Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Network

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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Network (BWSN)?

A: We are Bangladeshi-Americans and other residents in the Boston area concerned about the lack of workers rights and safety in the garments industry in Bangladesh. 

We believe that in the race to obtain the highest possible profit, Western companies and overseas factory owners require production to be at the lowest cost possible, at great cost to the lives of the workers.  This is neither necessary nor justifiable and, is made possible by the repression of the workers by the state, including the denial of their right of collective negotiations or unions.

Q: What is the goal of BWSN?

A: We want to amplify the demands of the workers in Bangladesh.  We believe that laws and corresponding shift in social attitudes are necessary to ensure the dignity of garment workers as citizens of Bangladesh. 

Q: What is the primary demand of workers in the garment industry?

A: A living wage and the right to work with dignity.

Wages are not indexed to inflation.  What is touted as "increase" is of far less value in current value.  Workers should not have to be demonstrating en masse on the streets each time the minimum wage, ridiculously low to begin with, needs to be adjusted to keep up with inflation.

The absolute value of the minimum wage has been:

1994 - $15/month (BDT 950)       - First minimum wage determination

2006 - $24/month (BDT 1662.50) - Second minimum wage determination, after a gap of 12 years

2010 - $43/month (BDT 3,371)    - Workers demand was for $72/month (BDT 5,000)

The 2010 figures compare with the minimum wage of  $116 in Pakistan, and $92 in Sri Lanka.

September 2013 saw another wave of strikes with the demand for a minimum wage of $100.  As many as 200,000 came out on the streets, and the police and state militia fired tear gas and rubber bullets on the workers.  The outcome is not determined as of this writing.

The $100/month/worker demand is  the minimum cost of food for a 2300 calories diet/person.  It is about half the living wage (at least $200).

Q:  Garments industries are vital to the economy of Bangladesh.  Do not initiatives to support workers raise labor costs that will turn buyers away from Bangladesh and in turn harm the very workers you seek to help?

A: Economists estimate that the asked for increase in the minimum wages represent:

• an inconsequential decrease in profits for Western retailers, should they absorb the full increase, as they typically enjoy 75% profit on the items manufactured in Bangladeshi factories

• insignificant rise to the cost of a garment product for consumers in the west, should the full cost be passed to the consumer. As a study by Asia Floor Wages show, “The labor cost in India and Bangladesh works out to a mere $0.64 on a shirt priced at $22.50. The cost to the brand would go up be just $0.64 if wages are doubled.”

• 25% decrease in the Bangladesh factory owner’s profit, should they be the ones to absorb the full impact.

A rationale often given by factory owners in Bangladesh for not raising the wage is that such an increase would cost their factories out of Bangladesh. This is false given that the minimum wage in nearby competing countries such as India and Vietnam are currently more than twice that of Bangladesh.

Again, in addition to wages being below poverty level, the workers' wages are not indexed to inflation. This is a serious injustice in a country with runaway increases in the cost of living.

Q:  Why are workers powerless in Bangladesh to raise wages even in such modest amount?

A:  A complex of factors are responsible.  On the one hand, labor is in greater supply than demand,  there is lack of alternative employment, and the Bangladesh government, regardless of which party is in power, gives their support to the factory owners, including maintaining an Industrial Police explicitly for keeping "order" in the factories.  On the other hand the buyer corporations abroad, such as Walmart or GAP, require the factories overseas to keep their costs to the minimum by the threat that they can move their sites to yet other countries and factories where cost is lower.

After the advent of globalization as the international garments industry moved to Bangladesh, no unions have been allowed in the factories.  Although such unions have been made lawful by parliament after the Rana Factory Collapse of April 25, 2013, it is unlikely to herald a major change soon. Attempts to protest or negotiate for workers have been met with repression by the state apparatus and goons employed by factory owners.  There has been numerous deaths in custody and deaths from clashes on the street between spontaneous workers demonstrations and the police forces. 

Q:  We have heard about the Fire and Safety Accord.  What is it?

A:   It is an agreement that companies in the western countries like Primark in the UK or Walmart in the US would sign as a commitment to ensure safer working conditions to garment workers in Bangladesh.  It provides for fire inspections, fire safety training and building and safety improvements for garment facilities in Bangladesh.  Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord PDF May 13 2013 version

Q: Who initiated it?

A: The Switzerland-based UNI Global Union (UNIGU) and IndustriALL Global Union (IAGU), backed by prominent European and US-based non-government organizations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Workers Rights Consortium.  IndustriAll and Uni Global Union are worldwide federations of retail and service workers in hundreds of countries.   These federations came about as the workplace became global from the 1990s.  They have the stated goal of gaining recognition and negotiate global agreements with dominant multinational companies.   ( Ref: http://www.industriall-union.org/global-brands-pull-together-on-bangladesh-safety-deal  and http://www.uniglobalunion.org/Apps/uni.nsf/pages/homepageEn  )

Q: If implemented, who would fund the accord?

The fund for the maintenance of the safety program itself will be created  with each signatory to contribute up to $US500,000 a year, depending on their production volumes. 

Q: Who would fund the factory building upgrades?

The funds for the repairs or improvements of the factories would come from a variety of sources including loans and the raising of the prices paid to garments factories.

Q: What are the main objections to the accord?

A: The US retailers oppose the plan as it as legally binding for the signatories in their home countries.  According to GAP's spokesperson, the plan's "contractual nature could impose large legal obligations". 

Q: What is the position of BWSN towards the accord?

This is a helpful goal.  For the first time, this goal has brought into focus the responsibility of the western retailers for their overseas factories.  However the primary demand of the workers is to have a livable wage, above the current average of about $40 a month.

Q:  What more can people do in the US to help besides supporting the accord?

A:   The first step is to understand the overall nature of globalization and the alliance between multi-national corporations of the west and the government and factory owners overseas.  From that point an individual or a group may resolve specific courses of action available that may include direct communication and support to workers groups worldwide.  The international aspect of the exploitation and the link to workers lives worldwide must be emphasized. 

Q: What are some of the actions BWSN has supported in the US?

A: We have organized vigils to mark tragedies such as the Tazreen Fire and the Rana Collapse, hosted speakers like Pro. Anu Mohammad, organized pickets in front of GAP stores urging them to sign the accord, raised money for victims of the tragedies, as well as taken part in local struggles for peace and justice worldwide.  We continually seek to work in solidarity with all workers worldwide.

Q: What is the GAP/Walmart alternative?

A:  GAP and Walmart are among the major US companies who have not signed the Accord noted above.  Instead they have brought out their own plan, referred to as the "Alliance".  This is a weaker plan that bears less financial responsibility, has less oversight and is not legally enforceable.  Please see the chart for more information.