ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Soiled Garments

Low wages and sweatshop conditions remain the trademark of the multinational garment trade.


The horrific fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh last month was another ghastly reminder of the unsafe conditions and sweated labour that undergirds the international ready-made garment trade. The latest of many such fires in similar factories, the fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka killed an estimated 111 people, the majority of them women. Just two months earlier, in what is thought to be one of the worst industrial fires in Pakistan, 269 workers died when a fire broke out in a ready-made garment factory in Karachi. In both places, there were no fire exits. Workers jumped several floors in a futile attempt to escape the fire. The incinerated remains after the fires revealed that the garments being fabricated were ordered by leading western retailers such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour and the international Dutch chain of fashion retail stores, C&A. 
Although India’s ready-made garment industry has not witnessed such horrendous accidents in recent years, the condition of garment workers is far from satisfactory. At the National People’s Tribunal on “Living Wage as a Fundamental Right of Indian Garment Workers” held in Bangalore last month, scores of workers testified about the appalling conditions in which they are forced to survive. These include low wages, being forced to work overtime and sexual harassment of women workers on the factory floor.
Wages have been at the centre of the struggle by ready-made garment workers in Bangladesh. Following widespread agitations, an agreement to pay a minimum wage was finally arrived at in 2010. However since then, the agitations have continued because employers have reneged on the agreement. At the same time, despite garment exports accounting for nearly 80% of Bangladesh’s export earnings, and the fact that an estimated 3.5 million workers, of whom 80% are women, are employed in the industry, change for the better in conditions at work has been slow to non-existent. The fires, such as the recent one in Dhaka, where 70% of the country’s 4,500 ready-made garment factories are located, only emphasise the dire situation in which the majority of these workers are forced to operate.
The news that garment workers are exploited and work in unsafe conditions is certainly not a new story. Public hearings, such as the recent one in Bangalore, have repeatedly brought this to light, as have the agitations by workers. What is shocking is that despite the size of this globalised industry, where production takes place in countries with low wages, and sales in countries with high wages and high purchasing power, and the steady growth in the ready-made garment market despite the economic slowdown in the west, the conditions in which these garments are produced have not improved. 
There are two distinct sides to the story. One is that of ­national governments and regulatory authorities who choose to turn a blind eye to the sweatshop conditions in these ready-made garment factories. This is premised on the belief that only by keeping wages low will we have a competitive edge in this business. Yet studies, including those presented at the ­National People’s Tribunal, have clearly shown that the component of wages in the final retail price of ready-made garments is barely 1-2%. Therefore the argument that raising wages will raise retail prices, thereby making the product uncompetitive, is bogus. Despite this, no effort has been made in many countries, including India and Bangladesh, to ensure that garment workers are paid a living wage. Nor are the regulatory autho­rities particularly concerned about the safety conditions in these garment factories. 
Internationally, consumer education and campaigns have made an impact in a number of areas. For instance, environmental campaigners have succeeded in dissuading consumers, and retailers, from marketing products that harm an ecosystem or a species. Eco-labelling and public campaigns have raised considerable consciousness in the western consumer who can now make an informed choice. Similarly, the campaign for Fair Trade, that attempts to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their produce and are not ripped off by middlemen, has met with notable success. Consciousness about the use of child labour in the manufacture of footballs, or carpets, has also affected the sale of these products. In the area of ready-made garments, campaigns such as the Clean Clothes Campaign have tried to draw attention to conditions in which garments for the largest international retailers are produced. This has resulted in some of them adopting codes of conduct and undertaking audits in factories that supply them. However, given the growing evidence that the exploitation continues in many countries that provide a substantial percentage of the overall quantity of ready-made garments for international brands, it is evident that this is not being done seriously and consumer awareness is practically non-existent. 
In the final analysis, even if these international campaigns do not succeed in creating consumer awareness in their countries, what stops us in India from ensuring that the labour standards that are part of our law are actually implemented in this multimillion dollar grossing industry? At a time when the issue of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail is such a political hot potato, the fate of the workers who undergird a component of this multinational trade should not be forgotten. 

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