On Saturday, tens of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers took to the streets of the capital Dhaka and protested for their rights. A key demand: raising the current monthly wage of 3,000 taka (38 US dollars) to 8,000 taka (103US dollars).
"Our backs are against the wall, so we don't have any alternative unless we raise our voice strongly. We will not hesitate to do anything to realize our demand," said Nazma Akter, president of the United Garments Workers' Federation, an umbrella organization for about 52 garment workers’ groups.
Dhaka protest remained peacefulThe 50,000 worker strong protest in Dhaka remained peaceful and ended after four hours. Earlier, at least 10,000 workers from various garment factories in Gazipur, 30 kilometers north of Dhaka, had taken to the highway after vandalizing several factories in the area. The workers later joined the protest in the capital.
Though violence is not an answer, one can imagine tempers running high and pent-up anger looking for an outlet in view of the appalling working conditions of the roughly four million garment workers in Bangladesh.
Working conditions have not changedDespite the recent disasters and promises to improve the situation from buyers’ and suppliers’ side, not much seems to have changed. As the latest BBC Panorama investigation “Dying for a Bargain” (to be aired this evening) has shown, conditions are as bad as they were before the Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza incidents: exits are still locked and 19-hour-shifts are still common.
What has changed is maybe the care that is taken to hide these facts from foreign buyers. When a Panorama-reporter posed as a western buyer at a garment factory making clothes for German discounter Lidl, he was presented with time sheets that claimed workers’ shifts ended after ten hours. According to the workers, the reality is very different: they work 19-hour-shifts from 7 am to 2:30 am that take a toll on their health and morale, making only 250 taka (3.20 US dollars) per shift.
"The factory owners, they keep two different books. So one they show to the buyers, the other they show to the worker. These retailers' so-called audits really don't work,” commented Kalpona Akter from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity the findings.
While Lidl said it was ‘concerned’ about the situation, BBC investigators also found evidence at other factories making clothes for Gap and H&M that workers clock more than 15-hour-shifts. Officially, all suppliers are required to abide by the buyers’ code of conduct but as H&M admitted, overtime “remains a major challenge”.
Image: garment workers at an earlier protest in Dhaka / Derek Blackadder