Bangladesh is one of the largest garment exporters in the world, where 3.5 million labourers, in 4,825 factories, are working to produce goods, which will be exported to the global market (Human Rights Watch, 2015). Around 80% of the country’s export revenue is generated through the garment industry, but however that wealth has led to very few, if any, improvements in the day-to-day lives of workers, 85% of which are women. (War on Want, 2015) Labourers are put to work in sweatshops and have unusually low wages with the working conditions that are often hazardous. (Absar, 2002) The aim of this paper is to explore to what extent are the human rights of women labourers in the readymade garment industry in Bangladesh morally legitimate. The data in this research paper was collected through an extensive literature review and analysis of qualitative secondary sources, published by databases.
2. Theoretical framework
2.1 General Background
In 2017 “The New York Times” came up with an article about the protests being held by garment workers in Bangladesh over low wages and poor, often even dangerous, working conditions. According to the article “the minimum wage in Bangladesh is 32 cents an hour”. Although, the garment industry accounts for over 80% of the total exports in Bangladesh, the workers barely make the ends meet (Ahkter, 2014). Numerous workers have been detained throughout the protests over peace disturbance and activists believe that the only reason this is occurring is due to the government and its desire to silence and scare people by detaining them (Sattar, 2017).
The protests in Bangladesh are not only about low wages and poor working conditions, though. Back in April, 2013, the day prior Rana Plaza’s collapse, workers discovered cracks across the walls of the building, which led to the evacuation of the whole building. Only the lower floors of the building, which included shops and a bank, were closed (Jalava, 2015). However, the top floors of the Rana Plaza were a garment factory and all workers were forced into going to their jobs the day after the inspection. Early in the following morning, people heard a loud noise that seemed to be coming from the ground floors of the Rana Plaza and ended in the total collapse of the 8 story building and Rana Plaza claimed the lives of 1,132 people (Khan and Rodrigues, 2015). According to Jalava’s paper, a survivor shared how factory employers threatened people to withhold a month’s worth of salary to anyone who refused to head back to work.
2.2 Women garment workers
A big factor contributing to the rapid growth of the Readymade garment industry (RMG) in Bangladesh is the cheap and uneducated labour, as the work requires few, if any skills. Women account for 80% of that labour force and the RMG industry has given them the opportunity to make their own living and be independent, which is unusual in most Muslim countries (Jalava, 2015) In the past decades, the number of working women has increased rapidly. According to a study, written by Absar (2001), back in 1980 there were 50,000 women garment workers and it has increased to 1.5 million in 1998. Over 70% of female employment in the country is being held in the garment industry.
In the RMG industry in Bangladesh, jobs and tasks are largely influenced by gender. Women are allocated in the sewing sections of factories, while men are mostly responsible for the finishing touches of garments. With that being said, men mainly take on management and administrative jobs, while women are mostly put as helpers and machinists (Absar, 2001). When asked about this phenomenon, managers more often responded with the fact that women are more maintainable and less likely to engage in union activities and disruptions linked to work.
Women workers are continuously facing basic Human Rights Violations while working in the Bangladesh RMG factories. Below are listed and explained six of these human rights violations – Freedom of Association, Forced Labour, Discrimination, Living wage and Safety.
2.2.1 Freedom of Association
According to the ILO (International Labour Organisation), the freedom of association can be defined as “workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without any previous authorisation.” (Swepston, 1998, p. 172). As stated in the General Background, after the collapse of Rana Plaza, a worker who survived mentioned how employers were threatening labourers to withhold a month worth of salary to whoever refused to go inside the building and work. None of the victims, nor survivors were a part of a union, since unionising has been made extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in Bangladesh. According to Jalava (2015), if workers had the right to belong to a union and had a collective voice to refuse working that day, the death rate of 1,132 people would have been much lower.
2.2.2 Forced Labour
The ILO Forced Labour Convention and the European Court of Human Rights have defined forced labour as: ”All work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. Women in the garment industry are often facing intense control and supervision that could include severe punishments if demands are not met. Some factories expect workers to spend up to 16 hours a day, often seven days a week working, while lacking sufficient facilities and proper ventilation, as stated by a research paper, written by Rock (2003).
According to the labour law in Bangladesh, a working day should be no longer than 8 hours, with overtime being allowed, as long as the working hours do not exceed 10 hours a day. The law states that workers should be allowed to at least a day off each week. Also, women should not be allowed to work between the hours of 10pm and 6am without consent. (ILO, 2013). That is often not the case in the garment industry, as women are often forced to work until 2-3am, with no given consent. (Absar, 2002).