Bangladesh: Is there scope for a living wage?
While in the wake of the four-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, everyone has been busy looking at building, fire and general workplace safety in garment factories in Bangladesh - which is a very good thing indeed - one major influence on workers' lives has not been getting as much attention as it should: wages. With a national minimum wage of 35 US dollars a month and monthly wages for garment workers at 61 US dollars (or 68 US dollars, depending on the source), Bangladesh still has a long way to go till living wage.
As the shocking illustration above shows, it takes a garment worker 18 months to earn what the CEO of a fashion brand makes on his or her lunch break. This comparison was gathered as part of "The Garment Worker Diaries", a year-long research project led by Microfinance Opportunities in collaboration with Fashion Revolution and supported by C&A Foundation. The project collects data on the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia and India and is a little more than half way through.
Unfortunately, for now in Bangladesh, there seems to be little room to grow as the groups on either end of the spectrum are at loggerheads: while apparel workers and unions point to the measly wages and long working hours that make workers' lives tough and unhealthy, factory owners and industry bodies like the BGMEA counter with their favourite scare: buyers and orders moving away to even cheaper countries like Ethiopia should wages be raised in Bangladesh.
Are buyers going to leave Bangladesh should wages increase?
However, buyers will not move away overnight, especially not from a powerful textile and apparel producing country like Bangladesh. The reasons are many: Firstly, apart from China and India, there is no other country that can supply a ready, eager and young workforce in the millions. Secondly, let's face it, there are currently not many countries that have lower wages in the garment sector than Bangladesh; regional neighbours on the lower end like Sri Lanka and Myanmar are already at about 88 US dollars per month and Vietnam, Pakistan and India above that.
Thirdly, Bangladesh has established textile and garment centers with infrastructure and supplier networks that have been created over many years. An up-and-coming (and cheap) garment-producing country like Ethiopia could not replicate this easily and certainly not overnight. Thus, any buyers thinking about jumping production countries would weigh the pros and cons carefully.
Fourthly, let's look at China again. Here, wages have actually risen quite a bit over the last few years; they have tripled in the last ten years. In fact, China is close to a living wage at this point with an average of 239 US dollars per month. Compare that to Bangladesh's 61 (or 68) US dollars per month - still far from it. Plus, wages in China did not increase drastically but step-by-step; the same would be true in Bangladesh.
Which would fifthly, give manufacturers enough time to have a heart-to-heart with their international buyers, well-known apparel brands and retailers that could sure do with a bit of positive publicity, to support them in their quest for living wages for their workers. After all, with customers becoming more inquisitive and caring as to where their clothes were made (and thus factoring it into their buying decision), which brand or retailer would not like to be first one to contract a factory in Bangladesh that pays a living wage or makes sure their workers are well taken care of?
Which brings us to the next consideration: If factory owners are reluctant to raise wages, there are many other ways in which they can help: Why not provide workers who have been with the factory for a while with food rations? Rice, vegetables and pulses are cheaper in bulk and would really improve workers' diets. Also, health insurance. Why not tie up with a big provider and offer free or subsidised health care for workers and their families?
There are many ways in which factory owners and international buyers can help - and should help, if not for humanitarian reasons than for economic ones. After all, happy and healthy workers and their families are better and more efficient workers with fewer days of sick leave and home emergencies. Plus, they would be reluctant to leave a job where they are happy and feel cared for, thus preventing the exodus of skills and factory-specific knowledge as well.
And this is where projects like "The Garment Worker Diaries" come in - Fashion Revolution will use the findings gathered from observing the lives of garment workers in various developing countries to "advocate for changes in consumer and corporate behavior and policy changes that improve the living and working conditions of garment workers everywhere".
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