The Broken Promise of Better Working Conditions: Labour precarity and Bangladesh’s garment industry

 As opiniões expostas neste artigo vinculam exclusivamente os seus autores.

Deregulation has allowed capital to move where labour is cheapest and created a new international division of labour which has relocated industrial production from the global North to the global South (Lazar and Sanchez, 2019; Muhammad, 2015; Breman, 2013). In order to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), countries in the South have been incentivised to dissolve labour rights in a ‘race to the bottom’ where the country with the cheapest labour costs is proclaimed the winner (Olney, 2010; Chang and Wong, 2005). The prevalence of these structures is clear in the global garment industry, where countries in the global South offer low production costs to brands and retailers in the global North, who keep demanding lower prices and shorter shipment deadlines (Anner et al., 2013; Bair et al., 2017). These pressures are then transferred onto workers in the form of low wages, delayed or failed payments, job insecurity, forced overtime, lack of health and safety measures, union busting and other working conditions that are uncoincidentally related to work in this sector (Wells, 2009). 

It is within this context that Bangladesh has emerged as the second largest exporter of ready-made garments (RMGs) in the global economy – second only to China (Saxena, 2020). Since the late 1970s until the present day, over 4500 garment factories, which collectively employ more than four-million workers, have opened across the country (CCC, 2020). Bangladesh has been able to secure its position in the global economy through labour reforms which supress workers’ organising and lower their protections (Rock, 2003). This has placed workers in an ever-growing vulnerable position, of which the results have, in some cases, been fatal. 

For the new generation of consumers which grew up seeing brand new T-shirts on Oxford Street’s shop windows being retailed for less than £5, thinking of a time when “Made in Bangladesh” labels couldn’t be found in their wardrobe might seem unthinkable. To many, it may come as a surprise that the now second-largest producer in the world only started producing RMGs in the late 1970s – a journey that scholars have argued was made possible by a combination of internal and external factors which favoured the establishment of the industry (Feldman and Hossain, 2020; Kabeer, 2020; Muhammad, 2015; Rock, 2003). In less than twenty years, Bangladesh made a clear transition from a state of ‘aid-dependence’ to one of ‘trade-dependence’ (Sobhan, 2003), but it did so at the cost of worker’s voices (Feldman and Hossain, 2020). 

The literature on Bangladesh’s RMG sector, which comprises a considerable part of the scholarship on the global garment industry, has extensively focused on the role that buyers (brands and retailers) play in shaping the structures which pressure workers into insecure, low-paid and unsafe jobs (Bair et al., 2017; Muhammad, 2015; Anner et al., 2013; Yunus and Yamagata, 2012). Less attention, alas, has been drawn onto how local actors contribute to the maintenance of these very same structures (Siddiqi, 2015). With this, I do not intend to shift the ‘blame’ from global actors onto local ones. Rather, I aim to argue that the relationship that buyers, factory managers and the State maintain regarding Bangladesh’s garment industry has enabled them all to continue to profit on worker’s precarious labour.

It is the profitability of precarity itself, the low labour costs related to the suppression of workers’ organising, that draws multinational companies to Bangladesh (Ashraf and Prentice, 2019). As the corporate social responsibility (CSR) director of a renowned American Brand told Alessandra Mezzadri in 2013, ‘all large buyers want to source from Bangladesh due to very cheap labour costs’ (Mezzadri, 2017: 175). The government, taking this into account, has followed an agenda which is built upon an understanding that protecting the national RMG sector’s profits and protecting garment workers’ labour rights are incompatible goals. In the Prime Minister’s own words: ‘Government will not tolerate anarchism in the garment sector, as this is the main source of foreign exchange in the country’[1]. Instead, Bangladesh’s government, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the ILO have sought to ‘improve’ workers’ rights in the workplace through what Sanchez (2016) defined as industrial harmony – a conciliatory stance between workers and employers that is obtained through enhanced dialogue (ILO, 2015). As Sanchez argued in relation to working conditions in industrial India, however, industrial harmony often comes at the expense of the most precarious workers.

