Gender inequality in the workforce in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh: What needs to be done to increase female empowerment?

Progress Bar Loading with the text: Equality

          A common theme that has emerged throughout the past four blog posts is that Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi female factory workers are poorly treated due to the lack of gender equality. In contrast to the education and health sectors which have made substantial improvements, the labor market remains a primary source of gender inequality in both countries. Due to labor exploitation, sexual and physical violence, and minimal access to certain social and political advantages, women continue to be placed on a lower platform than men.

          Throughout Sri Lanka, “women make up the majority of the vulnerable groups that have emerged, which include those retrenched under economic reforms, female heads of less affluent households, and women who have been affected by armed conflict and the tsunami who have lost their livelihoods and are in urgent need of access to income earning opportunities” (Jayaweera et al., 2007, 43). Since women are relatively disadvantaged in the employment structure, they are not receiving the incomes they need to survive. Specifically, many women have sought employment in both garment factories and overseas domestic labor, in which they are solely at the bottom of the power hierarchy. The international and local labor market continues to demand low cost/low wage female workers because it has been a “comparative advantage for national policy makers” (Jayaweera et al., 2007, 44). In other words, due the presence of hierarchical gender ideologies in Sri Lanka, women are viewed as the “subordinate” group. As a result, business owners are able to treat them solely as they please in order to keep the cost of goods low and maximize their profit. Unfortunately, the gender inequality women in Sri Lanka experience goes beyond economic exploitation. In addition to low wages, female workers experience job insecurity, long working hours, hazardous working environments, physical and sexual harassment/abuse, etc. Although these issues may not always be reported, there is evident documentation proving that this is a widespread issue in Sri Lanka.

          Since increasing numbers of females have entered the workforce in Sri Lanka, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) urge that Sri Lankan companies become more gender sensitive. According to a study commissioned by the ILO and EFC titled, “Beyond Glass Ceilings and Brick Walls; Gender at the Workplace,” there are various forms of gender bias in the Sri Lankan workforce (Samaraweera, 2006). For example, regardless of their qualifications, men have a greater chance of being recruited or hired into certain types of employment. Men are also more likely to be promoted to higher positions. What’s interesting about this finding is that men are not always promoted based on their track record for better performance or better decision making skills (Samaraweera, 2006). In other words, male workers can easily be promoted to top positions simply because they are male and are viewed as the “superior gender” in Sri Lanka. With this being said, because women are perceived as the “inferior gender,” they are primarily concentrated in lower positions. Although business owners may be benefiting from the goods workers are producing, companies in the long run are not making the most of educated human resources by hiring and promoting males strictly due to their gender and not necessarily their qualifications. Gender inequality becomes an important issue because both men and women have equal potential in the workforce. The main barrier to achieving gender equality are the biases and stereotypes surrounding women. Therefore, the most effective way to help women begin to get ahead in the workforce is to facilitate women’s empowerment.

          Similar to Sri Lankan women, Bangladeshi women face many barriers and disadvantages in their lives that go beyond a lack of economic opportunity. The other main struggles women encounter in Bangladesh are access to health care, political participation, and control of finances (Hasan, 2016). Specifically, Bangladeshi women are fighting to establish their rights in family, society, and in the state; however, discriminatory laws and policies hinder formal equality and certain social and political conditions continue to prevent women from exercising their rights (World Vision International, 2016). Another challenge is that even though there are certain laws to prevent violence against women, the enforcement of these laws remains unsatisfactory. Fortunately, the USAID has been working to set up programs in Bangladesh that solely focus on women’s empowerment. The USAID seeks to increase female participation, reduce gender inequality, and raise awareness about the positive impacts of empowering women and girls throughout society (Hasan, 2016). For example, in 2014 the USAID programs in Bangladesh trained more than 33,000 women farmers to use fertilizer deep placement technology; as a result, this helped them reduce fertilizer use by as much as 30 percent while increasing crop yields up to 20 percent (Hasan, 2016). Not only is the USAID working to place women on the same platform as men, but their advocacy is increasing community connectedness throughout Bangladesh. Additionally, men have become more knowledgeable on these gender issues and are starting to form joint alliances to help fight for the equal status of women. The USAID programs in Bangladesh can positively affect Sri Lanka as well because the USAID has the power and resources to expand their advocacy in other countries or regions in which gender inequality is an evident issue.

