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Style ->'The Guilty Garment': A look at the multi million pound clothes industry

'The Guilty Garment': A look at the multi million pound clothes industry
By the Asian Foundation for Philanthropy (AFP), 11 December 2008

Shahida SarkarThe garment industry has, in recent years, become vital to the economic development of Bangladesh, providing millions of dollars in foreign exchange earnings (accounting for 80% of total exports) and providing 2 million, mainly women, workers with a vital source of income. On one hand the industry has enabled an increasing number of women with opportunity to earn an income and gain independence, but there is also a dark side. Bangladeshi garment workers, producing for big high street clothes companies, are earning poverty wages, working long hours and face serious risks to their health.

Shahida Sarkar and Abida Begum were invited to talk at Development House on Thursday the 11th of December 2008. Held collaboratively by Asian Foundation for Philanthropy (AFP), BRAC UK, Labour Behind the Label and No Sweat, the talk was an opportunity for attendees to hear first hand about what goes on ‘behind the scenes’. Shahida’s Story (translated by Salma Islam)

Shahida's Story

Shahida SarkarI am 38 years old. After losing my father in my late teens, I moved to Dhaka and worked in the garment industry for three years, and then became part of the union in1996. The purpose for us to come out on this tour in Germany and UK is to raise awareness about problems of buyers. There are 4500 garment factories, with 2.5 million workers out of which 85% are women. Most of the workers come from the villages and are unaware of their rights. Trade unions such as mine (National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) are making workers aware of their rights. It has been very difficult to unionise workers due to the working hours and if they are found out, they will be fired from their jobs.

It is very important for workers to unionise because of the problems they face such as working conditions and pressure – most workers only have a working life of ten years. This is usually due to the terrible working conditions that result in illness. This takes its toll after a few years. Wages are not enough to live on, due to inflation etc. Workers are also forced to live in bad slum areas and oftentimes these are situated far from the city. This means many have to take the bus which they cannot afford so resort to walking.

However, this is a big safety concern as it is mainly women who sometimes have to walk for two hours late at night. Buyers force factory owners to complete a shipment and if it is not delivered on time, it is cancelled. This “We are not concerned if buyers and suppliers keep their profits, but they should take responsibility for their workers” – Shahida Sarkar means that workers don’t get paid either, therefore there is always increased pressure to complete garments in a particular time, and to a particular quality.

There is also a lot of competition from other countries such as India, Cambodia, China etc, and buyers often threaten factory workers that if they don’t deliver, there are other countries that can. The trend has been to increase profit while reducing production costs. This has meant that suppliers get rid of highly skilled workers as they cost more in favour of less skilled and lowly paid workers. There are 31 trade unions, but as there is currently a state of emergency, trade unions have been banned. NGWF however has been successful in its minimum wage campaign, where it took twelve years for wages to be increased from equivalent of £10 to £12-£13 a month.

However, this is far below the absolute minimum that people need to survive (£30). As a union, we are not concerned if buyers and suppliers keep their profits, but they should take responsibility for their workers, and give enough time to do work, and to do this on a decent wage.

Abida (Shuma)’s Story (translated by Salma Islam)

Abida BegumI am 24 years Old. I have been working in the garment industry since the age of 13. Recently my husband was killed in a factory fire and since that I cannot support my family, my two year old son lives with my parents. I go to work at 8 a.m. and work till 10 p.m. Usually I only get 15 minutes to eat, sometimes I am not allowed to take any breaks. The conditions of the factory I work in are very poor, but we are always under pressure to produce more and more garments in a faster time, and with the same level of quality. We hardly get to go to the toilet, as this is considered counter productive. Often water is not available or allowed, and if it is, it is of very poor quality. This leads to other illnesses such as typhoid, diarrhoea, dysentery, basically almost all the people in my factory are unwell.

My salary is supposed to come through on the 7th of each month, but usually I receive it on the 10th, and many times, I do not get my overtime pay or I am paid it very late. My salary is 2900 BDT (equivalent to less than £25 a month), and the maximum I will be paid is less than £40, but that is only if I do enough overtime. No woman worker is allowed to take maternity leave, if she leaves she has lost her job, and has to rejoin from the lowest position even if she is skilled, and start again on a basic salary.

The lights in the factory are extremely bright and the windows are very small. This makes it very hot, like a pressure cooker, but we are not allowed to drink water, and if we do, it’s the poor quality I mentioned before. In other areas of the factory there is not enough light, which affects the eyes badly. A lot of the times the textiles contain hazardous substances but we are not given gloves when we handle them and this seriously damages our hands.

Also, two things that every factory should provide are a canteen and a facility for childcare. However, this is purely for the buyers as we are not allowed to use the canteen to eat, instead having to eat on the stairs, and neither are we allowed to use the childcare facilities. If a buyer comes, we have all been trained to give a positive response about being able to use both.

The Way Forward

Shahida and Shuma’s stories struck a chord with the audience, who represented a cross section of society from researchers in the garment industry, consumers, as well as a few buyers for the top British garment firms. The audience were concerned with what they could do, to make sure this cause can be taken further.

Both Shahida and Shuma stressed that it was not about closing the factories down, but for consumers awareness should be raised that puts pressure on companies to have better working conditions for their workers. They stressed that consumers should not boycott the products, but assist to put pressure on the buyers. The ultimate responsibility rests with the buyers. Consumers can change buyer behaviour by writing to local politicians on the issue, petitioning UK buyers, as well as getting governments of buyer countries to give tax incentives to buyers that meet certain quality standards.

“The conditions in my factory are very poor, and we are always under pressure to produce more and more garments in a faster time, and with the same level of quality…often water is not allowed”- Abida Begum

Labour behind the label ( mentioned their ’Urgent Appeals Campaign’. This case work responds to solidarity from garment workers and their representatives who are persecuted, discriminated against, or lose their jobs because they have tried to organise to improve the conditions in which they work. By taking action on each case, consumers can help bring pressure to bear on the brands, suppliers and governments who have the ability and the responsibility to respect these workers' rights.

Their second campaign on ‘high street fashion’ highlights the issues and changes needed from each major high street retailer. The audience also wanted to know what role the International Labour Organisation has had. Shahida mentioned that ILO tends to work with suppliers not the workers.

The audience suggested the Fairtrade option where women can stay in their villages and become a cooperative. However, Shahida mentioned that many women would prefer to move to the city, as this gives them socio-economic power, they have a greater voice, make an income and are able to go out. In this vein, women are more empowered. The main message is not to keep people close to their villages or to boycott the garment industry, the whole purpose is that workers need better rights, and buyers need to stop putting undue pressure.

The poignant closing point by Shuma hit home for the audience. Shuma took time off to come to Germany and the UK on a one month tour to raise awareness of the issues, but this has been at the expense of her job. She returns to being unemployed in Bangladesh. And because she is a skilled worker, she will take longer to find work as her pay demands will be higher. If you would like to know more about the speakers, the issues or how you can be involved, please email

'The Guilty Garment' Event was held jointly by:
Asian Foundation for Philanthropy (
Labour behind the Label (
No Sweat (


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