This is also clear in the case of Bangladesh, where scholars have proved that ‘soft, non-confrontational approaches are totally ineffective’ (Rahman and Langford, 2012: 102) and that militant protests, on the other hand, are an effective way for workers to advance their interests (Ashraf and Prentice, 2019). In the words of a garment worker, who used a Bangla proverb to illustrate this point: ‘A mother doesn’t give milk to her baby if it doesn’t cry’[1] (Baccha na kadle ma-o dudh deyna). Militant protests, however, have been increasingly met with violent crackdowns and state repression, as factories are known to hire ‘thugs’ to assault workers (Ashraf, 2017; Rahman and Langford, 2012), and the government’s aspiration of industrial harmony has largely focused on repressing workers’ struggles against exploitation, rather than making efforts to end precarity altogether.

This conflicted relationship between the State and garment workers’ unions or other forms of organising, however, is far from unique to Bangladesh (Ashraf and Prentice, 2019). Instead, the suppression of workers’ agency has been found to be a longstanding condition of global supply chains (Anner, 2012). Union membership among garment workers in the global South has always been low, which scholars have argued is partly related to the fact that global supply chains are based on and reproduce ‘niches’ of insecure, low-wage and non-organised workers (Muhammad, 2015; Tsing, 2009; Hurley, 2005). Garment workers rarely even dare to organise collectively, as they fear that this might cost them their jobs (Ashraf and Prentice, 2019; Khanna, 2011; Rock, 2003). In the particular case of Bangladesh, low levels of organising in the feminised RMG sector have also been found to be related to the predominance of male-dominated trade unions (Kabeer, 2004; Dannecker, 2000), local unions’ failure to resonate with workers’ needs and interests (De Neve, 2008; Ahmed, 2004) and negative perceptions of unions in general (Zajak, 2017; Kabeer, 2004). 

Although legislative reforms in the post-Rana Plaza period increased the number of factory-based unions from 138 to 540 by 2017 (Ashraf and Prentice, 2019), over 99% of Bangladesh’s over four-million garment workers remained non- unionised (Ashraf, 2017). This does not mean, however, that Bangladesh’s garment workers have failed to mobilise altogether, as spontaneous worker protests have been known to occur in moments of ‘evident-injustice’ (Ashraf and Prentice, 2019; Karim, 2014; Rock, 2003). In fact, according to an ILO deputy director, female garment workers in Bangladesh are ‘some of the most militant workers [he] encountered in many years of working [for the organisation]’ (Rock, 2003: 403). Although traditional organising has been faced with many obstacles, workers have not seized to fight. Unfortunately, as made clear by Lamia Karim (2014: 52), their struggle is yet to produce palpable change, as they have been caught in a ‘stranglehold of forces much greater than themselves’.

Deregulation, as previously stated, enabled capital to move where labour is cheapest (Breman, 2013). Cheap labour, however, is far from a natural condition, which meant that, in order to attract FDI, governments had to reduce the cost of labour. They did so through ‘processes of precarisation’, which keep wages and labour standards low and deprive workers of their labour rights (Ashraf and Prentice, 2019: 105). Indeed, when big fashion brands such as Primark and H&M subcontract production from low-wage countries such as Bangladesh, they do not simply outsource cheap clothes – they also outsource labour exploitation (De Neve and Prentice, 2017; Saxena, 2014). 

The geographic mobility of production has allowed buyers to threaten suppliers with the ‘relocation card’ (Wells, 2009). By threatening to move their order to another factory or country, brands and retailers have been able to maintain exceptionally informal relationships with garment manufacturers while demanding fast delivery and high quality at extremely low prices (Anner et al., 2013; Bair et al., 2017). In turn, these pressures have been transferred onto workers in the form of low wages, insecure employment, unpredictable working hours, quickened production rhythms, forced overtime, lack of health and safety measures, union busting and other working conditions that are uncoincidentally related to work in the garment industry (Kabeer, 2020a; De Neve and Prentice, 2017; Locke, 2013; Wells, 2009). 

The State, factory owners and brands all blame each other for pressuring workers, but the truth is that their ‘interlocking relationship’ ensures that they all make high profits at workers’ expense (Seabrook, 2014: 50). Indeed, the ‘implicit bargain’ of low labour costs struck between these actors has caught workers in a promise of better working conditions that is broken every day (ibid.: 29). 

Sofia Barradas

Master in Labour, Social Movements and Development

SOAS University of London

[This article is an adaptation of a chapter of the author’s Master’s dissertation, submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirement for the degree of MSc Labour, Social Movements and Development at SOAS University of London]


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