Published in The Sunday Herald, Scotland on 3 October 2010

Viyellatex Garment Factory

At 8pm in the heart of Dhaka’s industrial zone of Tejgaon, hundreds of young women file out of a garment factory onto the dark and dusty streets.

The scene is repeated in every urban centre throughout Bangladesh, and recurs on the hour as the nightshift workers clock off. Such a sight would have been unthinkable as little as five years ago, and it is still considered unsafe – if not unsavoury – for middle-class women to roam unaccompanied after dusk. But the three million “garment girls” are altering the face of Bangladeshi society and last year accounted for 80% of the nation’s export earnings – yet they remain among the country’s most vulnerable and exploited people.

When the Bangladesh government rejected the workers’ demands for a minimum monthly salary of 5000 taka (about £46), instead setting it at 3000 taka (about £27), riots involving 10,000 workers erupted. The Bangladesh Garment and Manufacturers and Exporters Association responded by filing charges against four union leaders for fomenting worker violence. After spending a month in prison, three were released on bail shortly before Ramadan. One, Montu Ghosh, a legal adviser to the Centre for Garment Labour Trade Union, remains imprisoned.

The entire industry is jittery, but once the women are a safe distance from the factory in Tejgaon, they are more willing to talk. Farida, 22, has spent the last seven years working in garment factories, her average week totalling about 75 hours. Her monthly salary is £1 less than the new minimum wage. When asked whether her pay is sufficient, she shot back: “Look at me – I’m lean and haggard. I eat mashed potato and daal [a lentil dish] because I cannot afford meat or fish.”

And when asked if she would like to say anything to the people who wear the clothes she makes, she replied: “I don’t have the right to ask them anything. They have money and they are supposed to have the better clothes.”

Nazma Akter was 11 when she started working in a garment factory and she earned the equivalent of just £2.30 per month. She left after seven years. Today she is president of the Joint Garment Workers’ Federation and general secretary of the Awaj Foundation, which provides legal aid and conducts rights-based awareness campaigns. Akter represented the garment workers in the latest wage commission negotiations. She also worked on the previous negotiation round in 2006, when the minimum wage was fixed at just over £15.

She said: “We accepted the new minimum salary because it is almost double the amount of the previous one. We will make fresh demands for higher wages in a year’s time, but now we are fighting for implementation.” Like many other workers, she is concerned that factory owners won’t abide by the law. The government is coming under increasing pressure to better regulate the sector.

Prior to the announcement of the pay hike, the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, described existing pay levels – the world’s lowest – as “inhumane”. However, Shahnaz Parveen, a senior journalist at English-language daily the Daily Star, believes that the new rate of pay only reinforces the gap between the haves and have-nots of Bangladesh. She said: “It’s simply not possible to live in Dhaka on Tk3000. People like us spend that amount on pizza.”

The ready-made garment (RMG) sector emerged in Bangladesh in the late 1960s and currently employs three and a half million people, 85% of them female. David Hasanat is chief executive and chairman of Viyellatex, a Bangladesh garment company which supplies clothes to Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, Esprit and Puma. He said the RMG sector in Bangladesh has “huge potential” to develop over the next decade. “But it requires fine-tuning,” he added – an understatement.

Akter agrees that working conditions have gradually improved and cites the reduction of child labour as one of the most positive developments. But she remains gravely concerned about the sector as a whole. Hundreds of workers have perished in fires, often as a result of blocked emergency exits and a lack of fire-extinguishing equipment, and compensation to the families of victims is notoriously low. In the last 15 years, more than 30 fires have broken out in garment factories. Akter believes that conditions will remain dire until workers’ trade union rights are protected. She said that at the moment the government must disclose the names of those who want to join a trade union to the manufacturers: “Management will then either terminate those workers illegally, or harass them.”

Akter apportions blame for the degrading rates of pay three ways: both the local manufacturers and Western buyers push hard to maximise profits, and consumers buy under-priced clothes. She said: “Western buyers are cutting their prices every day and their targets are really tough. We try to talk to them, but they tell us it is their business model. Most have the same attitude. And the consumers get the ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ deals because these girls are working 12-hour shifts.”