          Gender issues are fortunately now being prioritized by aid and development agencies as seen in the USAID programs in Bangladesh. However, gender inequality remains one of the biggest development challenges of the twenty first century. Therefore, it is important to conclude with a discussion of how the world can be a more equitable place for women and girls. The western newspaper, The Guardian, recently published an article discussing twelve steps that need to be taken to achieve gender equality on a global scale. One of these solutions is to stop sexual harassment. In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in particular, sexual harassment is a prominent issue in both the workforce and other areas of life. Not only is sexual harassment a violation of fundamental human rights, but it is also a major barrier to women’s full potential (Leach, 2016).  Another important solution that has been discussed multiple times throughout my blog posts is the need to give proper value to “women’s work.” Specifically, the low-waged work women and girls do provide the foundation for the global economy. Increased research and awareness on this point would be beneficial in emphasizing the key role women and girls have in the economy and the need for proper recognition and compensation (Leach, 2016). In addition, there needs to be a global increase in campaigns for equal pay and equal work. Lastly, there is a need to stop violence. Gender inequality is associated with violence; because women are viewed as inferior to men, they can be treated a sexual objects. The UN has found that globally, one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime (Leach, 2016). Fortunately, many actors, including the UN, ILO, and USAID have done a significant amount of advocacy work to raise more awareness on the issue of violence against women and discuss effective prevention and response strategies. However, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done until women experience true equality with men in all facets of life.

References

Hasan, W. (2016). GENDER EQUALITY AND WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT. USAID. https://www.usaid.gov/bangladesh/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment

Jayaweera, S., Wijemanne, H., Wanasundera, L., & Vitarana, K. M. (2007). Gender Dimensions of the Millennium Development Goals in Sri Lanka (Publication). Colombo: Centre for Women’s Research. http://www.undp.org/content/dam/srilanka/docs/mdg/Gender_Dimensions%20of%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf

Leach, A. (2016, March 14). 12 steps to achieve gender equality in our lifetimes. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/mar/14/gender-equality-women-girls-rights-education-empowerment-politics  

Samaraweera, D. (2006). Working women of Sri Lanka dealing with brick walls and glass ceilings. Sunday Times. Ik. Retrieved from http://www.sundaytimes.lk/060813/ft/4.4.html  

World Vision International: Bangladesh (2016). Gender equality. Retrieved from http://www.wvi.org/bangladesh/gender-equality  

 

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/

 

Solidarity not Charity: A Look at Transnational Student/Labor Activism

Students at the University of Washington protest unsafe working conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories as a part of the United Students Against Sweatshops’ “End Death Traps” campaign (http://bit.ly/1Thb2xy).

In my introductory blog post, I noted I would focus on “development from the bottom up,” coming from citizens, not undemocratic NGOs, state-run aid agencies, or Bretton Woods institutions. The self-determination of communities in underdeveloped countries can take power to dictate their own futures. But it would be naive to pretend this type of organizing is always possible when the working and agrarian classes in these countries are subject to unequal global power relations that clearly benefit Western corporations. So what does it take to help challenge these unequal global systems? One possibility is transnational student/labor solidarity.

Transnational student solidarity has taken a number of forms in the United States. From the New Left’s solidarity with anti-colonial revolutions in the 1960s and 1970s; organizing against both South African Apartheid and the current Israeli occupation of Palestine; and, transnational student/labor solidarity in the 1990s and 2000s. Student/labor organizing of this period arose simultaneously with the anti-globalization movement as a way to support workers in newly exploited economies by either mitigating the effects of globalization or struggling directly against the corporations which drive the global system. In this post, I will focus on two differing approaches to student/labor solidarity in the 2000s by United Students for Fair Trade (USFT) and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

Formed with the help of FairTradeUSA , an organization which helps certify fair trade farms and companies, in 2003, USFT was built as a student organization to help strengthen the growing fair trade movement in the United States. The goal of the fair trade movement was, and still is, to have corporations from the United States source a percentage of their production from small scale cooperative farms in the global South. These farms create more just living and working conditions than large scale agriculture. At the time, UFTC and FairTradeUSA worked together to help pressure brands to agree to source their products from fair trade producers, and in turn, when/if corporations agreed to the terms, a corporation’s product would receive the “Fair Trade Certified” (FTC) label (Wilson and Curnow 2013).

