Category Archives: A Closer Look

WATCH // Media Theorised: Reading against the grain


What role does advertising play in journalism? Who funds and controls media coverage? Why is representation so important? How are stereotypes produced and reproduced through the media? Does the medium that we use consume information matter?

And, what does any of this have to do with responsible fashion?

The Listening Post has produced a series of short animated films introducing five media theorists: Roland Barthes, Noam Chomsky, Stuart Hall, Marshall McLuhan, and Edward Said. Media Theorised is a project that calls for a critical engagement with the media, and is a nice resource to share with friends, colleagues and students.

Many of the entanglements highlighted by these theorists are brought to the surface through the project itself, with respect to how it is shared and consumed, and all of these tensions would make great topics for further discussion: for example, the fact that I am sharing this content with you through a blog post on an English-language website; that the Media Theorized project was itself developed by a media network (Al Jazeera), and that each video has little Google advertisements that pop-up, and sometimes play before the video starts—a  reminder of the role of advertising in media (briefly mentioned in the Noam Chomsky piece); or the fact that you may have found this post through social media, and may be reading this content on a tablet, phone or laptop.

A couple of years ago I briefly shared some thoughts on how one of these tensions plays out in media stories related to labour rights for IANS: sponsored content surrounding responsible fashion, where the lines between corporate interests, corporate social responsibility, and critical journalism (or even bad journalism, for that matter) become blurred. Although I was picking on The Guardian at that time, the takeaway was that a critical lens is needed when reading any and all media coverage related to these issues (including coverage produced on this site).

I hope you’ll find these resources relevant and interesting. I’ve embedded a couple of the animations below. Each film comes with an essay and a downloadable poster – who doesn’t love a good poster?

Counting factories, counting heads: garment work in Bangladesh and the trouble with numbers

How many garment workers in Bangladesh?


This blog post was inspired by an email I recently received from a colleague. She was doing some writing related to the garment sector in Bangladesh, and she asked me a very simple question:


“Is there a standard or particularly good reference on the garment industry in Bangladesh, or even on the numbers of people working there?”

Actually not a very simple question at all.

Immediately, I was reminded of a recent study out of NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights—a study I wanted to write a blog post about a while back, but didn’t.

I wanted to share the study, because I so love its presentation. It’s not very often that academic research is packaged in accessible and engaging formats. And this one was! You may have already come across it, and if you have then you know exactly what I’m talking about—it’s cool. It attempts to map factories in Bangladesh, and you can zoom in and out, and there are images, and statistics—who doesn’t love easy to digest figures? It’s very interactive, and its presentation reminded me a bit of the “The shirt on your back” interactive from The Guardian (launched on the 1 year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse). I wanted to share it with you as an example of how researchers can share findings in new and exciting ways.

The reason I didn’t share it with you is because—as usual—it’s all a bit more complicated than it seems: the research has been contested.

The study in question is “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s forgotten apparel workers” by Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly. According to the researchers, there are more than 7,000 factories in Bangladesh, with more than 5 million workers. These figures are a big jump from previous stakeholder estimates, which typically cite over 3,500 factories (sometimes estimated at 4,000-4,500), with approximately 4 million workers (sometimes cited as just less than this).

Researchers at Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights, alongside other academics, have critiqued the report.[1] These researchers determined that the Stern results were inflated as a result of a flawed research methodology (specifically with respect to data collection) and sought clarification. Here’s how it all went down:

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and Just-Style offer summaries that break this all down, but I recommend reading the original documents and responses listed above.

So, the official numbers are being challenged, but that’s not really the main point of the critique. What the researchers have seemingly found most problematic, is Stern’s use of the iceberg analogy—with ‘tip of the iceberg’ implying that efforts underway in Bangladesh to secure building safety since Rana Plaza (Accord, Alliance and the national initiative, specifically) are only just cracking the surface.

Essentially, all of the researchers agree that factory remediation in Bangladesh post-Rana Plaza is moving far too slowly. However, the Stern researchers have argued that the sector is much, much bigger than anyone cares to admit. And in doing so, they have determined that worker safety is just barely being addressed.

Now back to that email from my colleague: how many factories? How many workers? Estimates only at the moment, I’m afraid. In the end, I directed her to recent(ish) ILO figures (see here, for example).

