Garment exports thrive on dirt wages

Dhaka, September 29:

Bangladesh’s garment industry may have survived the quota-free global trade regime but the eight billion dollar profit it posted in the last fiscal year ending June, was built on the backs of two million workers barely able to keep body and soul together on dirt wages.

Against predictions by international lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that Bangladesh’s garment industry could shrink by 30 per cent after the quota regime ended in January 2005, exports actually showed a 24 per cent increase thanks to the highly competitive prices on finished products offered by manufacturers.

But by May end severe labour unrest had gripped the Export Promotion Zones (EPZs) around the capital city, compelling the government to intervene and set up a wage commission in which factory owners and workers were represented.

On September 12, a divided commission came up with wages for seven grades of employment, to be implemented over the next three years.

But the owners have rejected the new wages saying these are too high for the sustenance of

the industry.

Equally, the workers find the proposed wages too little for subsistence. The situation continues to remain tense, with sporadic demonstrations by the workers, strong words at owners’ meetings and messages from the government in support of the commission’s proposals.

One mid-September evening, with debates on the wage commission’s proposals raging, Tania, a garment worker sat before her bowl of rice and curry made from chicken claws in a dingy Dhaka slum. ‘’The rich people eat chicken legs, and we occasionally get to eat the claws

and even that is expensive for my family of seven,’’ Tania’s mother Rahima explained to IPS between embarrassed smiles. Tania and her sister, both teenagers, are helpers in a T-shirt factory.

The minimum wage proposed for this year is Taka 1604 ($24). The third year will raise it to $31 for helpers. The existing monthly minimum wage of Taka 930 ($14) was fixed by the government in 1994 against the newly proposed Taka 3000 ($45).

Shabnam Hafiz, leader of a garment workers’ association, puts it succinctly: ‘’We only want enough to feed and take care of other essential needs for a family of four.’’

Owners say the minimum wage is given during the first year of ‘internship’, and that after that period a worker can bargain for more. But realities are different. Halima, an operator in a shirt factory, has a monthly gross wage of Taka 1700 ($25), but her factory does not issue

a regular attendance card that records hours of actual work.

‘’They cheat you,’’ says Halima. ‘’I work well over 100 hours overtime but get just about Taka 500 (eight dollars) for that.’’

She usually works seven 13-hour days a week. Night duty is frequent and a pittance is added as special allowance. She is fined Taka 100 ($1.5) if absent for a day or is late for three cumulative days.

The latest proposed wage this year for the highest grade is $80 dollars and $90 in the third year. Anisul Huq, the owners’ representative on the wage commission, told IPS that acceptance of such a wage structure would result in many of the factories shutting down.