Bangladesh’s Labor Force Narrative Must Change

As COVID-19 continues to cripple the world economy, Bangladesh’s garment industry suffers exponentially. Clothing has been Bangladesh’s key export division and primary source of foreign exchange for the last two decades. However, many claim the country’s mounting dependence on the industry continues to serve as a double-edged sword. Experts say garment work hinders the nation’s wage growth, maintains exploitation of its labour force, and is likely to impede Bangladesh’s goal of becoming a developed country by 2041.

Currently, the average Bangladeshi garment worker earns a measly daily income of approximately $3.5 USD a day. Workers are expected to be paid on a monthly basis, and recent events have factory owners neglecting to pay full wage, or simply refusing to not pay at all. These actions follow recent COVID-19 disruptions in the industry.

Most middle and upper-class Bangladeshis are able to adhere to precautionary measures advised by the government, such as wearing masks and social distancing with ease. Meanwhile, Bangladeshis that live in extreme poverty are unable to follow such guidelines. Garment workers are left especially vulnerable, forced to return to poorly maintained factories under the threat of wage cuts and mass layoffs. For these workers, job uncertainty is a far greater risk than contracting COVID.

COVID has not only warranted a $3.5 billion loss of international orders in Bangladesh’s garment industry, but also halted all means of passenger transportation across the country. As a result, garment workers are expending private transportation fees or walking long distances in excruciating heat. These conditions have prompted garment workers to take to the streets, demanding 100 percent wage and health security during these unprecedented times.

The Bangladeshi government has an extensive history of neglecting the health and safety of its garments’ workers. In recent years however, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has acknowledged both the country’s strong progress and need for further improvement.

Labour activists have long called on the Bangladeshi government to modify its strategy, focusing on developing new industries and decreasing reliance on the textile industry. Experts suggest identifying viable industries, subsidizing them, and paving opportunities for Bangladeshis to partake in. However, all methods are unfeasible if factory owners, multinational corporations (MNCs), and the Bangladeshi government fail to collectively address these concerns. Although the Bangladeshi government has been open to dialogue and made proactive efforts for its workers, this issue is irreparable unless corporations do the same.

Activists demand that corporations stop distancing themselves from the conditions in which their products are made. However, such advice is abandoned amidst the pressure to keep up with fast fashion’s demands: clothing must be quickly and cheaply made in order to follow trends. Well-known brands like Zara, H&M, and BooHoo, for example have initiated intense debate about the role of brands and their responsibility towards their workers. Relying on Bangladesh’s garment industry allows MNCs to create fast fashion at a profit. As a result, large corporations have ignored the exploitation of the labor force in Bangladesh for decades.

MNCs must do better to ensure working conditions are safe. Corporations should have teams observing production on working grounds and should work closely with suppliers to ensure workers are not being exploited. In addition, the Bangladeshi government should settle export prices and honour the rights of workers to join trade unions. Intense police crackdowns on workers’ wage protests are highly discouraged.

The Bangladeshi government and MNCS form a mutually constitutive cycle. Thus, a new narrative cannot be reached unless both sides cooperate in the battle to protect garment workers. The garment industry is the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy, and treating its workers as disposable tools is unconscionable. As COVID continues to compound the pre-existing issues in the Bangladeshi garment industry, it is imperative that proactive measures are adopted on both sides of the producer-retailer divide. Only a collaborative, eager effort between the pair can successfully change the face of Bangladesh’s labor narrative.