It’s crucial to remember that the entire industry has trouble with numbers, not just Bangladesh. Accurate data on global fashion and apparel production is difficult, because so many of its moving parts (and people) remain out of sight.

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on modern slavery at the University of Edinburgh. We know garment work ≠ modern slavery in and of itself. But we also know that working conditions in fashion and apparel supply chains can sometimes mirror that of modern slavery. And we know that forced labour exists in this system. At Social Alterations we work to support rigorous research, and we want that research to be sensitive to, and respectful of, context. Because it has to be. The workers’ perspectives are those that matter and are those that should be prioritised.

But research also needs to be open and accessible, hence my original intrigue with the Stern interactive site. This is just one of the reasons we’re supporting research initiatives like Safia Minney’s Kickstarter project: Slave to Fashion. Check it out, and get involved if you can.


[1] It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time research out of Stern on the garment sector in Bangladesh has been questioned. On 22 May 2014 a group of very prominent labour and human rights academics published this open letter.

UBC Law Review publishes Nadira Lamrad’s “Transnational Business, CSR, and Governance in China”




The University of British Columbia Law Review has recently published one of Nadira’s papers.

Nadira presented “Transnational Business, CSR, and Governance in China” at the Corporate Social Responsibility in the Pacific Rim conference held in Vancouver on April 15, 2011 – a conference organized by The Asia Pacific Dispute Resolution Research Project, The Centre for Business Ethics Research Network (CBERN) and The National Centre for Business Law (NCBL).

So if you’ve ever wondered what Nadira’s up to with her research at City University in Hong Kong, have a look and get in touch!!










Mass Faintings, Fixed-Duration Contracts and the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia Program

You’ve likely followed the mass faintings of garment workers that have taken place in Cambodia this year. While most reports have cited gruelling working conditions and worker exposure to toxic chemicals as likely causes, reasons for the faintings remain unclear.

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Fast Facts // Cambodia

The face of the Cambodian garment worker is that of a young, rural female. (Tearing Apart at the Seams, Yale Law: Pg. 8 )

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Earlier this month, while investigating the faintings, the International Labour Committee’s Better Factories Cambodia (ILO-BFC) program offered various recommendations to factories, including the obvious suggestion that they adhere to full compliance with the Cambodian Labour Law (Media Update 06-08 August 2011 “Actions Have to Be Taken to Prevent Mass Fainting”: ILO-BFC)

Speaking of the Cambodian Labour Law…

Cambodian garment workers have seen a difficult year. Back in September, guest writer Dr. Robert Hanlon informed us on how the Cambodian court was cracking down on garment worker protests. The Clean Clothes Campaign still continues to fight for the reinstatement of workers who were fired during the protests: “Over 300 Striking Garment Workers Still Victimised.”

Add to this a recent report out of Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, “Tearing Apart at the Seams: How Widespread Use of Fixed-Duration Contracts Threatens Cambodian Workers and the Cambodian Garment Industry.”

The report highlights an amendment to relax restrictions on fixed-duration contracts would compromise the rights of garment workers under both Cambodian and international law. As a result, the authors advise the government not to amend the current labour law.

The Cambodian government has been considering amending the labor law to ease restrictions on fixed-duration contracts. The country’s apparel industry is already facing heightened international scrutiny because of the mass firings of workers who participated in a strike last year over low wages. One of the main competitive advantages of the Cambodian garment industry is its reputation for progress on protecting workers’ rights, so it is important to understand the human rights consequences of using FDCs and the impact that permitting their expansion could have on Cambodia’s competitiveness. (James Silk, director of the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic)

The study calls for the ILO-BFC program, along with other relevant parties, to work with stakeholders to support long-term contracts. In return, the program has stated it will investigate “how the general trend in using short term contracts can be converted in the industry wide understanding of the long term benefits of changing over to longer term employment relationships” (Media Update 17 August 2011, “Yale Law School releases a report on Fixed Duration Contracts”: ILO-BFC).

While we wait to learn how all of this will continue to play out, we thought we’d leave you on a positive note, and (re)draw your attention to an important health and safety education initiative we posted on our Facebook page a couple of weeks ago: The ILO-BFC’s Garment Workers Open University 2011.

Each Sunday, nearly 500 workers, from 20 garment factories, attended a full-day training to learn some basic knowledge about the Cambodian Labour Law, and obtain information about social protection services available to them. (ILO-BFC)

Check out the training resources available through the ILO-BFC, as well as their 2011 tentative training schedule. Click here for the list of active factories registered and monitored through the ILO-BFC.