Viyellatex Garment Factory

About 80% of Viyellatex’s 8000 employees are already receiving wages in line with the new minimum salary, which comes into effect this November. As well as distributing 5% of the company’s profits amongst employees, Viyellatex pays each of its workers 20% more than the legal minimum wage, making it something of a model employer. In 2008-09 the company’s turnover was US$165 million, but Hasanat said it would have been “impossible” for it to raise wages to meet the demands of workers.

He said: “People outside forget the socio-economic conditions here in Bangladesh. Our workers are generally happy, because our expectation levels are lower.”

Tumpa, 18, who works in one of Tejgaon’s 300 factories, disagrees. She quit her job at a factory last February after a “helper”, a young boy, died of jaundice. He was refused sick leave – which in any event takes three days to process – and he died on the job. Tumpa complained that the factory in Tejgaon she now works in has similarly bad conditions. She said: “Our boss misbehaves – he curses us if anything is misplaced or missing. If we don’t finish our work on time, he starts yelling. Sometimes the bosses beat the men, as well as the weakest women.” She had no qualms about taking part in the protests.

Hasanat acknowledges that exploitation is rife in many garment factories but he is confident that his own factory, located 20 miles north of Dhaka in Gazipur, is one of the best in the nation – if not the very best.

On the day the Sunday Herald visited, a workplace safety workshop was being conducted in a spacious, well-lit meeting room. A large plaque containing the Labour Law Act 2006 is nailed to a wall, as are pictorial instructions on fire-fighting and an anonymous complaints box. The workers wear identical white aprons and their mouths are covered by surgical masks. In the samples room, a dozen or so pairs of eyes stare from behind a pile of purple fabric. Some workers do not look up, but remain crouched intently over sewing machines, or make dextrous use of large pairs of scissors. The finished products are familiar – on the far wall are glass lockers containing folded T-shirts, each with a logo stuck to the front of the cabinet: G-Star, Debenhams, Marks & Spencer – it really is just a label. The scale of the operations is overwhelming under the harsh fluorescent light, yet the floor is devoid of human voices.

As Hasanat pointed out various labour industry awards in a cabinet, he said: “We provide many facilities, not just the legal ones.” Viyellatex employees receive free lunches, and the leftovers are turned into fertiliser and distributed among farmers in a neighbouring district. Last year, it signed up to the United Nations Global Compact, and the company is offsetting its carbon emissions by planting six million trees in the northern region of Sylhet.

In fact, the UN was so impressed with Viyellatex’s efforts to support a “green economy” that Hasanat was invited to make an address on the subject at the UN’s Private Sector Forum as part of the summit on Millennium Development Goals in New York last weekend. Hasanat used the opportunity to bemoan the fact that his government provides no incentives for Bangladeshi companies to adopt eco-friendly practices.

And along with complying with the 112 days stipulated for maternity leave, Viyellatex also provides free medical assistance at work, an antenatal clinic and childcare facilities. Such initiatives are in stark contrast with the situation Nadiya, 21, faces. She pointed to her swollen belly as she stood on the street in Tejgaon and said she is certain she’ll be sacked from the factory she works in when she gives birth.

Hasanat believes the widespread exploitation is the result of the “conventional mindsets” of factory owners. He said: “There is no word for sustainability in their dictionary. Profit today – that is their target.”

He also complained that few people are aware that Bangladesh is the world’s second largest clothing producer and that it is consequently “globally underrated”. He said: “After China, we are the only country with the capability. Cambodia is small and cannot compete with us and Indonesia is not so competitive.” He believes that if it were mandatory for a “made in” label to be used when supplying to EU countries, Bangladesh would have the standing it deserves. He formerly supplied garments to a high-end Italian brand. During a visit to Hong Kong, he recognised his products selling at a very high price. “The label said that the clothes were made in Italy,” he noted dryly.

Hasanat acknowledges that buyers have been concerned by the unrest, but emphasised that only 5% – about 100,000 workers – took part. He appears confident that the sector will continue to flourish, and many certainly hope that other factories will follow in his business model’s footsteps.

Aasha, 22, has other things on her mind. She started working in Tejgaon a month ago after leaving her home village but is finding it difficult to adjust to the physical demands of the work. “There was nothing else for me to do,” she said. “I am a woman so I cannot pull a rickshaw.”

Aasha will receive 20p for each of the three hours’ overtime she just worked. “The worst part of my job is standing all day. But really, the whole thing is bad to me. I just have to do it.”