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Bangladeshi Workers in the Post-MFA
Dina M. Siddiqi
last-minute realisation that the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) will
be phased out by the end of 2004 has produced something close to national
panic in Bangladesh. Many people seem to be convinced that when the
garment industry is no longer cushioned from the vagaries of the 'free-market,'
its prospects for survival will be slim at best.
No one can predict with complete accuracy what will happen after 2004.
The greatest fear is that hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly female,
will be thrown out of work as a consequence. This would be a national
disaster. However, the evidence so far does not support such an extreme
outcome. That, at least, was the implicit consensus at a recent round-table
discussion on the economic and social security of women garment workers
in the post-MFA period. Organised by the NGO Coalition on Beijing Plus
Five, Bangladesh (NCBP), in association with the Bangladesh Garment
Manufacturers and Employers Association (BGMEA), the roundtable was
attended by labour activists and researchers as well as industry representatives
and the Minister for Commerce and Industries.
Speakers pointed out that several export items had already been phased
out, without any substantial effect on overall industry earnings. Moreover,
the major shocks that have produced large-scale retrenchment in the
last two years have resulted from external factors such as the global
recession following September 11.
During the course
of an exceptionally lively and well-informed debate, access to diverse
markets and labour productivity emerged as two areas of concern for
the future viability of the industry. In this brief essay, I elaborate
on those dimensions of market access and productivity that are generally
marginalised in discussions of global competitiveness. Although my analysis
is based on the garment industry, it applies more generally to other
labour-intensive sectors that have emerged under the globalisation regime.
A Little Sympathy
can be a Dangerous Thing
Several discussants at the roundtable noted that internationally there
was considerable sympathy for Bangladeshi workers. However, it should
not be taken for granted this sympathy always translates into actions
that actually help garment workers. For one thing, a growing number
of consumers 'with a conscience' in the North today are unwilling to
buy clothes made with sweatshop labour. These consumers, along with
student activists and labour organisers, form the core supporters of
the movement to establish universal labor standards. Unfortunately,
the demand for uniform wages globally frequently acts as an alibi to
justify Northern protectionist trade policies. Double standards invariably
operate in the discourse on ethics in the labour market, placing poor
countries at a distinct disadvantage.
Whatever the reality,
Bangla-deshi garment factories are notorious in North America for their
sweatshop-like conditions. Some of the images that circulate about the
exploitation of women workers are irresponsible, to say the least. For
instance, a college textbook claims that in the slums of Bangladesh,
there's a saying that if you're lucky, you'll be a prostitute; if you're
unlucky, you'll be a garment worker. An investigative journalist hired
by an US trade union wrote this. I leave it to the reader to unravel
the multiple interests at stake here. The point remains that this is
exactly the kind of rhetoric that generates sympathy for Bangladeshi
workers from politically correct Northern consumers. The consequences
of such attention and sympathy can be disastrous at times, as the boycotts
of earlier decades painfully demonstrated.
Of course, serious violations of labour rights do exist in the garment
sector. Labour exploitation is alive and well in many factories. However,
a blanket condemnation (or celebration) of the industry does not do
justice to the complexity or diversity of working conditions in the
sector. There are considerable differences in working conditions between
large, well-established factories and small, barely viable ones, and
between those in the Export Processing Zones and those outside.
Equally important, a distinction must be made between those situations
where questions of labour rights are embedded in larger structural issues
of poverty and underdevelopment and those that entail gross violations
of human rights. It is incumbent on all of us in civil society, especially
the media, to intervene in the discourse on global labour standards
and bring out this distinction in all its fine points -- without denying
facts or becoming defensive. That is one way to prevent the labour issue
from being appropriated by the agendas of Northern capitalists and labor
At the roundtable, the question of alternative occupations for retrenched
garment workers was raised, with the suggestion that perhaps sexwork
was the only viable option for many women. One speaker referred to a
programme on Ekushey television that had suggested this. No doubt the
show in question was produced out of sympathy for the plight of out
of work garment workers. Yet by highlighting a dubious but unquestioned
link between poor women and sexwork, the programme appears to have done
more damage than good. Rather than generating serious concern for retrenched
workers, or unpacking the pernicious effects of globalisation and structural
adjustment on an uneven playing field, the show seems to have succeeded
only in tapping into a generalised middle class anxiety about the dangers
of working class sexuality. This kind of sympathy is always in danger
of slipping into paternalism and voyeurism, leading to a different kind
of exploitation of the labouring woman.
