Once again, the issue of a minimum wage for garment workers is front and centre. But tucked away amidst all the blaring headlines about garment workers demonstrating for a hike in the minimum wage and the attendant chaos on the streets and hand-wringing as to what will become of our cash cow RMG industry, there is another story that should have also grabbed our attention.
This is the story of Aduri, an 11-year-old girl, who had been working as a domestic worker for ten months, during which she had to endure unimaginable abuse, and who was found in a dustbin, where she had been dumped and left for dead, her starved and emaciated body bearing shocking evidence of the torture that she had suffered at the hands of her employers.
We need to understand that the issue of workers’ rights and conditions goes far beyond the garment industry. Singling out the garment industry for scorn and sanctions, while ignoring the plight of the millions of others who toil equally thanklessly in other industries or in our homes in even worse conditions may be satisfying, but in the end amounts to little more than moral grandstanding.
Don’t get me wrong. There is no question that the existing minimum wage in the garment industry needs to be raised, and, indeed, it is not merely a question of wages. As the recent tragedies in Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions have made abundantly clear, working conditions and worker safety are no less pressing concerns.
Bangladesh has been operating in the bargain basement for far too long, and while I am not unsympathetic to the claims made by factory owners that low wages are the only competitive advantage we have in Bangladesh, it is clear that a model based on winning the race to the bottom is no longer likely to be a sustainable business model in the foreseeable future.
I’m sorry to say, but RMG factory owners are simply not the most credible of sources when they claim that anything above a 20% raise will force them to shutter operations and send millions into the street. I recall similar protestations in the run up to the last minimum wage hike in 2010, and BGMEA has not provided any credible evidence that that the minimum wage hike had the ruinous impact that they predicted.
Similarly, there is persuasive evidence that wages in the garment industry are low compared to wages in other comparative industries.
However, it is also fair to say that simply mandating a doubling of the minimum wage is no solution, either. Any hike in the minimum wage does need to take into account the impact it would have on the health of the industry as a whole, and we can all surely agree that the last thing that we would like to see is for factories to be closed down and jobs to be lost.
But what does all this have to do with Aduri, now fortunately recovering in hospital? It has everything to do with her. While we do have minimum wages in many industries and even in the service sector, the one sector in Bangladesh that is conspicuously absented from having to adhere to minimum wages or decent working conditions, and even in reality is exempt from child labour laws, is domestic service.
If we truly believe that workers deserve a living wage and decent working conditions and that children should be in school and not working, then we need to start at home. The most underpaid and worst treated workers in Bangladesh work inside our homes. Compared to the way most employers treat their domestic workers, and the conditions of indignity in which they are forced to work, garment factories are paragons of decency.
Domestic service is at the bottom of the employment food chain. It is not just a question of the low salaries we think it is acceptable to pay maids and cleaners, but the lack of dignity in how they are often treated, and the apparent belief that employers should be exempt from the rules and responsibilities we demand of employers outside the home.
Not every domestic worker is Aduri, but there is enough routine abuse in the profession to give us all pause. It doesn’t take much to imagine the grimness of the existence that many girls her age and even younger eke out in the cities, working their fingers to the bone, all day and all night, for scraps of food and the right to sleep on the kitchen floor. These young girls are at least as much in need of legal protection from exploitation as any industrial worker.
If we enact and implement laws for the protection of domestic workers, including minimum wage laws, then this will have a knock on effect in all other industries. If we raise the floor, and domestic work is the floor, make no mistake about it, then we make things better for everyone. All other low-skilled industries would have to raise their wages in order to compete for workers.
In fact, if we had mandated better pay and minimum standards for domestic workers, we most likely would not be having this national conversation about garment worker wages in the first place. The problem would have taken care of itself.