Today she is president of the Joint Garment Workers’ Federation and general secretary of a legal aid and advocacy organisation, but 32-year-old Nazma Akhter knows what it’s like to have to survive on a poverty wage.
At 11 years of age Akhter worked in a t-shirt factory. She reports earning just $8 AUD dollars a month. Akhter was fired seven years later after she tried to organize fellow workers. In the decades that followed Akhter became an increasingly passionate advocate for labour rights. She recalls discrimination from employees and harassment by local authorities for her labour rights activities, but was determined not to give up.
Akhter believes that there have been some important changes in the garment industry. She cites a reduction in child labour as one of the most positive developments. At the same time, Akhter is appalled by the ongoing problems faced across the sector.
“Western buyers are cutting their prices every day and their targets are really tough,” explains Akhter. “We try to talk to them, but they tell us it is their business model. Most have the same attitude. And the consumers get the ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ deals because these girls are working 12-hour shifts.”
According to the WTO Bangladesh is the world’s forth largest garment exporter. Just Style reports that Bangladesh’s garment industry employs close to 3.5 million workers, of which 80% are women.
The majority of these garment workers live in poverty. After many years struggling with rising costs the minimum monthly wage was finally increased this year. But although it was doubled to 3000 taka ($43AUD), it still falls well below the amount needed to support a family in Dakka. Since 2006 living costs have risen 200% on food and between 100-200% on rent, transportation and other essential services (National Labour Committee). Another problem is that the minimum wage is often neither recognised nor paid.
In recent protests garment workers have demanded 5000 taka per month. A recent calculation of a minimum living wage for garment workers called for 9450 taka (Asian Floor Wage campaign, 2008).
As well as being the lowest paid garment workers in the world (National Labour Committee), Bangladeshi workers also face some of the worst working conditions. More than 30 factory fires have caused hundreds of deaths in the last 15 years.
Who needs to take responsibility to ensure that garment workers are not assigned to a life of poverty? According to Akhter, it is not only the local manufacturers, but also the Western buyers who put downwards pressure on prices and consumers who demand ever cheaper clothing who are responsible.
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Find out more via this SweatFree Communities report, released November 2010.
Main image: Fernando Moleres/Intermon Oxfam