Workers' Rights are
Human Rights too
The factory owners present at the roundtable expressed unanimous admiration
for the diligence and intelligence of their female employees. Nevertheless,
Bangladeshi garment workers have one of the lowest labour productivity
levels in the world. Apart from lack of education and opportunities
for skill accumulation, there are invisible social dimensions that affect
productivity that need to be taken into account.
A study I conducted for the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) earlier
this year shows that worker efficiency is closely related to conditions
of insecurity in the workplace. A main objective of the study was to
gauge the impact of sexual harassment on worker productivity. The results
were striking. 27% of all garment workers and 38% of those working outside
Export Processing Zones (EPZ) reported having been physically harassed.
30% of all garment workers and 50% of all non-EPZ workers reported having
heard of sexual assaults in their workplace. Given the stigma attached
to making such incidences public, one can assume there was considerable
underreporting of such events. The smaller factories were the worst
offenders, while the very large well-established factories appear to
afford relatively more protection.
Almost half of the workers reported that sexual harassment impairs their
productivity. Individual respondents said that their productivity per
hour suffers greatly in the wake of an incident of harassment. Women
who had been harassed felt acute shame and embarrassment as well as
anger and helplessness as well as an inability to concentrate. If a
worker is publicly humiliated in abusive language for making mistakes,
the ensuing fear and anxiety also increases the likelihood of making
mistakes. It is not only individual workers who feel the impact. If
a woman has been humiliated, sexually or otherwise, and if some form
of redress is not available, the atmosphere of fear and resentment infects
Prolonged absence is another frequent outcome of experiencing sexual
harassment on the job. Workers reported that in all the cases of sexual
assault or rape, the victim eventually left her job, if she was in a
financial position to do so. In the process, enterprises lose valuable
workers whose performance is satisfactory.
The study also reveals that experiences of sexual harassment can generate
resistance that effectively lower productivity. In the absence of any
mechanism to correct an abusive situation, workers frequently resort
to actions such as intentionally slowing down their output per hour
or faking illness. For many workers, this kind of oblique resistance
may be the only means of expressing their anger or helplessness. Talking
back or seeking help from superiors usually makes things much worse.
The high job insecurity in the garment industry promotes rampant sexual
coercion and blackmail from superiors. Because workers can be dismissed
at the whim of superiors, women -- especially if they are financially
insecure -- often have no choice but to quietly accept harassment or
to leave if conditions become intolerable.
The underlying factors that increase worker vulnerability to sexual
harassment can be rectified quite easily. Providing workers with appropriate
documentation, and eliminating the system of hiring and firing workers
informally would be a critical first step. This does not require new
legislation but calls for the enforcement of existing labour laws.
Needless to say, the increased efficiency argument should not be the
primary motive for implementing labour laws. All workers, men and women,
should have the right to pursue a livelihood in safety and dignity.
If we are serious about establishing a regime of rights in Bangladesh,
then demands to assure workers' rights cannot be brushed aside as impossibly
Fair Trade versus
The best way to assure the social and economic security of garment workers
is to enable them to keep their jobs. This is not an easy task in the
new global order, given that as a poor nation, Bangladesh has minimal
bargaining power. Intervening in the global discourse on ethics and
ensuring the rights of workers in the workplace can make some difference.
Equally important are recent efforts to make international trade fair
rather free -- which it never has been in any case. The Fair Trade Initiative
pioneered by Oxfam and others, for instance, seeks to close the immense
gap between the manufacturing price and selling price of goods produced
in poor countries. Some people are quick to dismiss the venture as utopian,
since it strikes at the heart of the capitalist system of pricing and
profits. In response, one can only say that without visions of utopia,
meaningful social change would never be possible anywhere in the world.