The Bangladeshi economy is heavily powered by industry and garment exports, but factory workers suffer dangerous conditions.
From low wages to unstable infrastructure, workers face a multitude of health and safety concerns and workers’ rights violations.
Learn how Bangladeshi factories pose risks to worker health and safety.
Industry in Bangladesh
The Bangladeshi industry is primarily dominated by the shoe, garment, and textile sectors, which have experienced a 79% increase over the last seven years and bring in an average of $34 billion to the country every year. Despite setbacks from the financial strains of the coronavirus, the garment industry is Bangladesh’s top export and one of its leading sources of revenue.
A multitude of regulations and improvements came to Bangladeshi factories after a series of factory fires and building collapses took the lives of over 1,000 workers in 2013. This tragedy sparked stricter regulations and inspections in Bangladesh’s industries, mainly focused on the garment and textile sectors. However, despite improvements in the past decade, the country still struggles to enforce regulations and thoroughly improve conditions enough to ensure worker safety.
Worker conditions are primarily assessed through:
- Low wages
- Long hours
- Hazardous conditions
Bangladeshi industries also struggle to improve conditions for women, who make up approximately 85% of the nation’s garment industry.
Like many developing nations, Bangladesh offers little in the way of minimum wage. After a nationwide strike of garment workers in 2019, the government was pressured to increase its national minimum wage to approximately $116 per month. This is still substantially below the living wage for the majority of the country, but offers significantly more to its workers than what was previously given.
Despite these regulated wage increases, many workers report frequently diminished or withheld funds from their employers. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, many factories shut down, leaving many without income and many more without backpay. Reports indicate only 14.8% of workers in the garment industry received full payment in April of 2020.
The highest-grossing products of Bangladesh’s garment industry are cotton t-shirts, which are a worldwide commodity. Reports suggest that a factory worker will earn an average of $0.18 for every $30 t-shirt they make. The majority of profits go to the retail company that sold the product, typically in affluent western countries.
This lack of payment puts workers–the majority of whom are women–at risk of being homeless, or having to take on excessive work to meet the costs of living.
Low wages force millions of Bangladeshi workers to accept excessive amounts of overtime, many working 12-16 hour shifts every day. Hours are exceedingly long during peak production seasons, with the majority of workers enduring a 7-day workweek with daily shifts lasting upwards of 18 hours. While workers earn overtime for their extra hours, it often does not make up for the exhaustion suffered through the long hours, and workers still struggle to earn living wages.
In addition, employers may punish their workers for refusing to accept overtime, typically in the form of deducted salaries. These excessive hours can lead to a multitude of health concerns, including:
- Stree-related illnesses
- Blood clots
- High blood pressure
These conditions are worsened during the month of Ramadan, when the vast majority of Bangladeshi workers practice daytime fasting in recognition of the Muslim holiday. Vacation time is rarely given in recognition of Ramadan, and shifts are often elongated to make up for lost production time in Eid, which immediately follows Ramadan. Many workers report having to work extensively long shifts without nutrition, upwards of 12-hours for 7-day workweeks.
While the Bangladeshi government regulates working hours with a maximum of 48-hours per week and a maximum overtime of 60-hours per month. However, these regulations are frequently violated, especially in peak production seasons when employees are pressured to meet production demands.
Bangladeshi factory conditions have historically been among the worst of all developing nations in Asia. In 2013, the nation suffered a massive tragedy when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed and killed over 1,000 workers due to structural failures in the building. This sparked a wave of backlash that led to a movement of infrastructure repairs and scrutinization of the nation’s working conditions. While the nation struggled to financially back the mass infrastructure improvements, international organizations like the International Finance Corporation (IFC) donated millions of dollars to help Bangladeshi banks fund repairs. This led to a series of building closures and repairs that protected workers from unsafe infrastructure. Factory casualties decreased from the hundreds to the dozens annually, largely due to improved infrastructure and fire safety regulation.
The tragedy of the Rana Plaza Collapse led to a boom in transparency among the Bangladesh government and garment industry, which provides its people with clear data on accidents and safety measures. This trend has continued since the Collapse in 2013 and has significantly improved awareness and information among workers.
In addition to improved factory conditions, the dramatic reconstruction of infrastructure has led to the nationwide implementation of greener manufacturing practices. Up-to-date machinery leads to less wasted materials and water usage, allowing many factories in the garment industry to work more efficiently and sustainably. While the country is still a long way from reaching carbon neutrality, these updates will significantly help Bangladesh reduce industrial pollution.
Read more: What is Industrial Pollution and How Does it Affect Us?
While these structural improvements have significantly improved worker safety, there is a primary concern about their longevity. With a significant shortage of qualified building inspectors, there may be future issues in overseeing the continuous maintenance of buildings and factory safety.
Bangladeshi worker safety is substantially higher than in other developing nations, but workers’ rights still fall behind due to women’s rights and child labor.
Bangladesh’s garment industry is dominated by female workers, who make up over 85% of the garment factory workers. Despite this, women face harsh discrimination and harassment from their employers. Approximately 23% of women report supervisors offering benefits in return for sexual favors, including better treatment or pay, hiring or promotions, and ending probationary periods. Due to low wages and the fear of unemployment, many women feel pressured into accepting the advancements.
Nearly 83% of women working in Bangladeshi factories occupy the lowest-paid jobs, including sewing operators and general assistants. As a result, many of these women struggle with balancing their home and work lives, and have to take on extra shifts to provide for their families. This results in many of them having to leave their children at home, many of whom have young children and infants who rely on them for care and breastfeeding.
International efforts are working to improve the factory conditions for Bangladesh’s women, including organizations like Better Work and War on Want. Efforts include training women to be qualified for supervisor positions and higher-paid jobs. As a result, hundreds of women across Bangladesh have received leadership and skill training to improve their qualifications. These types of jobs enable women to earn higher salaries that better provide for them and their families, many of whom have been able to send their children to school as a result.
Despite Bangladeshi laws that state that no child under the age of 14 can work in factories, these laws are regularly violated across the country. Recent studies have shown that over 24% of child workers in factories are between the ages of 5 and 10, with over 1.2 million young children trapped in severe working conditions with little pay and long hours.
International efforts have been made to remove children from these situations and place them in schools, as well as improve the transparency of Bangladesh’s workforce. Efforts include strengthening child labor policies and removing underaged children from factories. However, inspection and enforcement issues are still prevalent throughout the country, resulting in many of these efforts being largely unsuccessful.
While Bangladesh has seen rapid and significant improvement in its working conditions in the last ten years, it still struggles heavily with low wages, long hours, and working conditions for women and children. International and governmental efforts are working to improve conditions across the country, but still lack proper enforcement and inspections to effectively ensure improvements.