The other half of the USFT/FairTradeUSA organizing focuses on promoting the Fair Trade brand to consumers and Universities in the United States. The idea was that consumers would not only purchase Fair Trade products, but become politicized by choosing the more “just” option.  This is where it gets messy. In order to politicize these consumers and create a larger market share for fair trade farmers, USFT needed to convince consumers to buy products which were FTC. Thus, a large part of student organizing focused on building the Fair Trade brand names.  FairTradeUSA, a private, unaccountable NGO, appropriated student solidarity with farm workers to build the FTC, and helped corporations profit from their “fairwashed” products. In 2005, FairTradeUSA, asked students to encourage consumers to buy products from companies like McDonalds, Walmart, and Coke, which sold FTC products. Students claimed these companies had been involved in human rights violations abroad, and had (and still have) inhumane working conditions in the United States. Students did not feel marketing for Walmart helped the fair trade cause (Wilson and Curnow 2013).

The X-Files the x files frustrated annoyed x files

USFT faced the contradictions of working with the undemocratic NGO, FairTradeUSA,  which profited off the Fair Trade label, ignoring whether it benefited farmers in the global South. Neither students, nor farmers, had a say in which corporations earned the label or the terms of FTC conditions. In 2011, students were so fed up they declared a boycott of all FTC products, claiming FTC products were illegitimate and not representative of an authentic fair trade movement. A central demand of the boycott was to make the majority of FairTradeUSA’s board of directors ‘farmers, producers and workers, community and student activists, academics, and 100 percent Fair Trade businesses’ (USFT 2011; Wilson and Curnow 2013). FairTradeUSA has yet to hand control to these groups, thus leaving the “fair trade” brand in private hands. Today, USFT works with Equal Exchange to source fair trade bananas, and is organizing against the Trans Pacific Partnership.

The USFT case provides a lesson to student activists engaging in transnational labor solidarity. The importance of democracy in any organization is clearly central to developing effective, representative campaigns. Secondly, the organizing shows that commodification cannot occur with development from below, because commodities require that someone profits. And most importantly, USFT’s organizing shows the necessity of centralizing workers/farmers in any solidarity campaign to maintain workers/farmers interest.

A second example, which is both democratic and centralizes worker organizing, is the work done by

United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), an democratic organization which centralizes workers, provides a second example of transnational solidarity.

Formed in 1997, USAS grew out of the anti-globalization movement with the objective of supporting workers  subject to sweatshop working conditions in underdeveloped countries. Many of the companies who subcontract their production to sweatshops also profit from lucrative contracts with universities in the United States. The strategy behind USAS’ “International Solidarity Campaigns” is to use students’ unique position to pressure brands through universities by cutting contracts when workers report sweatshop conditions, “such as poverty wages, forced overtime, sexual harassment, union busting, and health and safety violations,” in global factories (USAS 2015). This organizing then links with workers struggling on the ground for better conditions through workers centers, unions, or NGOs. In this way, “transnational alliances enable [multiple] groups to exert leverage over the various links in the commodity chain” (Cravey 2004); students threaten the the legitimacy of brand names (Ibid.), while workers pressure brands in factories. In this sense, students provide leverage and make space for worker to define their labor conditions.

Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) acts as the intermediary body between USAS organizers and workers in the factory. As an independent observer of factory conditions, the WRC helps school administrators “sign codes of conduct for the producers of apparel bearing university logos” (Silvey 2013). Through years of struggle, USAS locals have pressured 183 universities (including Clark) to sign on to the WRC. By signing this agreement universities financially support WRC factory observations to prevent inhumane working conditions, and enable international solidarity around factory working conditions. The WRC is made up of a 15 person democratic governing body; USAS students, national and international labor organizers and NGOs, and affiliates of university administration. Additionally, a much larger advisory board, including national and international labor organizers and academics, help WRC organizers develop more inclusive strategy with factory workers.

So unlike FairTradeUSA’s undemocratic structure and self-interest in profiting off the FTC, which  students and farmers could not hold accountable, the WRC is built upon a foundation of student/worker democracy and has a self-interest in worker justice.