The Call of Juarez // Profit in Violence

Since 1993, more than 1,400 women have been violently murdered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (Maquila Solidarity Network). Thousands more remain missing. These femicides have gone unsolved since the murders have not been properly investigated by local and/or international authorities. While the found bodies of women rest buried in mass graves, the killers roam free. Ciudad Juarez is a war-zone— no one is protected from the systemic violence and corruption that plagues its citizens.

In 2010 MAC cosmetics and American design house Rodarte partnered to deliver a limited edition line of cosmetics inspired by the plight of the Juarez woman. Products in the line were given names like “Factory” and “Ghost Town” and advertisements featured a young model looking…well, dead.

Despite being well received by industry, outcry from within the fashion blogosphere resulted in the cancelation of the line. As one commentator stated in response to the collection, “in a sweep of total insouciance, for chic U.S. women, ‘Factory’ is an abstract consumable concept, a shade of mint frost, whereas for Mexican women in maquiladoras, it’s a sweaty, oppressive place where they’re frequently harassed, threatened, raped, and killed.” (Sarah Menkedick) Both MAC and Rodarte have since issued apologies, with the cosmetics company promising to donate profits from the line (once it has been renamed) to a legitimate organization working within the region. There is still no word on these details, however.

Of course, women are not the only victims in Juarez. The city is home to one of the largest drug turf wars in the world. In the last four years, more than 8,000 people have been killed (averaging 8 murders per day). Last week alone, between Thursday and Saturday, 53 people were gunned down (NPR).

Set to profit from the violence this summer through the release of their new game Call of Juarez: The Cartel is the French video game company Ubisoft, There has already been outcry over the game, with critics claiming it dehumanizes victims. No apology from Ubisoft; they claim the game is purely fictional—take a look at the trailer and see for yourself.

Despite the violence and controversy surrounding this socially devastated region, some companies have decided to (re)invest in the maquiladoras there. According to Bob Cook, president of the Regional Economic Commission in El Paso, Texas, one of the draws to manufacturing in Juarez is that the violence has seemingly not targeted industry.

The violence has not targeted industry? Are factory workers not included in this category?

On October 28th of last year four people were killed when “gunmen opened fire on a trio of buses carrying nightshift maquiladora workers to communities outside the city.”

When the mass killings of women (it is estimated that over 1/3 of these women were working in maquiladoras) first surfaced over a decade ago, industry did little to protect workers, claiming it was not their responsibility because the attacks did not take place on their property.

“Maquila owners provide little help to resolve the infrastructure and social services crisis in Juárez that they helped create. In 2001 at the height of the factories’ prosperity, their owners gave Juárez only $1.5 million in a voluntary tax, according to the New Mexico State University-based research publication Frontera Norte-Sur. At the same time, according to the Canadian organization Maquila Solidarity Network, maquila exports from the Juárez region totaled more than $10 billion.” (Amnesty International USA)

To say that industry needs to step it up when dealing with Juarez would be an understatement.

The 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD) has come and gone (March 8th). With this year’s theme, equal access to education, training and science and technology: pathway to decent work for women, we remember the women and men of Juarez.

An excerpt from the controversial corrido “Las mujeres de Juaréz” by popular Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte:

Que hay varias miles de muertas en panteones
clandestinos muchas desaparecidas que me resisto
a creer… (es el reclamo del pueblo
que lo averigüe la ley….)

English translation: There are several thousand dead women, in secret cemeteries. So many women have disappeared, it is hard to believe. These people demand that the law must investigate. (Mariana Rodriguez, “¡SOMOS MÁS AMERICANOS!”: The music of Los Tigres del Norte as Grass Roots Activism)

New York Fashion Week vs. the Ready Made Garment Sector in Bangladesh: whose interests are protected when ‘special’ police hit the streets for fashion?

The fashion industry is often seen as a complicated paradox. So much so that many professionals working in the field of worker rights and environmental security frequently shy away from using the word ‘fashion’ itself. In its place, they vote for ‘garment,’ ‘apparel,’ ‘textile,’ etc. While it’s natural for industry jargon to vary—different circles will have their own set of terminology—it is important to recognize that in the end we are all talking about the same thing: fashion.

