Superprofits from Bangladeshi workers

FRFI 216 August/September 2010

At least 800,000 people work at more than 1,000 factories in Ashulia, 20 miles north of Dhaka. Factories there turned out £8 billion worth of clothes last year – nearly 80% of the country's total exports. Much of their output ends up in UK stores. Marks & Spencer sources from three factories in the area where the protests took place. Bangladesh has been one of the fastest growing zones of production over the past two years, as other Asian countries, particularly southern China, became too expensive for western retailers after wages rose 30% this year.

Up to 50,000 workers protested in the industrial zone outside Dhaka and 1,000 riot police retaliated with live ammunition, rubber bullets, teargas and water cannon. One worker died after being shot in the back by police, who also injured at least 100 people.

The workers, mostly women, are demanding wages of at least 5,000 taka (£48) a month. The current minimum wage, set in 2006, is £16. For many, the situation is even more desperate. Not only have workers had to face rising inflation over the past four years, but factories have cut wages by 20-30% in a bid to compete for orders with other Asian countries such as Vietnam, China and India. Unskilled workers in the garment sector receive just 800 taka (£7.63) a month and are often forced to work 14-16 hours a day.

European retailers, like Marks & Spencer (which made over £800m profit in 2009), Tesco and H&M are lobbying the Bangladeshi government over ‘ethical sourcing’. This may make for good PR in the west, but as long as these companies are not prepared to pay higher wages to the workers in Bangladesh, it is mere window-dressing.

When the government last raised the minimum wage in 2006, workers took to the streets to protest saying it was still not sufficient to meet their families’ needs. The situation for low- paid workers in Bangladesh is dire, with many families unable to feed themselves or afford adequate housing and factory conditions remaining poor. In March this year 21 workers died and 50 were injured in a fire at an H&M factory 50km north of Dhaka.

In Britain, with the recently announced rise in VAT, we know that corporations like M&S will push down harder on their most oppressed workers – those who make their products in Asia – rather than lowering the pay of their top earners, such as new boss Marc Bolland, who will take home £14.8m this financial year, including a yearly salary of £975,000.

Anthony Rupert


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