Multiple spaces of struggle can occur along the supply chain and empower students and workers at the global and local scale. For students fight exploitative conditions within university contracts i.e., subcontracting to global brands. The consciousness developed through sweatshop solidarity  also enables students to connect these conditions to low-wage workers on campus. For workers, the struggle is against the exploitative and inhumane conditions of the subcontracted factory i.e.the immediate conditions of their day to day lives. On a larger scale,  solidarity among students, workers, and labor NGOs enables transnational struggle against the proliferation of low-wage production. Global exploitative conditions necessitate global networks of struggle. The development of transnational resistance has the power to challenge neoliberal hegemony that is not possible when workers or students organize in isolated spaces.

The student/WRC/worker organizing model has resulted in sizable material gains for subcontracted workers in underdeveloped countries. First, as stated above, USAS has forced 183 universities, and the brands that make these universities’ logos, to agree to WRC investigations. Furthermore, Student solidarity helped Guatemalan workers win the first ever union contract in a maquila in the late 1990s (Cravey 2004); in 2010, USAS and the Honduran CGT [General Workers Central, a union] won a settlement with Nike, who agreed to pay $1.5 million in severance and a year of health insurance, plus hiring priority for 1,800 Honduran workers when Nike left the factory (Jack 2010); and in 2012, USAS and Indonesian workers pressured Adidas to pay $1.8 million in severance to 1,300 fired workers in Jakarta, Indonesia (Kong and Ortiz 2013). Most recently, USAS has been involved in organizing with Bangladeshi garment workers who face astonishingly dangerous garment factory conditions. In recent years, workers have experienced devastating, and preventable factory fires and collapses. One of the worst and most well known being the Rana Plaza collapse which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured more than 2,000 workers (Parveen 2014). From 2013-2015, USAS pressured brands to sign  the Accord for Fire and Safety, a binding agreement which allowed the WRC, local unions, and workers centers to take part in investigating unsafe factories and recognizing workers’ rights to refuse entry to unsafe factories (Rahman 2013). The fact that workers have a voice in the accord’s decision making process is an unprecedented win for Bangladeshi workers (Ibid). Additionally, USAS has played a pivotal role in forcing brands sourcing from Rana Plaza to pay compensation for workers and their families. The VF Corporation, which owns 30 brands such as, The Children’s Place  and Jansport,  refused to give to the fund (Arria 2015). Through student protest and occupations, USAS was able to force the Children’s Place alone to give $2 million (Shestack 2015).

A photo of the Rana Plaza disaster – Google Images.

USAS student/labor solidarity has been effective in pressuring brands to create more just working conditions and be held accountable for firing workers or mass murders. Despite large and amazing gains, the model has yet to create new opportunities for workers who don’t rely on employment from transnational corporations for Western consumption. James Heintz helps provide a broader analyses to address poverty and inhumane conditions in underdeveloped countries. Heintz notes, workers in developing countries don’t just need better working conditions, but “more and better jobs” which offer a number of high paying employment opportunities, not just  jobs from a single industry (2004). Heintz suggest that the anti-sweatshop movement can’t solely focus on immediate working conditions at the point of production. Instead, worker movements must address macroeconomic policies, such as social security protections, which extended to all people, not just those employed by a specific brand or in a specific industry (Ibid). This critique can also be applied to USFT’s work, which only focuses on creating market share for cooperative farmers. I think Heintz’s critique helps point towards a future for the anti-sweatshop movement. Yes, international labor solidarity must help workers struggle for broader social security services, if that is what workers want. But the only way to achieve these policies is through movement organizing. Transnational solidarity helps make space for worker organizing in underdeveloped countries. Organizing begins on the factory floor, but with solidarity, can grow and gain strength to impact macroeconomic policies. The Bangladeshi state’s response to factory collapses thus far has shown worker’s ability to make drastic changes in an industry.

International solidarity is necessary in combating the proliferation of inhumane working conditions globally, and building development based on justice. USFT and USAS have shown two strategies for helping further the struggles of workers and farmers in underdeveloped countries. USFT’s organizing focused on creating a larger market share for FTC  brands. But as we saw, this campaign was wrapped up in the commodification of student activism and worker conditions by building the FTC brand name. The case highlights the importance of focusing on worker struggle, instead of attempting to address issues of uneven development via further consumption. The USAS case highlights the importance of student/worker coordination in supporting worker struggles on the ground via international solidarity. This model strengthens individual student and worker struggles locally against exploitative conditions and privatization, while fighting neoliberalism globally through networks of students, workers and democratic NGOs. Thus, coordination, solidarity, and accountability provide a model for engaging in transnational organizing. Lastly, USAS’s model helps make space for workers to further their organizing and define their countries own development path with the strength of growing organizations. The continued struggle of workers and growing solidarity abroad could enable further worker involvement in deciding the fate of their future.