Fashion, after all, designs the stage and sets the pace for the performance. For our part, if we cannot connect human and environmental security issues taking place within the industry’s supply chain to the fashion runway, we haven’t dug deep enough.

We were reminded further of this truth this week with a recent Ethical Style post on the special NYPD ‘fashion’ police slated for New York Fashion Week. According to the article, the plain clothed officers are placed amongst the crowd (positioned on either side of the runway), to keep the peace from anti-fur activist protesters.

Continuing our coverage on Bangladesh, we’ve been meaning to write a story on the government’s reported consideration of a special “industrial police,” dedicated to keeping workers in the ready made garment (RMG) sector in line with an “iron hand,” according to a newspaper in Bangladesh (Clean Clothes Campaign).

So, on either side of the supply chain, the industry flexes its muscles against unrest. But, when it comes to the systemic oppression of basic human rights, coupled with unchecked environmental degradation, whose interests are being protected?

The truth is, when it comes to security there is no real paradox—the violations may be clear as mud, but we know where there are and how they got there.

Image Source: Anna Wintour targeted by PETA via Ethical Style and Bangladeshi garment workers via Fashioning an Ethical Industry

Bangladesh// The Details

Two weeks ago, SA founder, Mary Hanlon alerted us to a little reported story on massive worker strikes in Bangladesh.  Following that, we decided to create Social Alterations // Visual Lab and introduced The Bangladesh Project.  We noticed a lack of context in the reports circulating, so we decided to just go ahead and give our readers the details behind the story.  Although the protests were most dramatic during the past month, this story has been unfolding for a long time.

A Bangladeshi police slaps the face of a suspected protester during a clash with garment workers at Mirpur, Dhaka. Photo: Abir Abdullah/EPA via The Guardian

Let’s go back one year to July 2009.  The world economic downturn was in full swing.  In Ashulia, a major manufacturing center just outside of Dhaka, clashes were raging as “tens of thousands” of garment workers were protesting sudden wage cuts and unpaid salaries.  The protests began in late June and continued into July as they escalated in intensity with 2 workers dead, many injured, one case of factory arson and numerous incidents of vandalism.  The industry website Yarns and Fibers Exchange reported that:

“Since early 2008, salaries have been cut by an average of up to 30 percent, according to union leader Tauhidul Islam who said this week’s violence had been fuelled by desperation. “The workers hit the streets because their backs are up against the wall,” Islam said.

The government’s Factory Inspection Department said this week that 122 of 825 factories surveyed – or 14.7 percent – between January and May did not pay staff on time with eight not even paying the minimum wage.”

Spectators and workers watch as cloud of smoke billows out of the burning Ha-Meem Group complex at Narasinghapur in Ashulia. PHOTO: Shafiqul Alam / The Daily Star

The government’s response to these protests was a crackdown for fear of a loss of business.  In 2008, Bangladesh was one of the largest garment exporters in the world, second only to China.  This event, among others, provided even more pressure on the government to accept a proposal for the formations of an industrial police which had been on the table for a while.

According to official records released in August 2009,  Bangladeshi garment exports had reached an all time high in the previous fiscal year as the country became more competitive due to the economic crunch.  While the industry became competitive within the global market, manufacturers still had to compete within the national market.  As a result, manufacturers engaged in what has been described as a price war in an attempt to attract orders.  Because of this price war, industry insiders claim that they had to cut prices by 20% which decreased their profit margins.  But since many of the manufacturing companies are privately owned, fiscal data is not public and therefore these claims cannot be verified.

In the same month, the Minister of Industry alluded to a conspiracy by accusing “vested interests” of “trying to de-stabilise the ready-made garments sector” saying that “the government would not tolerate any attempts by these trouble makers to ruin the image of the garment manufacturing sector.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated that an “industrial police could be an effective way to keep the export-oriented garment industry calm.” The government positions are understandable considering that the ready made garments industry accounts for around 80% of total exports, 40% of industrial jobs, and is a substantial source of foreign exchange reserves which are a valuable tool for maintaining currency stability (among other things).  Incidentally, the Finance Ministry rejected proposals for an industrial police due to the costs.

During the month of Ramadan (August 22-September 20), workers became restless once more as they demanded back pay, unpaid allowances and their Eid bonuses.  Reports on this are confusing and I don’t know which side is telling the truth.  The New Nation published two articles that reported the following:

via Fashioning an Ethical Industry

“BGMEA [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] president Abdus Salam Murshedy yesterday told The New Nation that it would become very tough to handle the possible labour unrest … “Workers are demanding double bonus ahead of Eid-ul-Azha. They are raising some demands, which are not mentioned in the labour laws,” he said.”

