The emperor’s clothes for a pauper’s pay

Our RMG industry has a wage problem

In August last year, Bangladeshi labour union Garments Sramik Front organized a protest demonstration in Dhaka, demanding Tk20,000 as the national minimum wage and Tk24,000 as the lowest monthly wage for garment workers over the high cost of living arising from high increments. It also demanded expensive allowances for the interim period and percentages at subsidized rates for workers.

The Garments Sramik Front and the Garment Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad had in 2018 demanded Tk18,000 as the minimum wage. Though Tk8,000 was announced as the minimum wage, they ignored their demands. Then, the trade union leaders said that, as the value of the wages of garment workers has split, workers are struggling to survive due to malnutrition. At that time, they demanded an end to the misuse of section 13 (1) of the labour law to end the pressure on workers.

Sub-section 45, section 2 of the labour law has defined wages, in which cases the remuneration will be payable and taken into consideration to stimulate the wages. 

More often, the law has been violated by the owners of the garment factories or by the responsible authorities. The saddest truth here is that policy-makers usually do not take action on this sensitive issue, choosing to play a silent role instead.

Labour laws, policies, and rules may govern working conditions, wages, and fire safety. Many of these were included in our regulations after the Rana Plaza tragedy. However, enforcement can definitely be better as there should be more inspectors, and there is a high likelihood that officials would be found corrupt. 

However, progress in boosting union representation in Bangladesh and other supply nations could be faster. Because some governments and business owners view activists as a threat, union leaders and members may get intimidated.

Retailers have traditionally tried to pick out poor manufacturing with regular inspections by their staff of qualified, ethical auditors when local regulation and union participation is weak. Because of poor union recognition and retribution fears, workers may need help to bring issues to their attention.

And for having no other way, they start protesting for their rights which the laws have already guaranteed them … on paper.

Protesting workers are commonly accused of causing "unrest." However, do these acts of unrest call for live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas, or even pellet guns pointed directly at the workers? Why shouldn't law enforcement be responsible for ensuring that workers' needs are not disregarded by businesses making money off of their labour if they are required to "maintain the peace"? Have law enforcement officials been persuaded to choose a side even before learning the true nature of the conflict?

Most often, demands are made for holidays, weekends, reasonable work hours, or the payment of wages that have already been due rather than simply for fairer wages.

In 2020, when the Covid pandemic hit the world, Western buyers started to cancel shipments indiscriminately.  According to Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Exporters Association statistics, a total of $3.18 billion orders were on hold. And many garment owners actively promoted this issue as an excuse for not being able to pay wages on time or the lack of fairer wages. 

But why should fair wages, holidays, weekends, reasonable work hours, or the payment of wages still be impossible dreams for many RMG employees in a country that has seen positive GDP growth rates even during the pandemic?

An article published on December 29, 2022 in the Economic Times stated that India is considering shifting from minimum to living wages to pull millions of people out of poverty. The move could be a game changer for the country as it strives to meet its Sustainable Development Goal commitment of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.

Considering the current situation of the country, the government of Bangladesh can also consider adopting a similar policy of shifting from minimum to living wages. The fundamental concept of a living wage is fair. Indeed, it would be ideal if everyone lived in a particular way. However, we must ensure that the calculation is reasonable for living.

Plus, under their responsibility, every RMG factory must have respect for profit and the protection of worker and, indeed, human rights. If these have been considered, Bangladesh's RMS sector is close to becoming an example for the world.

Md Fahmedul Islam Dewan is an alumni of the DLA Piper Scholarship.