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‘They slap us to force us to work': Why the Bangladeshi garment industry is still in a COVID crisis

Female garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Female garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh.   -   Copyright  MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP or licensors
By Frankie Leach

Women working in the Bangladesh garment industry have borne the brunt of the devastating impacts of the COVID health crisis, according to new findings.

A study published today by researchers at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and trade justice charity Traidcraft Exchange UK, unearths the truth around who is being hit hardest by the pandemic.

The research reveals the repercussions of COVID-19 and consequent actions taken by Western retailers - such as cancelling orders, refusal to pay for work in progress and demands for discounted prices.

It also shows how vulnerable women workers have been disproportionately affected by rising levels of gender violence, abuse and economic hardship.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP or licensors
Workers from the garment sector block a road during a protest to demand payment of due wages, in Dhaka.MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP or licensors

‘They physically abuse us’

Shocking findings also showed an increase in sexual and verbal abuse and symbolic violence mainly from line supervisors pushing women to work faster to meet unrealistic production targets. The research found a surge in intimidation and threats, physical and sexual violence, and restriction of movement of garment workers in factories across the region.

“There are many things I dislike about the factory. The one I most dislike is the rude scolding and shouting of the supervisors. They physically abuse us by hitting or slapping us. They slap us to force us to work,” says a female RMG factory worker.

“The part that was alarming was that among female workers, pregnant women were sacked from their job because they were entitled to maternity benefits. The elderly female workers who had served more than five years were also sacked because they were entitled to service benefits, they were sacked,” adds one trade union leader.

There are many things I dislike about the factory. The one I most dislike is the rude scolding and shouting of the supervisors. They physically abuse us by hitting or slapping us.
Female factory worker

“The majority of workers in the RMG industry in Bangladesh are women who are young, poorly educated and from rural areas with few alternative employment options. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation,” says project lead Muhammad Azizul Islam, Professor in Sustainability Accounting and Transparency at the University of Aberdeen Business School.

Legal protection for women workers meanwhile is limited, as are the grievance mechanisms in place. Those which do exist were said to be often disregarded with impunity by many factory owners and managers.

“During pandemic time, workers could not afford to be sacked. These devastating impacts were heightened and, in some cases, directly caused by retailers and brands selling into the UK and other markets in the Global North.”

The in-depth research saw face to face interviews carried out with female and male garment workers, factory managers, industry leaders and trade unions over the course of eight months between November 2020 and July 2021. The interviews were conducted alongside discussions with a number of development agencies and international advocacy NGOs.

It found that some employers refused to let workers return after lockdown.

Most who did return said they had been forced to sign new contracts, losing access to benefits and protection they had previously accrued.

The RMG industry is the mainstay of the Bangladesh economy, accounting for 85 per cent of export earnings, about 20 per cent of GDP and directly employing about four million workers, with more than 12 million people in total dependent on the sector.

Slipping through the cracks

Although most RMG factories in Bangladesh are signed up to the international frameworks for promoting gender equality, including in employment, researchers found there are significant gaps in the labour laws. Even when international frameworks have been incorporated into domestic law, they are disregarded by many employers and rarely enforced.

Compliance audits in factories carried out by companies were found to be largely ineffective, with around 20 per cent of social compliance auditors not including women's equal rights issues in their audits, and 40 per cent not auditing the right to trade union recognition.

“UK retailers and brands should consider only sourcing products from suppliers with policies and mechanisms in place that protect workers’ rights and address gender harassment, abuse and gender discrimination. They should also require independent audits, covering both manufacturers and sub-contractors, to include this as a priority,” adds Professor Islam.

UK retailers and brands should consider only sourcing products from suppliers with policies and mechanisms in place that protect workers’ rights and address gender harassment.
Professor Azizul Islam

Fiona Gooch, senior private sector policy advisor with Traidcraft Exchange UK says that UK fashion brands’ purchasing practices are among the most abusive and least regulated in the world.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP or licensors
Bangladeshi garment workers shout slogans as they block a road during a demonstration to demand higher wages, in Dhaka.MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP or licensors

“A key recommendation in this report is that the UK set up a fashion watchdog to stop abusive practices in their supply chains. This would help protect garment workers in Bangladesh and other countries, including the UK, from having to risk working in abusive and unsafe situations, where conditions sometimes resemble slavery.”

The report calls for UK retailers and brands to find mechanisms to eliminate the exploitation of workers in the supply chains that supply them with products. But it’s clear that this isn’t just a case of regulation saving the day. The unrelenting pace of the global fashion industry and consumption across the Global North has left garment workers paying the price - pandemic or no pandemic.

Brands must take responsibility for all elements of their supply chains and the pressure they place upon the workers within them to produce at such intense rates.