“Under the labour law, there is no provision of paying festival allowances for garments workers”.

In those same articles the following was also reported:

“Labour leaders said workers are agitating for realisation of their just demands. They said workers are demanding full trade union rights and implementation of tripartite agreement of 2006.”

“The workers and employees are demanding two months’ salaries and full festival allowance, while traditionally any worker or employee is entitled to get festival allowance for his or her job for minimum one year.”

Either way, the industry demanded 30 billion Taka (~US$430,725,047) of government aid for the payment of wages and Eid bonuses by September 7th, 2009, complaining that the industry is struggling because the economic crisis caused a decrease in the number of orders.  This demand was rejected by the Finance Minister and later withdrawn by the BGMEA as an ‘error’. reported that the union deadline for payment (September 16th) was ignored as some factories shut down for the Eid holiday without paying wages and bonuses.  It is unclear whether this was a widespread problem or not.

During this time, leaders of Samannito Garments Sramik Federation “demanded [the] formation of a wage board and payment of Tk 5,000 as minimum wage”. Meanwhile, Commerce Minister Faruq Khan announced that “a tripartite committee representing government, garment owners and workers has been working to fix the minimum wages for the garment workers.”

A man attempts to throw a burning mattress while others pelt policemen with stones and brickbats during a clash between agitating garment workers and law enforcers in Tongi yesterday. Photo: Amran Hossain / The Daily Star

On October 31st, workers at Nippon Garments factory came to work in the morning to find a notice informing them that the factory had closed for one month because of the economic downturn.  This event sparked violent clashes during which police fired rubber bullets in response to  stones and bricks being thrown by protesting workers.  A committee formed November 1st to investigate the events announced its findings in December asserting that “both the garment factory owner and the law enforcement agencies [are] at fault for the widespread violence that left three people dead.”

In January 2010, Touhidur Rahman, President of Bangladesh Poshak Shilpa Shramik Federation, told the The New Nation that a written demand for the formation of a wages commission was submitted on December 12th.  Salahuddin Swapan, President of Bangladesh Biplobi Garment Shramik Federation, claimed that the government had repeatedly assured them that a wages commission would be formed immediately to review the minimum wages of RMG workers.  He added that:

“We will wage movement by the first week of February. At first we will do conventions in different garment zones and later will hold a national convention to press home our demands…[n]ow we are sure that the government will not respond positively unless we go for tough movements.”

According to Bangladeshi labour law, wages are to be reassessed and adjusted every 3 years.  The last time that had happened was October 2006 meaning that the government was long over due.  January also saw further isolated clashes with 2 dead and numerous injuries.  The first wage commission meeting was held on January 24th but the BGMEA representative was absent leaving factory owners open to criticism that they were stalling the process.  BGMEA president Abdus Salam Murshedy informed The New Nation that considering economic conditions, it was “impossible” for factories to pay higher wages and suggested that the government step in and provide workers with subsidies on necessities.

Worker unrest and the conditions related to it is a source of worry to global retailers and in February it was reported that they had “written a letter to the Bangladesh Prime Minister requesting her to take ‘swift’ measures to increase the minimum wage of nearly two million readymade garment (RMG) workers.” However, the same report pointed out that

Garment workers shout slogans as they block a street in Dhaka. Photo: Andrew Biraj/Reuters via The Guardian

retailers were paying lower prices than before for Bangladeshi products.  The retailer perspective was also in the news in March as France 24 reported that Bangladesh is “too cheap for comfort for some brands” explaining that the letter sent in January included Walmart, H&M, Carrefour and Levi Strauss.

“Current minimum wages “do not meet the basic needs of the workers and their families,” the letter said, adding that the government should set up a review board to reassess the minimum wage.

“The increased cost of living during 2008 and 2009 has contributed to the unrest among workers in the garment sector as wages have not been regularly revised,” the letter added.”

The report also included statements made by an unnamed source:

“”It’s absolutely unacceptable that minimum wages are just 25 dollars,” the Dhaka-based head of a top Western store, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

“We pay enough to factory owners, but we don’t think that the benefits trickle down to workers or are being spent on improving conditions,” he added.”

