. Furthermore, business owners are repeatedly violating article five by subjecting workers to acts of humiliation when they do not meet production quota. Business owners are also taking advantage of the workers’ labor by forcing them to work overtime hours without pay. This is ultimately representative of local exploitation at the hands of globalized power relations because this treatment is allowed due to the lack of labor laws that prevent it.  As stated in the previous blog post, the garment industry has launched the “garments without guilt campaign” to improve the image of the sector. With this being said, according to the ILO, enterprises in EPZs should improve the working conditions and pay in the zones. The enterprises should also “abide by the labour laws, in particular, related to equality at work, freedom of association and collective bargaining, and promoting social dialogue” (Otobe, 2013, 18). The goal is that by improving working conditions, the overall employability and productivity of workers will be improved, allowing Sri Lanka’s industrial competitiveness to flourish on the global market.

          The issues in Sri Lanka’s garment factories are also present in one of their neighboring countries, Bangladesh. Since the April 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, many workers who have tried to form unions to address abuses in factories face threats, intimidation, dismissal, and sometimes physical assault by factory managers or “hired thugs” (Burke, 2015). In addition, researchers interviewed 160 workers from 44 factories in and around Dhaka and they heard complaints of physical assault, verbal abuse, forced overtime, unsanitary conditions, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full (Burke, 2011). Therefore, even though western companies say that they are going to be more thorough in monitoring the working conditions at their factories, Bangladesh garment workers still continue to suffer from poor working conditions nearly two years after these reform vows. This is significant because failure to properly enforce labor laws can lead to future Rana Plaza disasters.

          The lack of attention governments and multinational corporations have paid towards the poor working conditions has caused chaos in Bangladesh. Specifically, in July 2008, 12,000 Bangladeshi workers from five different companies in Kuwait went on a four-day strike demanding pay hikes and better working conditions. According to an article from Bangladesh News, the workers told reporters in Kuwait that they were living under unhygienic and inhumane conditions in the Gulf state (Bangladesh News, 2008) The foreign ministry issued a statement forcing workers to go back to work by saying that it is their duty to obey the Kuwaiti laws (Bangladesh News, 2008). This article is important because if the ministry wants workers to obey certain laws, they in return, need to enforce policies that provide workers with substantial wages and safe and sanitary work environments. Otherwise, the ministry and governments cannot be surprised when workers go on strike and retaliate as a result of their failure to properly address ongoing problems within the workplace.

          Women in garment factories face a disproportionate threat when it comes to issues such as job insecurity, poor wages, subjectivity to harassment, and intimidation tactics. In order to avoid prolonged human rights violations, Western corporations, local governments, and global authorities need to prioritize the safety and well-being of marginalized workers who financially rely on employment in the garment sector.

References:

Bangladeshi workers return to work in Kuwait. (2008, July 30). Bangladesh News. Retrieved from http://www.independent-bangladesh.com/200807308130/country/bangladeshi-workers-return-to-work-in-kuwait.html  

Burke, J. (2015, April 22). Bangladesh garment workers suffer poor conditions two years after reform vows. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/22/garment-workers-in-bangladesh-still-suffering-two-years-after-factory-collapse  

Otobe, N. (2013). Globalization, employment and gender in the open economy of Sri Lanka (pp. 1-48, Working paper No. 138). International Labor Organization. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/documents/publication/wcms_212721.pdf

Samarasinghe, V. (1998). The Feminization of Foreign Currency Earnings: Women’s Labor in Sri Lanka. The Journal of Developing Areas, 32(3), 303-326. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4192774.pdf?acceptTC=true   

United Nations General Assembly. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

 

One thought on “Garment Factories: The female worker experience in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh”

  1. The working conditions in garment factory in the third world countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are very interesting topic for me too. You argue the poor working condition from the view of workers in World factory, and it was very interested. But, have you ever tried to see the CSR or compliance that published by the headquarter? Compare and contrast the compliance and the real working condition in the factory would also interest you!

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