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Bangladesh Garment Workers attackedCheck the label before you buy

The lifting of the state of emergency at the end of 2008 raised hopes of an improvement in the situation for the Bangladesh trade union movement and better economic conditions for workers, but nothing has changed in practice.

Six garment workers were killed in attacks by the police or company security guards during strikes or protests linked to wage demands last year. Many other trade unionists were arrested in 2009.

So it is no surprise that Bangladesh's garment sector workers are the world's most poorly paid, according to a global survey carried out by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Tens of thousands of garment workers are currently engaged in a bitter strike against a new wage structure announced by the government. Work remains stopped in at least 350 factories despite attempts by union leaders to sell the strikes out.

Strikers on Monday blocked the Dhaka-Narayanganj road, putting barricades across the highway in support of their demand for Taka 5,000 (£54) as minimum monthly pay. The government last week imposed Taka 3,000 (£29). There were violent clashes with the police over the weekend, with over 100 people injured. Most of the injuries were from rubber bullets fired by the police, who also used tear gas against the strikers.

Employing 3.5 million workers, ready made garments and knitwear are Bangladesh's top export earners, netting £7.6 billion last year. Most of the exports are destined for British shops and the employers – many of them global corporations – are determined to keep wages low.

Bangladesh-based factories make clothes for international brands such JCPenney, Wal-Mart, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Zara and Carrefour and do well out of workers whose wages are well below the poverty line. One striker said: "We are rejecting what has been offered as increased wages because it is too inadequate to make ends meet".

The ITUC survey described working conditions in both the garment and ship breaking industries as “appalling”. The right to join a union is extremely limited and representation requires government approval. Most public sector workers are barred from joining unions.

The government can ban any strike that continues beyond 30 days in “essential services” or if the strike is considered a threat to national interest, in which case the 1974 Special Powers Act can be used to detain trade unionists without charge. Offences such as “obstruction of transport” carry penalties of up to 14 years’ forced labour.

In the ship-breaking sector, child labour is rife. One quarter of the workers in the ship-recycling industry in Bangladesh are children: 10% of the workers are under 12 years old; 15-20% are under the age of 15; and 25% are younger than 18 years old.

Of the garment industry, the ITUC says:

Bangladesh workers faced the same problems that existed under the state of emergency. Employers paid wages late, if paid at all, and numerous factories closed with no notice and without paying workers wages due … Most workers only get 800 to 950 taka (£8.20 to £9.48) per month, the lowest wages for garment workers in the world.

The impact of the global recession has taken its toll. There are reports that wages have been cut by 20 to 30% this year in a country where almost half the population is already living below the poverty line.

So the next time you pop into M&S, H&M or Zara, you would do well to check the label. If it’s made in Bangladesh you can be certain that the workers who produced it will be living a hand-to-mouth existence, facing violent employers and a brutal state. I’d put the clothes back on the shelf if I were you.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
3 August 2010

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