COVID-19 worsens sweatshop conditions in the garment industry

Memories of Rana Plaza remain raw – yet sweatshop conditions persist in Bangladesh and are being made worse by Coronavirus says Jay Kerr from campaign group No Sweat.

Garment workers continue to work in appalling conditions for poverty pay in Bangladeshi sweatshops seven years after the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed 1,138 people and caused global outrage.

The biggest garment factory disaster in history generated sweeping condemnations of the poor conditions and poverty pay endured by workers supplying Western clothing chains  – yet these conditions persist.

To make matters worse, rescue workers who once dug victims from the rubble of the eight-story sweatshop in Dhaka are now struggling to feed desperate factory workers thrown into destitution by the impact of Coronavirus.

Inside a Bangladeshi Sweatshop

In February, we had the opportunity to see inside a Bangladeshi sweatshop – and were disturbed by what we encountered.

The factory we visited was not a huge operation like those at Rana Plaza but one of the thousands of small workshops scattered around the country where a few dozen people work for a slave wage in cramped, unhealthy conditions.
 
We drove for about two hours through the bustle of Dhaka to the outskirts of the city, arriving at a shantytown with corrugated iron houses set alongside a dirt road on the Dhaleshwari River.

As we approached, our translator said:

“This must be an area of subcontracted factories, no Western buyers would come here.”

Walking along the dirt road we turned and climbed a metal staircase to the first floor of one of the few brick buildings in the area, and stepped into a room not much bigger than a large garage.

It was lit by a few hanging bulbs, with fading daylight coming through two large holes in the walls where windows were meant to be. The room was heavily overcrowded with people working.

Our guide was local to the area and encouraged a young man to show us a sample of the t-shirts they made. There was no foreman or manager asking for credentials, but we dutifully played the part of Western buyers coming to inspect the products.

Checking all the stitching in the seams, and nodding with approval at the quality of their work, I was told each piece sold for 13 taka, – about 12 pence in British money.

I asked how many t-shirts they make in a day, but was not prepared for what I heard: 2000 pieces. The sweatshop employed 30 workers, suggesting that each must make 66 t-shirts a day in these cramped conditions.

Child labour in sweatshops

On scanning the room my eyes fell on a boy kneeling in the corner by a pile of textiles. He could not have been more than 10 years old. I asked if he was one of the workers and was told that he was – but only part-time. He is a “trainee”.

As we left, descending the metal staircase back to the dirt road, our guide said that most workers in that room were under 18 – this sweatshop employed teenagers and children with a handful of adults scattered among them.

I asked how much they were paid, thinking of the £80 that the monthly minimum wage in Bangladesh was recently raised to, but was caught off guard when I was informed that they received 5,000 taka per month – barely £50.

The room in which this sweatshop operated offered barely any protection from the stifling Bangladeshi heat. It complied with none of the health and safety laws passed with fanfare since the tragedy of Rana Plaza, nor the basic laws of a minimum wage or prohibiting child labour.

When asked how such a factory is operating illegally so openly, our guide said simply,

“No government inspectors come down here, and if they did they can be bribed.”

image: covid relief bangladesh no sweat
Workers from ethical garment co-operative Oporajeo are delivering food to the vulnerable in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Sweatshops in the coronavirus pandemic

Bangladesh has been in lockdown for the past month due to coronavirus fears, but if basic laws are not enforced in ordinary times it seems unlikely that government public health efforts would mean much in a place like this.  Social distancing is unlikely to be enforced by the owner if the sweatshop continues to operate during the pandemic.

A more likely scenario is that orders have dried up and there is a good chance that these young workers have found themselves in a desperate situation, jobless and without even basic social insurance.

We have heard reports from our partners in Bangladesh of food shortages in the area around the factory. A rescue team that once pulled bodies from the rubble of Rana Plaza has remobilized to organize food ration parcels for hundreds of local families affected by the crisis.

Many garment workers who have already lost their jobs in this pandemic have also lost their homes, unable to pay the rent. So the rescue operations now include cooking daily meals for people on the streets. To date the rescue team has given out over 5,000 meals.

Yet the impact of Coronavirus is now being felt in the same way by millions of garment workers throughout Bangladesh and across the world – and is likely to claim far more victims than the 1,138 who died at Rana Plaza.  

No Sweat campaigns for change: those workers would be far more able to withstand the impact of natural disasters if they enjoyed the benefits of a living wage, medical care and safe, clean conditions.

Yet the actions of huge Western brands trying to boost their profit margins continues to condemn millions of garment workers to the threat of starvation and destitution.

Jay Kerr is an activist with the campaign group, No Sweat that has set up an Emergency Garment Workers Solidarity Fund to support the pandemic relief efforts in Bangladesh. Donate at nosweat.org.uk

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