Fashion clothes for deplorable wages

17. May 2015

Textile workers in Bangladesh work around the clock to produce Western fashion clothes for a pay below the living wage level.

Said Muhammed works at a textile factory in Dhaka. He is married and has one child. His basic salary is 4,200 taka per month (approx. 50 euro), but he can earn 3,000 taka (approx. 30 euro) extra in overtime, which can amount to upwards of 150 hours per month. Even after 150 overtime hours, he earns too little to take care of his family.

”With my income it is not possible to send money to my parents. My wife has to work, too. If we get sick, we have no extra money for doctor or medicine,” says the 25-year-old factory worker.

Minimum wage is not a living wage

In 2010 the legal minimum wage in Bangladesh was raised from 1,662 taka per month (approx. 17 euro) to 3,000 taka (approx. 30 euro). At that time the previous minimum wage was below the UN’s poverty line. Although the new minimum wage is higher than before, several local unions demand a minimum wage of 5,000 taka at the very least. Other organisations, such as Fair Wear Foundation, point out that a living wage in Bangladesh is three to four times higher than the existing minimum wage.

”The problem with the minimum wage is that food prices and living expenses have increased, but the wages have not,” says Pratima Paul-Majunder, researcher at The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.

She is backed up by Amirul Haque Amin, president of the union National Garments Workers Federation:

”The existing minimum wage of 3,000 taka is too low to ensure a decent living standard in Bangladesh. Living expenses and food prices have increased much more than the wages,” he says.

Changes take time

Although the wages are still too low, the employees work too long and the working environment is deplorable, Pratima Paul-Majunder, who has conducted research on the textile sector, says that the industry has changed a lot in the last ten years.

”Major improvements have taken place in the industry in the last ten years, but there is a long way to go. While many factories now pay their employees the minimum wage, a considerable number of them cheat their employees. International consumers and the local government both have a responsibility here,” she says.

Søren Jespersen, Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School and specialist in CSR in developing countries, agrees that companies and the government have a responsibility, but also believes that it is difficult for international buyers to directly influence the wage level in manufacturing countries.

”Changes like these do not take place from one day to the other. However, with a process and a long-time perspective, buyers and their suppliers can keep pushing the agenda forward so that the conditions can be improved,” he says.

While the slow winds of change are blowing over Bangladesh, Said Muhammed dreams that his children will have a different future than he:

”I would like to save money so that my children can get an education and not become textile workers like myself. Maybe one day I can afford to buy a small shop,” he says.