Other brands like Zara, JC Penny, Uniqlo, Tesco and Marks & Spencer have decided to forgo the middlemen and created their own liaison offices in Dhaka to “keep an eye on the conditions in which their branded goods are produced.” On the other hand, factory owners claim that the ‘concern’ of the retailers is a stunt pointing out that retailers have slashed order prices in response to low global demand.  Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, a factory owner and “vice president of the country’s leading exporters group” was quoted in the report complaining that:

“It’s not fair that they want us to hike workers’ salaries while the buyers continue to cut order prices”

Police say thousands of workers clashed with security forces at Ashulia via BBC

In another article in The Daily Star, BGMEA president Murshedy pointed out that the letter sent by retailers failed to mention unit prices and a need for an increase in order prices.  According to him, operation costs have increased by 25% over the past year but his order prices remain the same.

Isolated clashes continued throughout this time and in early April at a meeting organised by Garment Shramik Sangram Parishad (a platform of garment workers) in Dhaka, 7 worker demands were reiterated:

  • Minimum wage at 5,000 Taka
  • Changes to labour regulations
  • Amend the Bangledeshi Labour Act of 2006 to match ILO convention
  • Punish non-complaint factory owners
  • Shut down unsafe factories
  • 1 million Taka (~US$14,358) compensation to the families of workers who die due to safety violations
  • Ensure the flow of gas and electricity to factories

President of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), Fazlul Hoque, agreed that there was a need for a wage hike but again pointed to other factors that need to be considered like productivity and inflation.  He also “called upon the workers to leave the labour leaders who exploit them, provoke rampage in the factories and destroy properties.”

Meanwhile, the government activated their security apparatus which created 8 “crisis management cells” situated in the main garment manufacturing districts.  The intelligence agency had a government mandate to investigate and “identify the culprits who were involved in making garment sector unstable through creating artificial chaos”.  Continuing with the conspiracy theme, The New Nation reported that following a meeting at the Ministry of Labour and Employment sources informed them that:

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Photo via The Daily Star

“the Government believes that a vested quarter is active in the field to deteriorate the law and order situation in the country through raising differences among the owners and workers of the RMG industry.

They are trying to destroy the highest foreign exchange earning sector through creating chaos. To this effect they start to ransack in the garment factories on simple issues…

There are allegations against some labour leaders that they were destroying the RMG sector through creating chaos in a planned way. To stop their unruly activities the Government has ordered the detective agencies to investigate the legal status of their organisations.”

At the same meeting, a BGMEA representative was present and stated that the industry was being held hostage by “10 to 12 so called labour leaders.” It is unclear whether any of the “so called labour leaders” were present at this meeting.  However, they were present at the second wage board meeting that took place in April during which the board requested that detailed reports from both sides of the issue.  A statement made by the Minister of Labour and Manpower, Mosharraf Hossain, to the AFP promised a wage hike within 3 months.  This promise came as large-scale clashes rocked the country and labour unrest was no longer an isolated incident.

Speaking on May Day, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accused a “third party” of instigating unrest: “I’ve already come to know about the evil force, the persons involved in conspiracy to create unrest in the garment sector”.  The Minister of Labour called for the creation of labour unions saying that “[o]therwise the problems of the garment factories won’t be solved”.  Later in the same month, factory owners released their minimum wage proposal of 1,800 (~US$26) to 2,200 (~US$32) Taka/ month.  And as World Cup fever spread across the world, France 24 quoted one factory owner: “My garment factory has bled cash over the last few months as we lacked export orders due to the global meltdown…[b]ut over the last two weeks, I have used 50 workers to sew World Cup flags and made a great profit. Next month, I’ll be able to pay workers on time”.

In June, large-scale protests continued and the world finally began to take notice.

The numbers were small at first and increased quickly from 8,000 workers in Jamgarh district of Ashulia to 50,000 workers in Ashulia industrial area.  Clashes with government security forces were fierce as reports of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons were disseminated.  Many factories shut down for a short time fearing vandalism and violence.  The local police chief stated that protesters blocked a key highway, ransacked factories, fired live rounds and threw rocks.  These events were accompanied by a threat of a nation-wide wage-hike campaign.  The BGMEA responded with an appeal to workers:

“We have been reeling under acute gas and power crisis, which has affected our productivity…[a]nd now comes the call for shutdown from the unions. They should be logical. We have yet to bounce back from global meltdown and it is not the right time to seek such a huge wage hike”.

