In November 2017, a minimum wage board was initiated to review the existing pay structure and increase the wage for apparel workers. Since then, young apparel workers took to street to ensure that a meaningful dialogue among workers, factory owners and government, so the board could negotiate a living wage, not a poverty wage. Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree writes about the ongoing minimum wage movement and young workers struggle.
It has been five years that 19-year old Sabitri Das, a sewing operator, started working in the garment sector. Her work life started even earlier when she worked as a manual labourer with her parents. Carrying sand, in a basket from inside a ship to the nearby site, was the work. They had to climb up a narrow ladder and climb down using the same with a heavy basket of sand. The payment was meagre, one taka for one basket of sand. It is physically impossible to carry more than 150 baskets a day, often under scorching heat. And yes, the price of such heavy physical labour was one taka per basket of sand.
Sabitri left for the city, hoping for a better job, a better pay, and a better way to provide for her family. And now, she wakes up at early in the morning, starts for the factory by 7am, it is a ten-minute walking distance from her place to the bus-stand itself. The bus fare is 5 taka from her place to work, which adds upto 300 taka every month. There are days, she takes a 50-minute long walk to work to save money. Often she does not even take weekends off, works 70 hours of overtime a month. Most days, she is at work till 10pm. All that work, all that toil, all that stress, earns her 7,700 taka which rises upto 10,000 at best including overtime. She has her entire family, her mother and two younger brothers depending on her. And the monthly income barely meets the expense, so she works as a tailor in her weekends, also nannies two children of another worker in her spare time which earns her a little money.
Where is any leisure for this 19-year old? Some rest, some time for feeding the soul is something she cannot afford.
Life for the garment workers, the majority of whom are young ones like Sabitri, is a pretty similar story for almost all of them. Instead of being at educational institutes, they are burning their life out day by day, labouring to keep alive, to keep their families alive.
Historically, the minimum wage board in Bangladesh has failed apparel workers. The government did not review the minimum wage of garment industry workers from 1994-2006. It remained static for twelve years, at 930 taka per month. They felt forced to do so only when garment workers took to the streets en masse in 2006, and demanded wage increases. In 2010 and 2013, minimum wage increased, but the hike barely promised a poverty wage. The on-going minimum wage review seems to have followed the same historical trajectory. The apparel factory owners’ representative to the minimum wage board recently proposed an increase of Tk 1,060 from the existing minimum wage of Tk 5,300 which was set more than five years ago. According to the president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Associations, they proposed Tk 6,360 after considering inflation, rising cost of doing business and competitiveness of the industry in global markets. The proposed amount Tk 6,360 as minimum wage included basic pay of Tk 3,600, basic pay’s 40 per cent as house rent, Tk 300 as medical allowance, Tk 240 as travel allowance and Tk 780 as food allowance.
Labour rights organisations have instantly rejected the proposal on the ground that it does not even promise poverty wage for workers. Since the last wage hike in 2013, the country seen sharp increase in everyday kitchen items, utilities charges have also increased several times that raised living cost for workers. Workers blamed that BGMEA has entered the negotiation to deflect global buyers and labour organisations attention from workers wage issues and its real intention is not to improve the living standard of its worker. The wage board’s credibility was questioned from the very since it was formed in November 2017 as the labour ministry appointed a ruling party affiliated labour leader from another sector with no background in apparel sector as workers representative. Essentially, the board lacks real workers voices from the sector. It is apparent from the report of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies that the calculations of minimum wage has been more about a matter of negotiation between different stakeholders than about sincere economic analysis. What is proposed in the name of minimum wage, as suggested by labour rights organisation, is poverty wage.
Young apparel workers have taken to streets since the formation of the wage board demanding a living wage. Like any other protest in the country, they too were victimised by the repressive state apparatus. As part of the ongoing minimum wage movement for apparel workers, Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity has published a research titled ‘How do the labourers survive?’ revealing the socio-economic poor condition of workers and their economic hardship. The research was conducted with 200 garment workers from six different areas. The findings are quite shocking particularly for a nation takes pride in the apparel sector for being the major contributor to our export earnings.
According to the results of the research, which was conducted using both qualitative and quantitative methods, 87 per cent of the present garment workers are below the age of 30 and only 13 per cent above 30 years. One would rarely notice workers who are in their 40s in the garment sector. Each worker, on an average, has four family members residing with them in the areas of work. They usually have other members staying in their village homes and many of them depending on them for a livelihood. It is a huge responsibility, which sure cannot be carried out responsibly by these workers with such low pay.
