IN BANGLADESH, GARMENT WORKERS' PAYDAY NOT A SURE THING
by Syful Islam
American Reporter Correspondent
DHAKA, Bangladesh, Sept. 11, 2004 -- The garment workers of Bangladesh may be the most deprived labor force in the world. Most of are paid only U.S.$14 to U.S.$16 per month, the lowest salary in the world, said Amirul Haq Amin, Coordinator of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Unity Council (BGWUC) on Thursday.
Although buyers from many countries, including the United States , are pressing the government and also garment manufacturers to implement existing labor laws and modernize their garment factories, neither is trying to serve the interests of garment workers, he complained.
Only a few factories here maintain international standards, and most of them do not implement worker health and safety measures, he said.
The American Reporter observed workers being required to work in awkward positions in sweltering factories that do not have fans or air-conditioning. As a result, they often feel uncomfortable during work, leading to mistakes, accidents and high stress.
Due to the current price of essential commodities, few workers can meet the minimum demands of life with $14 or $16 each month.
And even though the salaries are very low, most of the garment factory owners do not pay workers their salaries on time. There are many garment factories in Bangladesh where the workers may not get their paychecks for two to five months after they are due.
As the garment workers do not have appointment letters to use as proof of employment and the government turns a blind eye to their plight, owners of the garment factories can terminate workers at any time without serving any notice, and usually do so without paying them any back salary.
Trade union activities in the garment factories of Bangladesh are now strictly prohibited. Many garment workers lose their jobs because they try to form trade unions. Labor laws are circumvented here with ease.
For instance, according to the labor laws, a worker must get paid by the first week of the month, a law that is ignored in most of the factories.
As for the labor day, an employee may work a maximum of 10 hours a day and 6 days per week, but workers in Bangladesh are work 14 to 16 hours a day and seven days in a week, it was alleged.
About 90 percent of garment workers in Bangladesh are female. Though most work until after dark, there are no safety measures for them and no residential facilities provided. As a result, they frequently feel insecure, and for good reason: many garment workers are raped and abused by criminals who make a specialty of preying on them.
Garment workers in Bangladesh usually do not get appointment letters, identity cards or service books (as time cards are called here). Most of get no weekly, maternity or other legal leaves.
They do not get tips, pensions or life insurance, and after retirement, many garment workers have to go back home without any money at all in hand.
Currently, Bangladesh has 3,700 garment factories that emply 1.8 million people. Of those workers, 85 to 90 percent are women. Trade unionists fear that almost 1 million garment workers would become unemployed after a quota system that helped Bangladesh garment industry to strength its position is ended.
Moimuna Khatun, 16, a girl from Barishal, a city in the southern part of the country, is working in a factory in the capital. She said that she was hired at the factory on January 1, 2004. She received Tk800, or U.S.$16.29, as salary on February 25. As a result, she is owed a salary of 25 days every month by the factory owner.
"The factory owner do not gave me appointment letter though about eight months have already passed," she alleged. Hamid Miah, 45, a garment worker, said that most of the workers who leave garment factories fail to realize their past due pay from the owners. "Factory owners hardly pay the salary," he complained.
While visiting some garment factories in the city, the American Reporter observed that most of the garment workers were sweating and uncomfortable due to the hot temperatures. Workers, especially female workers, alleged that although there were physicians in some of the factories there was hardly good treatment or medicine there.
"We are not safe both inside the factories and also outside," a female worker alleged. The female workers alleged that they were sexually harassed by their colleagues and superiors and by criminals outside the factories. Those who do get paid must worry about getting robbed of their meager salaries by the same people, too.
When contacted by The American Reporter, Annisul Huq, the president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) told this correspondent that the manufacturers were trying to implement the criteria required by the labor laws.
He also said that international buyers buy products from those garment manufacturers which meet the international standard. Before placing their orders, they examines compliance with the standard and only then place orders, he said.
"We have already met some criteria which are now mandatory for garment factories," he observed. He admitted, however, that some of the factories might evade the laws and that those will be closely monitored.