It seems that in the Bangladesh garment industry today, the only way to make a profit or a decent livelihood is to work more and more hours. Average work hours in apparel factories currently stand at 66-70 hours per week. However, during peak production periods, times when buyers increase their purchase orders due to seasonal demands in their countries, working hours can increase to 80-90 hours weekly.
Besides the effect on the life of the worker and their families, the factory suffers too. There is clear evidence that factories with excessive hours have the lowest worker retention rates. High turnover in personnel is costly. Every month, these factories have to hire dozens of new workers just to keep up with a full workforce and meet their production demands. Think of the time and cost implications in recruitment and training alone, not to mention the cost of terminating old work contracts.
Furthermore, study after study shows that after ten hours of work a day, productivity from a worker begins to significantly decrease. Look at the daily production records of garment factories worldwide and you will immediately notice that in the first half of the day the workers' output far exceeds what they can produce in the afternoon. Once evening comes, everyone is just wasting time.
Working excessive hours is also a violation of the Bangladesh Labour Act's hours work standards, and violates the spirit of the International Labour Organisation's hours of work conventions.
However, all of us who work in and with the industry know that tackling this problem is complicated.
To begin to address the issue and give people some well-deserved rest, requires an understanding of supply chain pressures on the factory, collaboration from top factory management, the buyers who source from these factories, and yes, the workers themselves.
The first step is to acknowledge that working more than ten hours a day is a problem, and that in Bangladesh the industry is trapped in a vicious cycle of trying to meet the demands of buyers who continue to demand shorter and shorter lead times and strict on time delivery standards.
This is further exacerbated by factory owners who feel the only way they can increase profits is by adding more and more production and by workers who have been conditioned to wages that can support their needs only if they work more hours.
Solving this problem requires collaboration between buyers who are sourcing from the factory and the factory itself. It cannot just be factory owner's responsibility alone. As long as buyers overload factories and make demands for short lead times that do not leave the factories any options the problem will persist.
Buyers need to look more closely at capacity before they put production into a facility. Many will say they do but when there are multiple buyers sourcing from a factory it is hard. You cannot see what orders other buyers have put in while factories are unwilling to say through the fear that they may lose orders.
Better methods are needed of keeping track of factory capacity. If for example, buyers know that if there is only room for 50,000 pieces but they need 100,000 then they would need to look elsewhere. Factory owners will understandably say that they will raise capacity to meet any order, but if that is the case, capacity needs to be built before and not after orders are placed.
Rather than looking at the total number of pieces a factory says it can produce buyers should consider how many minutes it takes to produce one piece. If a factory has a thousand workers and they work 48 hours a week then you know what the capacity will be and whether lead-times can be met without working all night.
Production efficiency should also be increased. Rather than simply piling on the hours, the skills of workers and middle management should be enhanced. Upgrading certain equipment can further boost capacity and output. Improving work processes such as line balancing, conducting loss time analysis, and improving HR systems will make a huge difference to the bottom line.
Business owners will often say that workers are demanding the overtime as they need the income and will quit if they do not get the hours. This may well be true, but in reality what workers are doing is not demanding more hours but higher wages.
The low cost of production is a major competitive advantage for the Bangladesh industry. Yet there is considerable discussion over whether the minimum wage is a living wage. Many say that if wages rise the industry will shrink however evidence worldwide points to the fact that raising wage levels does not lead to job losses.
Workers want higher incomes but they should seek to achieve this through negotiation and collective bargaining rather than working 80-90 hours a week. However, in order to get there, we need stronger social dialogue environments.
The labour inspectorate can of course seek to limit excessive hours. Yet aggressive enforcement is not always the answer. It may force factories to recognise that they could get into trouble but it is not the way forward. We need solutions which help the industry, not punish it.
Doing too many hours is no good. Buyers and factories must address this challenge together for it is an industry-wide issue that extends far beyond the factory walls.
The writer is the programme manager of the ILO/IFC Better Work Programme which seeks to enhance compliance in the garment sector while improving productivity. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.