So how much do they actually earn? A worker earns about 6,055 taka a month, 1,915 taka for overtime duties, and a bonus money of 235 taka for being on time; their monthly average income stays at 8,200 taka. 23 per cent of their income goes in accommodation cost, 28 per cent for food, 17 per cent for sending money to family members residing away from them, 8 per cent for treatments; these are the major costs. 12 per cent of the workers opine that their expense is way too high than their income, 49 per cent think the imbalance is quite high, and the 39 per cent thinks their income is not adequate but is manageable. None of them think that they are paid enough for a healthy and decent lifestyle.
According to the study, 92 per cent of the workers have to borrow money when their expenses are higher than income, but most heart-breaking of all is that 68 per cent of the workers cut the cost of food whenever in need of money. A worker spends about 1,110 taka a month for food. According to a study conducted by the institute of nutrition and food science of Dhaka University, a worker needs 2800 calories a day for the amount of work they do. According to market price, for the workers to get food that provide that much calorie would cost them 109 taka per day, 3,270 taka a month. The deduction here is that, the workers consume one third of the required amount of food they needed to work well and stay healthy.
Now, questions must arise that why a huge industry as that of the RMG which is earning the most amount of revenue for Bangladesh, cannot offer a humane life for its workers? Is it impossible or is it consciously ignored? Statistics say that if the owners kept a slightly lesser amount of the profit for themselves and distributed it among the workers, it could improve their life drastically. In the last five years, our average export earnings from apparel sector is 2,31,290 crore taka. And even though the revenue is increasing every year, the number of workers stayed the same, which is 40, 00,000 workers. The industry spends about 39,360 crore taka only on the workers. The research says the owners make 8-10 per cent profit from the industry every year. If the owners took half of the profit they are making at present, it could increase the workers earning by 21 per cent maximum. That amount of increase in the monthly income could provide the workers with living wage.
In scores of rallies and public meetings, workers raised questions about the luxurious life led by factory owners while they lived in sheer misery. ‘While you (factory owners) eat the chicken's thigh, we chew its feet, its claws.’ As Marx said, labour produces works of beauty, it enables the rich to purchase works of beauty, earn profit and so on. As for the labourers? Chicken’s feet, claws.
Unless there is a fundamental change in the way the factory owning, ruling elite and government views the young export earners as expendable working class, no laws or policies could bring real change in the lives of workers. To bring about ideological changes in the society, there is no alternative to labour movement.
‘These young garment workers, they are our future.’
Bangladesh Garments Workers Solidarity
Who are the young export earners of our country?
Among the 44 lakh labourers, a significant amount of workers belong to the age group of 18 to 25. The youth who were supposed to be at schools, colleges or universities, they are but having to work in the garments for their sad circumstances. These young people come from the North Bengal, Barisal, Borguna, the areas prone to river corrosions and other natural disasters. When we refer to our future and future generation, we have a tendency of pointing it to the middleclass-student generation. But these young garment workers, they are our future, especially if you look at the huge number of family members depending on them. It is an important question to ask, how they live. One worrisome fact is that, although legally a youth has to be 18 to start working at a garment, we often see how many younger people resort to fake identity cards and frequent their labour at the garments.
How are they living their lives at present?
If we want to know how they are living their life at the moment, we need to know what wages they get for their labour. The primary condition for a labourer to put their best into the work, they have to be physically healthy, have to live in a healthy environment and have to have access to their basic needs.
A close look into their face would tell you how older they really look for their age. The glow and liveliness of a youth disappear altogether after two or three years of work at the garments.
These workers over worked, they are suffering from malnutrition. The minimum wage, that is 5,300 BDT at the moment, is nowhere near enough to meet their basic necessities. It is common sense to understand that this amount of money is never enough to cover a month’s cost.
The young ones work overtime as they have more energy than workers who, mostly in their thirties, are already drained from years of toil. According to the labour law, a worker can work up to 52 hours of overtime a month, but most of these worker do way more than that, some even go up to 100 hours a month. None of these workers can go home at 5 o’clock as others do. But these are not added to their payslips, some women prefer it that way to keep some money for themselves.
Even though they are working so hard, they barely take the necessary amount of protein for that, calorie intake is rather low. The pride we take in our apparel industry that it is the major export earner – it comes at the cost of sacrificing a decent life of the workers. Even if we want to step up our clothing line in the world market, we should make sure of a good life for the workers who are making it possible.
We often talk about how youth is our future, and yet, these young workers and other youth of the society are not measured equally. In return of these young workers’ contribution to our economy, if we do not give them something to hang on to, we cannot sustain our garment industry. I think our government is not paying necessary attention to this detail.
Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree is a member of New Age Youth team.
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