Horrible and deplorable social and working conditions are the reasons for the continuous tragedies of garment workers. Their less than subsistence level wage-rate is a revealing indicator of the bigger problem, often overlooked. The problem, absence of social justice, must be understood in the context of the sociopolitical condition in which they live.
Poor people, mainly women, who are oppressed anyway in a male-dominated society, are simply being exploited by the owners of the garment factories. These owners are wealthy, socially powerful, politically connected and can manipulate the government at their will.
Factories often do not have minimum security measures, procedures, or facilities. Even when they have those, they are not followed, or implemented.
The fire in Tazreen Fashions, that captured a lot of media attention because it caused deaths of some 112 garment workers, was caused because the ‘supervisors’ underplayed the danger (by saying that the fire alarm was not real), kept the workers under lock and key (to meet the deadline of production), and simply did not care about their safety.
The same story again with the Rana Plaza building that collapsed recently causing deaths of more than 1000 persons (official count 1080 as of May 10, 2013) and injuries to many. Several are still missing. Again, the building was not built with proper authorization and engineering. The foundation was not strong, the structure itself was weak and more stories were constructed than were allowed. Heavy machinery with tens of thousands of people were housed in that building. What drove these irregularities?
Simply greed. To make quick and easy money. It is possible in Bangladesh. Because the government, law enforcement, the building owner, the factory owner, the supplier are all in a cohort to make money. Only the laborers are out of this cohort. They are simply exploited as modern-day slaves.
Even two days before the collapse of the building, telltale signs were there, the building was displaying its weakness by visible and expanding cracks. No engineers were called in for consultation. The building was considered dangerous by the authority and was advised unfit for use. The factory owners and the building owner ignored the advice and forced workers to come in for work. Otherwise the scheduled shipments would be cancelled. Big money would be lost.
Many lives may be lost as well. But who cares!
There is no punishment for these crimes. The perpetrators are all politically connected in a mafia like syndicate. In the beginning there will be some actions by the law enforcement. But any experienced person knows, this is nothing but hogwash. The building owner of the Rana Plaza was caught at the end, but his political connection is strong. He is a stalwart of the ruling party and his father, who has also been captured, belonged to the powerful opposition party.
The owner of Tazreen has not even been interrogated by the authority. The government is actually protecting him by issuing statements, first “it was a conspiracy” (presumably by the opposition party), and then, “It was an accident.” The Garments owners association, a powerful and resourceful organization is also backing the owner.
Roughly two months after the Tazreen fire, another fire in another factory (Smart garments) killed seven women workers. Out of the seven dead, five were under eighteen years of age – two were 17 and three, just 16. They were killed by suffocation from smoke – clearly indicating that there was no adequate warning and it was difficult to escape in time.
Women – the ‘weaker’ gender – are vulnerable also due to many backward social norms and taboos. Ninety percent of all garment workers in Bangladesh are women. For example, they must wear long drape-like clothes to cover their body, must keep long hair, etc. And, they are not supposed to run like boys or men, they are not supposed to shout or speak loudly, even if it is a life and death issue. These social pressures prevent them (the women) from creating safe work places and from working in safe and secure conditions.
Now, some relevant information related to the wage issue –
• The current legal (government mandated) minimum wage is 3,000 BDT (Bangladeshi Taka) (80 BDT=1US$) per month. It used to be only 1662 BDT prior to 2010. The current United Nations Poverty Line  is US$ 1.25 a day. The monthly wage of 3,000 BDT matches exactly to this amount. However, a recent study  revealed that “irregularities and problems in the way the law was being implemented at the factory level.” For example, the owners increased work hours per day and per week – to more than 80 hours per week in some cases, double the normal level.
• The same study (see Reference ) also pointed out that “82% of the workers found that their targets have been increased after the implementation of the minimum wage. As payment is hourly, managers have increased the work pressure and expectations for production in the same time period.”
• Another study  reported that “a garment workers’ wage is only 1-3% of the total cost of most garments. If a consumer is paying 8 euros for a shirt, the worker who made it is receiving only 24 cents at most.“
• From the same reference (Reference ), “A report ‘Heavy Workload – small margins’ (Future In Our hands, Norway, 2010) shows that garment workers in Bangladesh and India have to work approximately for three hours to be able to buy one kilo of rice.” A worker in Cambodia works for two hours, while in China, one hour. If wants to compare a garment worker in Norway could buy 14 kilo of rice for one hour of work.
• Based on the information presented by Anu Muhammad , I have created a pie chart below (Figure-1). This chart shows that 50% of the total consumer price of a shirt goes to the foreign buyer (say, Walmart), 25% goes to the importing government (e.g., USA) although its contribution is zero, Out of the remaining 25%, only 1% is allocated for the garment workers or laborers. The mafia syndicate comprised of the government of the exporting country (Bangladesh), politically connected supplier company, corrupt factory owners, miscreant building owner (example, the owner of the Rana Plaza), take the 24%. The question: is this fair?
Figure-1. Price of a Shirt – how shared?
If you ask this question, instead of getting an answer, most likely you will be accused of being a communist. You will be blamed for propagating Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value.
Do not be surprised – you may also be told that you are the enemy of the garment workers. You will be branded as a fool, you do not understand – it is the capitalism that enables them to earn 25 cents per one $25 shirt. Without that they would not have any income and would have died of starvation, anyway.
So, it is okay for them to be killed by fire, or by a collapsed building. That is only a small risk they must take to avoid dying of starvation. Think of it as a choice – between a sudden death by accident – or, a slow death, bit by bit, everyday. It will be a little slower if they work for $1.25 a day! With just a little risk, isn’t that a better choice?
The poverty rate at $1.25 a day is the proportion of the population living on less than $1.25 a day, measured at 2005 international prices, adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP). Purchasing power parities (PPP) conversion factor, private consumption, is the number of units of a country’s currency required to buy the same amount of goods and services in the domestic market as a U.S. dollar would buy in the United States. This conversion factor is applicable to private consumption.
.“Minimum Wage Implementation in Bangladesh’s Garment Sector,” A research study conducted by Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom (AMRF) Society with the support of Fair Wear Foundation, June 2012.
Anu Muhammad, Economic and Political Weekly, August 20, 2011. Vol xlvl, no 34.