More than one million garment factory workers in Bangladesh have become unemployed due to fashion companies suspending or cancelling their orders with a reported $3 billion lost in orders. This will cause hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis to struggle to put food on the table and threatens to push Bangladeshis who are living on the poverty line in to poverty. 85% of garment factory workers are women and already do not earn the £45 a month living wage, only making £25 a month. Meanwhile, two-thirds of girls from slum areas who were working full-time are employed in Bangladesh’s £24bn clothes manufacturing industry.
At face value this is just another sad statistic from a country in the developing world, far away from us, yet Bangladesh is the source of much of the cheap clothes in our high street shops. The deeper question is why are so many reliant on the kind of work that does not offer reliable economic security?
With growing GDP, does hard work or even employment translate in to greater overall stability or more importantly economic sustainability or independence, as white Western economists and journalists were purporting in the not so distant past in publications such as ‘Forbes’? ‘Increase GDP and everything else will follow’, they said. It has proven to be a time-wasting fallacy and any one Bangladeshi would have been able to say so. It is a matter of concern that more than a million workers can be laid off virtually overnight, without severance pay, and with pay being cut even for work already done.
Despite signing the Sustainability Compact in 2013, after the Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen Fashion factory fire just 5 months prior which killed 1,132 and 117 people respectively, with subsequent joining of the Compact in 2016 pledging to reform labour laws, the Bangladeshi government has continued to restrict the formation of Unions and furthermore violate human rights by utilisng the military to crack down on workers protesting for increased wages and unionisation. Only about 10% of Bangladesh’s 4,825 garment factories have registered trade unions and none of the five Rana Plaza Factories nor Tazneen Fashion factory were unionised. This is largely due to legal barriers.
On March 25th, Bangladesh’s leader Sheikh Hasina announced a “stimulus package” of $US595 million for export-oriented industries and asked that workers be paid yet there are no reports as to whether companies have carried out this request. At the same time, factory owners carry considerable political clout in Bangladesh; creating a barrier to accoutablity for violating workplace rights, or for failing to establish health and safety provisions. Workers have faced threats, intimidation and physical punishment with women being sexually harassed.
The argument has often been made that Western companies, such as Primark, Zara and H&M, offer employment, which in turn helps citizens in the medium-short term. But when a crisis happens, like now with Covid-19, or in the past with the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, or in the future when rising sea levels swallow up swathes of the country, the fallibility and true nature of such employment or the GDP narrative becomes clear. Hiring cheap labourers is not an act of altruism but exploitation of already exploited people and increasing GDP does not benefit everyone, especially not the poor. It’s time to dismantle the neo-colonial “they would be worse off without us” narrative.
The important question is how to make Bangladesh economically robust in a way that benefits all its citizens in a meritocratic manner which rewards hard work, and in such as way that it is not overwhelmingly dependent on external multinational companies, other countries or the 5% of Bangladeshi power holders who own 95% of the country’s wealth.
As with a great deal of problems, there is no quick fix, and progress will take years, however, not just in Bangladesh, the wealth gap between the rich and the poor has increased globally. So while GDP goes up, the wealth is not distributed, but hoarded by the top 5%, and then spent or invested abroad. Meanwhile, an estimated $15bn is sent back to Bangladesh by workers who have moved to work abroad. Almost a million of these workers returning to Bangladesh has meant the economy has taken another hit.
What these jobs abroad consist of are manual labour, with indentured contracts, and perpetual human rights abuses. The reality abroad is not so distant from that domestically, with shanty towns and ghettos built to segregate foreign workers in to Little Bangladeshs, yet the pay is higher averaging at around $400 a month (though many are paid significantly less) and that’s the attraction.
Despite the majority of Bangladeshis who move abroad signing themselves up for these wholly undesirable and often dangerous jobs, not for themselves, but for their families or the future of their children, it shows little has changed in terms of global power play and global economic, social and political structures which systematically keep poor Bangladeshis down, while exploiting their labour for profit. Moving abroad for work is not a choice, but a necessity, and a sacrifice of a life, a family, a home, a country; frankly anything that makes someone human, rather than simply a working body.
It is not a new phenomenon that South Asian cheap labour has been exported, formerly by means of slavery by European colonial empires, then by official indentured employment, which was then convenielty rebranded as “employment”. The power play between the modern-day stakeholders; multinational companies, the West as well as the Gulf States is a clear indicator of how empire persists; its right-hand men being the leaders of Gulf States, with Saudi Arabia as a powerful ideological epicentre for luring workers in.
Regardless of the terminology, the outcomes for the workers are the same; working domestically in unstable and unsafe jobs, or working abroad as an indentured worker away from home and family, often not knowing when they’d be able to go back. The resulting socio-economic instability of such a situation is what underpins Bangladesh’s historical lack of independence. What can a family do when the breadwinner is working abroad for years on end? The destruction of the very fabric of Bangladeshi society has been at stake and what has historically been demolished by overt imperialism and now through underhand economic and ideological imperialism.
Poor Bangladeshis have few rights in Bangladesh, as indentured workers in the Gulf States and elsewhere, and if they manage to get as far as the UK, like my parents did, the social fabric is irrevocably destroyed, resulting in a cyclical double bind of economic and social isolation, which becomes intergenerational and not far-flung from Caste Systems or Imperialist Britain’s economic policies which resulted in widespread famine and the death of millions of Bengalis. The negative impact of the bind is not just economic, social or geographic, but also in terms of health both physical and psychological and has spanned centuries in one form or another.
If Bangladeshis can’t achieve equal rights to education or employment in the UK, because of systemic discrimination, despite sacrificing everything and working extremely hard in order to lift themselves out of poverty, then what chance do Bangladeshis have of bringing that to their people? The extent of poverty is simply carried over rather than being ameliorated in any meaningful or sustainable way. It’s an illusion and it’s an inticing trap many are unable to get themselves out of.
The way forward is unionisation of workers with the support of international union movements and for us consumers to make informed and conscientious decisions.
Britain and the Western imperial colonisers alongside their allies have thrived off, waged wars, built their nations and economic empires using South Asian labour and resources for hundreds of years while giving very little in return. Let’s not paint any of it as altruism.