<%-- Page Title--%> Perspective <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 108 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

June 6, 2003

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Bangladeshi Workers in the Post-MFA

Dina M. Siddiqi

The 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 unions.
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 all workers.
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 idealistic calls.

Fair Trade versus Free Trade
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.




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