100 years after the Bread & Roses strike, guest blogger, Murray Worthy, Sweatshops campaigner at War on Want examines treatment of today’s textile workers.
It is now over 100 years since the Bread and Roses strike by garment workers in the US, yet now garment workers in Bangladesh face the same forms of exploitation, and the same struggle to secure their rights. In 1912, 20,000 mainly women migrant workers went on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts after their employers cut their hourly pay, following a reduction in the working week. They demanded an end to excessive hours, better pay and improvements in factory safety.
In 2012, over 3 million people work in the Bangladeshi garment industry, jobs outsourced to poorer countries by multinationals hunting for the lowest production costs. Again, the vast majority, 85%, are women, and they continue to articulate the same demands – an end to compulsory and excessive overtime, a living wage that provides enough to live with dignity, and a safe workplace.
Recent research by War on Want in the run up to the Olympics has shown the reality of for workers making clothes for Adidas, Nike and Puma. On average workers were paid just 16p an hour, earning just 5,600 Bangladeshi taka a month. To put this in the context the average household spent 5,000 taka a month on food alone, and another 2,000 taka on rent, in most cases a single room for their family – sharing toilets and kitchens with their neighbours. Faced with such low hourly wages, 30-40% of workers total earning were made up through overtime. The legal maximum working week in Bangladesh is 60 hours, yet every factory took advantage of a blanket waiver for the garment industry to employ workers in excess of this limit. Two thirds of the workers worked over 60 hours a week, and some up to 90 hours a week.
The experiences of many of the women in the industry tell a similar story. Rahima* works making baseball caps for Adidas in Dhaka; “I grew up in a village but my father’s earning from driving a rickshaw was not enough for our family. So at 16 I came to Dhaka in search of a job to contribute to the family’s income. The factory requires the workers to do more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Working overtime is compulsory. The workers are beaten if we refuse to do more hours.”
Despite these horrific conditions, the workers do not suffer, they fight to secure their rights. War on Want’s partners in Bangladesh, the National Garment Workers’ Federation are the largest trade union in the garment industry and have achieved huge progress in working conditions. In 2010 they won hard fought increases in the minimum wage, raising the earnings of the lowest paid garment workers by 80%. They have also pushed many factories to provide one day off each week, ensure that wages are paid in the first week of each month, and to secure May Day as a paid holiday across the garment industry.
But the fight for their rights is not restricted to campaigning in Bangladesh. As Amirul Haque Amin, the President of the NGWF explains “In the fashion trade the multinational companies are the main players and taking the majority of the profit from this trade. That is why the multinational companies should also take the major responsibility for the worker’s welfare, as well as the workers’ better condition and better wage.”
As the Olympics come to London this summer, War on Want will be demanding that these sportswear companies take responsibility for their workers and respect the rights of some of the world’s lowest paid workers. Through campaigning in the UK we can pressure these companies to live up to their responsibilities to the workers who make their clothes, and support the workers fighting for their rights in Bangladesh. *Names have been changed to protect workers’ identities