—————————-

In the interest of transparency, I myself am a member of USAS and help run a USAS local on Clark’s campus called “Activists United”. Get in touch if your interested in local and global labor solidarity! Check out local USAS efforts near you.

References

Arria, Michael. 2015. “Students Ask Why JanSport Parent Company Won’t Sign Bangladesh Worker Safety Agreement.” In These Time, May 15.

Cravey, Altha. 2004. “Students and the Anti-Sweatshop Movement.” Antipode 36(2).

Heintz, James. 2004. “Beyond Sweatshops: Employment, Labor Market Security and Global Inequality.” Antipode 36(2).

Jack. 2010. “Victory! Nike ‘Just Pays Is’; Students and Garment Workers Beat Sportswear Giant!” USAS.org, July 26. http://justpayit.usas.org/2010/07/26/nike-just-pays-it/.

Kong, Lingran and Mark Ortiz. 2013. “Victory in Nicaraguan Adidas Factory As Adiddas Garment Workers Stage Global Protest.” USAS.org, November 8. http://usas.org/tag/adidas/.

Parveen, Shahnaz. 2014. “Rana Plaza Factory Collapse Survivors Struggle One Year On.” BBC, April 23. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27107860.

Rahman, Fazlur Md. 2013. “Trade Unions Vital for the Safety Accords to Succeed: Scott Nova of Workers Rights Consortium Says.” The Daily Star, August, 23. http://www.thedailystar.net/news/trade-unions-vital-for-the-safety-accord-to-succeed.

Shestack, Miriam. 2015. “On 2-Year Anniversary of Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Activists Announce Major Victory for Victims.” In These Times, April 24.

Silvey, Rachel. 2013. “Geographies of Anti-Sweatshop Activism.” Antipode 36(2).

USAS. N.a. “Garment Worker Solidarity.” Last modified 2015. http://usas.org/campaigns/garment-worker-solidarity/.

Wilson, Bradley and Joe Curnow. 2013. “Solidaritytm: Student Activism, Affective Labor, and the Fair Trade Campaign in the United States.” Antipode 45(3).

Workers Rights Consortium. N.a. “Governance.” Last Modified N.a. http://www.workersrights.org/about/govern.asp.

Can the Bangladeshi Textile Industry Elevate the Country Out of Poverty?

Bangladesh, a South Asian country that can be found bordering India and Myanmar, has caused a circulation of debate around the successes and failures of utilizing globalization as the primary form of modern development. The country had been born into poverty upon its separation from Pakistan but slowly became more financially independent as years went on. The Bangladeshi economy has steadily rose 6% per year since 1996 through its highly important service and agricultural sectors, even though the country has struggled with “political instability, poor infrastructure, corruption, insufficient power supplies, slow implementation of economic reforms, and the 2008-09 global financial crisis and recession”. Much of this economic growth can be attributed to the nation’s export of garments, which has accounted for more than 80% of total exports and exceeded $25 billion in 2015 (CIA).

The origin of the Bangladeshi textile industry can be traced back to as early as the official independence of Bangladesh in 1971 when the nation’s newly formed government took control of the textile factories and organized them under the Bangladesh Textile Mills Corporation (Islam et al., 32). Aside from the organizational struggles that resulted from the national takeover of the textile production, there were “problems such as low productivity in the labor force, lack of planning, indiscipline, lack of accountability, and poor machine maintenance and operation resulted in a lack of profit”. This led to the privatization of textile manufacturing, strengthening the quality of fabric being used by factories, and ultimately increasing the global demand for Bangladeshi garments. Rapid growth followed as Bangladesh led an export-oriented garment industry that had originated during the early 1980’s (Islam et al., 33).

cheap-clothes-continue-to-fuel-bangladesh-s-export-growth-clothing-and-accessories-total-exports_chartbuilder

In a policy paper written by the Danish International Development Agency in 2013, the problems of the Bangladeshi economy were examined, even in the midst of what seemed to be economic success from its booming service and manufacturing sectors. The agency notes that, although the country was successfully able to reduce poverty levels from 57% in 1991-92 to 31.5% in 2010, the country is still considered one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 146 out of 186 on the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index. Along with the economic growth that has gradually occurred, there has also been an increase in inequality, as well as disparity in wealth between the majority and the minority ethnic groups. Roughly 25%, around 40 million people, are in such poverty that they spend almost all of their income on food and are still unable to fulfill their own basic nutritional requirements. This leads to the next startling statistic that about 40% of children and 30% of women are malnourished, which becomes especially troublesome for households that are led by a female or have no parental care at all (DANIDA, 6).

