Bangladesh is changing so rapidly – I see this every time I visit. Growth rates are at about 7% a year and it is now one of the countries identified by Goldman Sachs investment bank as ‘The Next Eleven’ (or N-11) - countries who have the potential, along with the BRICS, to become the worlds largest economies in the 21st century. (The others are Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Turkey, and Vietnam).
But there is a guilty secret at the heart of the booming economy. The garment industry is responsible for 78% of Bangladesh’s economy and the majority of workers are women. The garment factories occupy huge areas of the capital Dhaka, as well as the export processing zones in the south of the country, and the goods travel to all corners of the world, not least the British High Street.
Women in these factories earn around £1 per day producing an incredible 120 pairs of trousers an hour and 50 shirts a day. Believe it or not, this wage rate is double what workers were paid a year or so ago, before the government and manufacturers agreed to increase the minimum wage after unions and workers took to the streets and violent protests erupted.
I travelled with CARE International UK to see how CARE has been working with a handful of international companies including GAP, Timberland and Walmart to empower female workers through education and leadership training.
, Labour Shadow Minister for International Development visited garment workers in Bangladesh with CARE International UK. The garment workers are receiving education and leadership training with the help of CARE Bangladesh. In this film she explains what role she thinks big business has to play in development and urges UK companies to adopt more ambitious and comprehensive approaches to pro poor business.
I wanted to find out how private sector companies can support development, what their role is and what it could be. There has been a lot of coverage over the years about factory conditions, but meaningful action that addresses worker rights as part of company’s core business models remains patchy.
Companies need to pool their resources to address worker conditions - not only do they have a lot to gain in productivity but also in terms of image and brand, which is as much about how they treat their employees as the kind goods they produce.
During an evening class with female garment worker in the slums of Dhaka, I met a number of young migrants who relished the opportunities they got from the classes. Their new skills were ensuring not only that they could read the numbers and cutting patterns they were required to follow (which means less mistakes and re-runs at the factories, saving them money) but they were also able to secure better pay through increasing their skills and moving up the ladder.
Small scale initiatives like those I saw seem to show real benefit. The challenge for the private sector is to build on this work and help to spread them – work with local partners and NGOs to ensure a dignified life for the millions of workers not yet reached.
These women are the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy with somewhere between 15 to 20 million people indirectly depending on their income. If the high growth rates being experienced in Bangladesh are to really benefit the poor and bring about the wider changes in stability and governance that Bangladesh urgently needs, then national and international companies must focus on ensuring their business models both make a profit and provide a social benefit. The companies involved in CARE’s efforts are clearly seeing the benefits of this type of approach. It's time for more UK companies to adopt these more inclusive models to prove that business really can work for poor people.
Rushanara Ali is Labour Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow, House of Commons, UK
Thanks for your article Rushanara.
Clothing manufacturing around the world is riddled with abuse and it sounds like it is especially bad in Bangladesh. It sounds like CARE has done a great job of educating manufacturers on the benefits of taking care of its workers, an important step.
Another important action is educating consumers on how to vote with their dollars. It can be difficult when goods made by underpaid Bangladeshi workers are priced the same as those made in the US. An easy first step is for consumers to buy clothing made by companies known for treating their workers ethically. It doesn’t solve the problem, but does show other manufacturers there is good financial reason to treat workers well.
It is a very interesting topic you raise and it is clear that more and more people care about world justice in the clothes they wear and hope that their shopping choices do not increase poverty.
I hope you will get a chance to visit my sister-in-law, Safia Minney MBE, operating People Tree UK (http://www.peopletree.co.uk) from a site off Heneage Street, off Brick Lane. They have built their model over 20 years in Japan and UK and have worked closely with producer groups in many emerging countries, including Bangladesh. They go a stage further, in that many of their producer partners are democratic organizations working with very disadvantaged communities. Over the years through mutual learning and development, the producers’ skills, materials and capacities have improved to the point where they are prized in High Street fashion, and at the same time traditional handskills such as weaving and embroidery inform the fashion clothes and attract top designers to work with People Tree, producing beautiful clothes.
Thanks for sharing this interesting article.
I do agree that we need to educate consumers as multinational companies are becoming more sensitive to the market’s request for good, ethical and healthy products. However not all the world market is responding the same way; unfortunately we are dealing with the majority of consumers, both from the emerging economies and from ‘crisis’ economies, who look for nice things at a cheaper price withouth questioning their origin. So how to convince the majority of the consumers to become more responsible?
And on another note, how can we convince the multinational companies (the big names of Fashion) to also take responsibility over the ‘sub-contractors’, which in most of the case do not abide by any social or environamental compliance standards?
I welcome actions such as those of CARE but we need a more concerted effort to address the situation, engaging all sectors of the society from the (host) Government to the international community operating in a specific country and re-alligning their strategies to achieve the same goal.
I’m working for a small NGO that promotes responsible business in Bangladesh and so I read your post with great interest.
Last month I visited a garments factory recognized for its social and environmental programmes and found it fascinating to see simple thread transform into clothes complete with logos of popular UK brands. I have often read about companies that promote sustainable supply chains and inclusive business but it was difficult to fully understand and appreciate what these terms mean in practice.
In contrast to what I suspect is the norm here, employees have access to skills-based training, HR benefits, a medical centre and crèche, thereby improving their economic and social well-being but also improving productivity and profitability for the company.
Given the importance of the garments sector in Bangladesh and figures you quoted, I can only imagine the potential impact workers, and women in particular, can have on their immediate families and the wider community.
First of all, great article!
@Nika Salvetti, I agree with you that there needs to be ways to convince the mainstream companies to source their materials responsibly. An approach that I like very much is by Triodos Bank. They invest only in responsible companies and through that try to motivate other to become responsible as well. They screen them, and if the companies are interested, help them to improve their CSR standards (this includes also sourcing of materials, procedures, etc.).
They also publish names of companies which they screen and approved and I use that to be able to select clothes from the more responsible companies (you can find it here: http://www.triodos.com/en/about-triodos-bank/what-we-do/sri-strateg…). H&M is for example also in.