A new report courtesy of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) has shown that garment workers in Bangladesh and beyond are experiencing alarming nutritional deficiency rates. It indicates that those rates are strongly connected to low minimum wage and that inflation is pushing workers further into brutal poverty loops in which they struggle to secure the basic supplies they need to survive.
The current wage structure in Bangladesh’s garment industry is unsustainable. Increasing the minimum wage is a crucial step toward ensuring that workers and their families have the basic resources to survive.
The report, “Towards A Woman-Centered Living Wage Beyond Borders,” is incredibly timely. As you may have read, Bangladeshi garment workers, unions, and organizations are currently embroiled in wage negotiations. They are calling for the government to triple the Bangladesh minimum wage — which currently stands at 8000 Bangladeshi Taka (BDT) per month, which is roughly $74 at the current exchange rate — to 22,000-24,000 BDT ($203-$222). They are also asking for the government to review the minimum wage annually rather than every five years, which is the current setup. “It is not a huge demand,” AFWA’s Deputy International Coordinator Wiranta Ginting tells Remake. “It is very reasonable. The five-year cycle does not [align with] inflation.”
Further, adds Arifur Rahman, AFWA’s country coordinator, during a recent press conference helmed by Remake: “The current wage structure in Bangladesh’s garment industry is unsustainable. Increasing the minimum wage is a crucial step toward ensuring that workers and their families have the basic resources to survive. The last increase was in 2018, so 2023 is being looked at as a pivotal time after some difficult years of change.”
People don’t receive the same income as before the pandemic (due to varying factors including less work and inflation rates)
The difficult years of change Rahman refers to are, of course, related to Covid-19. Bangladesh’s garment industry counts for more than 80% of the country’s exports and employs more than 4.4 million workers, most of whom are women. The pandemic saw millions of these workers pushed deeper into poverty as factories were forced to shutter, many due to the billions of dollars worth of canceled orders from some of the world’s biggest fashion brands. (The Remake #PayUp campaign was launched as a direct response to the cancellations.)
“Covid made everything worse,” Ginting says. “People don’t receive the same income as before the pandemic (due to varying factors including less work and inflation rates) [so] people have to reduce their consumption, reduce their meals, and their healthcare situation, too.” The results of such cutbacks are outlined in the AFWA report and they are extremely worrying.
The report surveyed 1686 garment workers from seven garment countries — Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — across 206 garment factories. Women between the ages of 18-49 constituted the majority of those surveyed and most were supporting families with children under 15 years old. In Bangladesh specifically, they surveyed 304 workers across 63 factories. The average family size was 4.4, which is significant when considering that (given the nature and size of the garment industry in the country) women are often the primary breadwinners and thus often support the family on a minimum wage salary.
In regards to nutrition, the report found that in Bangladesh, those surveyed consumed 1950 calories — the nationally recommended standard is 2,122 — at a cost of 120 BDT per day. In other words, the price of food consumes 44% of their monthly salary, and yet the workforce is experiencing malnutrition en masse. As the report states: “The calorific figures raise extreme concerns as the consumption standards reported here are significantly below the international poverty standards. They depict a stark picture of the poverty and hunger prevailing in the industry due to current wage structures.”
“We will die without adequate food.” – Shapna, Bangladeshi Garment Worker
During the press conference, Shapna, a Bangladeshi sewing operator with 16 years of experience working within the garment industry, shared a first-hand account of how the current wage situation impacts her life and her family. She detailed a daily routine that starts with her prepping meals for her family at 5 am before commuting to work and returning home at midnight. The burden of support lies on her as her husband is sick so cannot work. Despite toiling such long hours, she is barely able to afford her children’s education or enough protein to nourish them.
“During Covid, I had to borrow money from local people,” Shapna recounted. “If any member of my family became sick, I had to borrow money again. I cannot repay the borrowed money while maintaining my family. It’s very difficult. I can’t afford my daily expenses with the current living wage. Sometimes we become sick because we don’t have good food. I can’t even leave my job because I have no other option. I can’t even understand how I maintain my family. If the situation prevails, we will die without adequate food.”
Beyond food, the “daily expenses” Shapna talks of include housing, healthcare, transport, education, and other essential basics. And when you put the price of all those things together, the AFWA calculates that the actual living wage is a lot higher than the minimum wage, even once the 3x increase that unions and workers are currently pushing for is taken into account. “The living wage requirement,” says Rahman, “is 51,000 BDT — five times the minimum wage. This is not an exaggeration, it is the real cost of living in this country.”
All of this illustrates that the current wage negotiations are a vital, humane step toward survival. They are an essential step towards ensuring that Bangladeshi garment workers like Shapna are able to afford food, send their children to school, live a life of dignity, and be fairly compensated for their contribution to an industry that is fundamental to the country’s growth and development.
“The living wage requirement,” says Rahman, “is 51,000 BDT — five times the minimum wage. This is not an exaggeration, it is the real cost of living in this country.”
As always, getting there is a case of solidarity throughout the entire supply chain. By working together, we can put pressure on the government and fight for wage increases, particularly during a time when all eyes are on Bangladesh and its treatment of garment workers, as this year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in which 1,138 people lost their lives.
“We request that the government, factory owners, brands, and buyers look at us and how we are actually living,” says Shapna. “We are working for you. You should support us. Wages are very important.”