Experts: Apparel workers still far from earning a living wage

Monthly income of RMG workers increased by 1.7% in March 2022 while their expenditure increased by 9.5% due to inflation

Apparel workers are far from earning a living wage still, said experts on Wednesday. 

“Workers are not earning a minimum wage while inflation has driven up prices of everything from food, goods and services,” said Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). 

They also called for a new wage board commission at “Debate on recent export growth and decent employment in RMG industry: A UNGP’s perspective,” jointly organized by Christian Aid and Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) at Brac Center in the capital.

In the keynote presentation, CPD Research Director Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem said that the apparel export witnessed high growth last year. 

However, during this period, they found workers were getting minimum wages and not living wages. 

He also mentioned that during a survey, they found that workers were paid Tk11,993 on average, excluding overtime in March 2022, which was 12.5% higher than the same month of the previous year.

Moazzem also said that the growth of a worker’s family income is much lower than the growth of family expenditure.

He further explained that the monthly income of RMG workers increased by 1.7% in March 2022 while their expenditure increased by 9.5% due to inflation

Mohammad Hatem, executive president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), said that it is true that there are currently a number of contractual workers in the RMG sector.

“A number of contractual workers earn more than official workers. So, they are reluctant to go under official employment,” he added.

Regarding trade unions, he said that they have no issues in forming trade unions. Freedom of association exists in the sector.

“We always welcome the actual trade unions which serve the interests of the workers and factories,” he added, saying that day-care centers exist in most factories.

He said that they are also against the establishment of non-compliance factories.

“The sector experiences robust growth but a decline in profit margins as the price of cotton, raw materials, and transportation costs saw abnormal hikes in price,” he added. 

He also said that there are some issues regarding getting fair prices from the brands. 

Shahidullah Azim, vice-president of the BGMEA said that they should work together for a living wage.

“Labour leaders should negotiate with buyers to pay more for a living wage to workers. Otherwise, factory owners will not be able to pay that alone,” he added.

Regarding robust growth in the last few months, he said that government policies and incentives during the pandemic, factories that remained operational during lockdowns while maintaining health guidelines helped them gain this growth.

“There are still many issues in this sector, but also room to work together. We have to work together under global standards,” he added, saying that efficiency and upscaling must be ensured for both women and male workers.

During an open discussion, Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity Executive Director Kalpona Akhter said if they talk about a living wage for workers that should be at least Tk32,000 to Tk40,000, saying that: “We are not getting the minimum wage yet.”

Montu Gosh, president of the Garment Workers Trade Union Center said that workers failed to meet their daily needs, as essential commodities are not within their reach.

He also requested the government to form a new minimum wage commission to rationalize workers’ wages, otherwise, it might create a big challenge for workers. 

During the program, CPD Chairman Professor Rehman Sobhan said that the government should focus on workers' skill development. 

He also suggested taking proper initiatives to take advantage of the US-China conflict. Due to the crisis, many US buyers are shifting from China and Bangladesh should be fully prepared in terms of production and export capacity. 

He is also suggested to take initiative to get a GSP+ facility in the European Union (EU) market after LDC graduation. 

In his speech as the chief guest, Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi said that the RMG sector has excellent growth, but it is yet to be confirmed whether the growth will sustain or not. The growth tendency has already declined.

Regarding trade unions, he said: “Trade union is important and we want it. But the unions' leaders have to understand that their responsibility is to protect worker rights and keep factories operational uninterruptedly,” he added.

He also said that everyone has to work together to make the RMG sector compliant and workers-friendly, saying that the industry is like a bicycle where owners and workers are two wheels.

The RMG sector has success stories but also room for improvement.

“The stakeholders associated with the sector are positive and want development. So, by discussing with all parties, we have to find out problems and the way forward,” he added.

The survey was prepared by CPD Research Director Khondaker Golam Moazzem and Research Assistance Tamim Ahmed while CPD Executive Director Fahmida Khatun presided over the program.