Factory owners suspended production indefinitely which alarmed many workers who took to the streets to protest the action.  After meeting with government representatives, production facilities opened again with assurances of safety and protection from violence and vandalism.  Again, clashes erupted 3 days after opposition parties called for a nation-wide general strike prompting the arrest of 131 opposition activists.  It is unclear how the garment worker protests are related to the general strike protests.  Still, at the end of June and into early July, scores of garment workers came out to protest prompting the dispatch of riot police.  Photos were released showing children, women and men being beaten by the police using batons and bamboo.  On July 2nd, garment workers began a month-long peaceful agitation program waiting until the results of the wage board negotiations on July 27th.

In mid-July, the New York Times published an article entitled Bangladesh, With Low Pay, Moves in on China, in it, Li & Fung, one of the largest sourcing companies in the world, explained that they had increased their production in Bangladesh by 20% in the past year while decreasing production in China by 5%.  The article also discussed the wage issue with factory owners arguing that a big increase of wages will make them less competitive not just against China but also against other cheap labour countries like Vietnam and Cambodia because those countries have better infrastructure and productivity levels.  The article ends with a foreshadowing statement by factory owner and former head of an unspecified Bangladeshi garment industry trade group, Anisul Huq:

“If it’s 5,000 taka, I would close all my factories…[e]ven if it’s 3,000 taka, lots of factories will close within three or four months.”

Garment worker Kulsi Begum, 20, shares this room with two other workers. They pay 1,500 taka rent a month, which is a large part of their 1,662 taka monthly salary. August 2009, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Taslima Akhter / Clean Clothes Campaign

The wage board announced two days ago that the new minimum wage would be set at 3,000 Taka (~US$43).  This amount includes a 200 Taka allowance for medical expenses and an 800 Taka allowance for housing leaving workers with 2,000 Taka (US$29) for other expenses.  The Daily Star reported that the factory owners’ representative would sign the deal today (July 29th) after adding some conditions including security for factory owners, release of an industrial stimulus package, a four-month time frame for implementation, zero tax at source, reduction of ship turnaround time at Chittagong port, and suspending a minimum charge on the use of gas and electricity.  Meanwhile, reports are mixed on the reaction of labour groups to the new minimum wage.  In the same Daily Star article as above, it was reported that:

“Towhidur Rahman, a coordinator of the Garment Sramik Oikya Parishad, said, “Tk 3,000 is not enough. I urge the government to reconsider the proposed pay structure.”

…Labour leaders and garment workers yesterday protested the proposed pay.

“We reject the proposed wage structure. We will stage demonstrations against the proposed pay in early August,” said Mushrefa Mishu, president of Garment Sramik Oikya Forum, at a rally in the capital’s Muktangon area.”

In an article published by the Jakarta Globe yesterday, unions claim that workers will accept this wage hike adding that “[n]early a dozen left-leaning unions, none of whom had representatives on the wage board, organized a protest in Dhaka on Wednesday, but the demonstration’s turnout was low.” The new minimum wage of 3,000 Taka will be formally announced today at 5pm by Labour and Employment Minister Hossain.  As for other demands, we just have to wait and see.

SA Visual Lab// The Bangladesh Project

A Bangladeshi policeman hits a child with a baton during clashes with a garment workers in Dhaka. Image via The Guardian, Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images.


Last week, Mary wrote about the large scale garment worker protests in Bangladesh. If you don’t know about this issue, I urge you to read more on Mary’s post as well as other sources such as The Guardian, Reuters, and The Daily Star. To view a powerful photo gallery click here. 

In February 2010, the Bangladesh Garments Workers Unity Council, a federation of Bangladeshi garment worker organizations, submitted a list of 5 demands to the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA).  These demands are: 

  1. increase the minimum wage to 5,000 Taka
  2. removing labour (Amendment) act-2009
  3. cease plans to form an ‘Industrial Police’
  4. fixing production rates prior to production
  5. ensure the freedom of association and to form unions as per ILO conventions

At the moment, workers are near the end of a “month-long peaceful agitation programme to press home their five-point demand”.  SA will continue the coverage on this situation including in-depth posts on the worker demands. 

SA founder Mary Hanlon shares her message.