As we can see, the increase in garment exports has decreased the poverty levels in Bangladesh by a significant amount over the last couple of decades, but what about the humanitarian side of this movement? Recently, there have been major concerns regarding the safety and wages of factory workers, considering that only 5% of the workforce partake in trade unions. This is especially startling due to the lack of organization and power of these unions in contrast to the rigid structure of the factories’ management. Widespread corruption has allowed for unsafe buildings to be considered safely regulated due to the lack of staff and equipment by the government (DANIDA, 8).

The Spectrum and Rana Plaza factory collapses are the result of the unsafe working conditions for factory workers in Bangladesh. In 2005, the Spectrum sweater factory had caved in and killed 64 workers, yet there had been no upheaval in regulations after that incident. Then, in 2013, a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory and a collapse of the Rana Plaza factory killed 112 and 1,129 workers respectively. The two main responses from the retailers that have factories in Bangladesh have been to call for more stringent safety codes for these buildings and to work closely with labor unions and workers to receive firsthand account of how to deal with these problems. The Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, each made up of Western private retailers, have begun to inspect the violations against labor in Bangladesh. These two organizations have been trying to institute better measures for worker safety in Bangladeshi factories and plan to ultimately inspect 2,000 of Bangladesh’s 5,000+ workshops. On the surface, this looks like a very altruistic plan of action, but the 3,000+ buildings not being inspected generally have worse conditions and there are many secret projects being done in those factories by Western brands (Greenhouse and Harris).

Even with these prevalent problems of worker safety in Bangladesh, the garment industry continues to dominate the country’s exports. In 2014, the textile and garment sectors accounted for $24 billion of the $25 billion total goods exported, but the leaders of the industry continue to want to expand its production and increase output. Tapan Chowdhury, President of Bangladesh Textile Mills Association, wants to raise Bangladesh’s ready-made garments and textile exports to $50 billion by 2021 (Ittefaq).

As we had done with South Korea last week, we should analyze whether globalization, specifically from the garment and textile industry, has ultimately benefitted the developing nation of Bangladesh. The economic growth is undeniable when looking at the substantial annual increase in GDP due to the dominance of the Bangladeshi textile and garment sectors. Another result of the boom of these exports is that poverty and unemployment rates have fallen. However, despite these benefits of globalization, there has also been an increase in inequality, especially when looking at the economic instability of minority groups which leads to social tension. There has been continuous need to revitalize the labor regulations in Bangladeshi factories, as was seen in the thousands of deaths from disasters that occurred to their workers. This leaves the question of whether the private companies should be the ones left to monitor the upheaval of these newly enforced codes.

Personally, I can’t denote whether Bangladesh can be deemed a development success or not due to all of the complications that surrounds its garment industry. Surely, there are many areas for improvement from a humanitarian and labor point of view, but the country has made strides in improving poverty even if there has been increase in inequality. We also will see over the next decade what impact these private retailing companies and development agencies will have on the economy and welfare of Bangladeshi workers. How do you think Bangladesh is going to progress over the next decade? Should it change its current plan to dominate as a garment-exporter?

Sources:

Denmark. DANIDA. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. DANIDA. Sept. 2013. Web.

Greenhouse, Steven, and Elizabeth A. Harris. “Battling for a Safer Bangladesh.” NY Times. 21 Apr. 2014. Web.

Islam, Mazedul, Md., Monirul Islam, Md., and Adnan Maroof Khan. “Textile Industries in Bangladesh and Challenges of Growth.” Research Journal of Engineering Sciences 2.3 (2013): 31-37. ICSA. 15 Feb. 2013. Web.

“Bangladesh Plans to Raise Textile Export to $50b by 2021.” Ittefaq [Dhaka] 23 Mar. 2015. Web.

“South Asia :: Bangladesh.” The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency, 25 Feb. 2016. Web.