Social Alterations has put together a visual message to the workers and others involved.  Bangladeshi garment workers need our support to increase their hourly wage. By uploading your photo and message, you are not only allowing these workers to see your face, but you are also empowering them with the simple statement that you can see them, and that they are not alone. 

 The United Nations defines extreme poverty as individuals living on less than a dollar a day…current minimum wages in Bangladesh sit at 11.5 cents/hour (that’s 25$ per month and less than a dollar a day). 

Upload your photo to flickr and tag the image “SABangladeshProject”: once you have done this, your photo will be added to the pool of public images under this same tag: Please be sure to tag the image #SABangladeshProject, or we won’t be able to find you! If flickr is not for you, you can upload to the SA facebook fan page, or thorugh twitter (@SA_FashionLab). You can also email us your photo and we will upload it for you.  

Don’t forget to tell us where you are sending your photo from! 

Not sure what to write on your sign? Here are a few suggestions to get you started: 

“Bangladesh needs a living wage now!”
“I support Bangladeshi garment workers!”
“ < 1.00 $/day = extreme poverty”
“In Solidarity”
“Less than 1$ a day is extreme poverty: Bangladeshi garment workers deserve better”

Less than a $ a day = not good enough!

A fan from Kaohsiung, Taiwan with their message.


Update III: Uzbekistan’s Cotton Trail

Yet another update on forced and child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.

The Cotton Campaign continues to report on the flagrant abuse of human rights by the Uzbek government.  There have been some unfortunate incidents linked to this year’s harvest (to read more about them click below) including:

Another post gives a quick overview of the findings in the Veritas  preliminary report saying that:

The Cotton Campaign, through, has posted a list of representatives that were present at the Tashkent Cotton Fair.  According to the Cotton Campaign, “contracts were signed for over 600,000 tons of this year’s crop alone, and the list of attendees was the largest ever.”

Take a look at the list and see if you recognize any names. Please let us know who they are and which companies they service.  This is a big step in the ability to trace this harvest.

Finally, in case some are still wondering what the big deal is, here are some videos showing what life is like for the cotton labourers.

Update II: Forced Labour in Uzbekistan


Children working the cotton fields this year in Uzbekistan.
Children working the cotton fields this year in Uzbekistan.

In August, SA posted an update on Uzbekistan’s forced and child labour in the Cotton sector. SA continues to follow the story and unfortunately, matters have continued to decline.  As expected, the Uzbek government is once again relying on forced and child labour during this year’s harvest season.  The Cotton Campaign (through reports that 8 out of 12 provinces have kicked off a mass mobilization into the cotton fields.  It is quite disappointing to learn that this practice continues in Uzbekistan despite government guarantees that child labour is banned.  Perhaps the trouble is that there continues to be a market for Uzbek cotton regardless of the way it is harvested.  We urge you to head over to Cotton Campaign and sign the petition against Child Labour in Uzbekistan.

The Cotton Campaign also points to an Independent World Report article on this issue that points out that Unicef, which has a significant presence in Uzbekistan, is not addressing this situation.  The article also targets two major retailers, H&M and Inditex (Zara and Bershka), that are both sourcing some of their garments from suppliers in Bangladesh which in turn source some of their cotton from Uzbekistan.  One of the excuses used by some brands is that it’s difficult to trace the source of a garment’s cotton.  The article dismissed this excuse with a quote from Juliette Williams from the Environmental Justice Foundation:

“Identifying the source of cotton used by major brands and all the steps along the supply chain is possible. It can be done and has been done. No one thinks that tracing cotton is simple. But, it is certainly not impossible. Look at companies like Tesco and Wal-Mart, which have made a public commitment to avoid Uzbek cotton. The fact that cotton at its various stages of production and processing is traded internationally is important, as there is always paperwork that enables transit through customs. In short, we know that at every stage somebody knows where the cotton is coming from. Companies need to spend some effort, ask the right questions and let their suppliers know what is required, or, in the case of Uzbek cotton, what they want to avoid. They do it for quality reasons, why not for ethical reasons too?”

We would like to know more about the traceability issue.  Is it really as difficult as some claim?  What are the factors that are preventing some brands from moving forward on this?  We would like to hear from you.  Please help us learn about this and leave a comment below or contact us.

Special thanks to Cassandra Cavanaugh from Cotton Campaign who let us know that Kohl’s has now joined the boycott.

Source: Cotton Campaign, & Independent World Report.