Less than two months ago, the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. Since then, discussions about the ethics of the garment industry has reverberated around the world, with one of the key voices being Nobel Prize winner and founder of The Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus. DiA blog editor Emily Wight talks to him about the situation for garment workers and what he is proposing.
What you’re campaigning for at the moment is an international minimum wage. Can you tell me a bit about it?
It’s significantly women who work in the garment industry in Bangladesh. They’re producing garments for the international market, and they’re on a minimum wage of less than 25 cents per hour. These women are being exploited. Why should European consumers be wearing products which are made using slave labour, and not give them a decent wage like 50 cents per hour? That would make a tremendous change in their life, and the total cost of this to the consumer wouldn’t break the bank.
Consumers would have the satisfaction that their products are not being made by slave labour, but by employing dignified women who have a different life. They’d be thinking, “these women have a different life because I am making a change.” Everyone’s happy. This is not something that the industry in Bangladesh is imposing on the buyer, it’s the buyer from here saying “no, we will not allow anybody to pay less than 50 cents an hour, this is our minimum wage, we will not negotiate on that, we will not reduce it.”
Having an international minimum wage is the decision of the buyers, the big companies. It empowers the buyers not to want to pay anything less than what we think is living wage, a dignified wage for garment workers. If one buyer from the UK says, “I will not produce my garments in Bangladesh; they have to ensure that all workers in the factory earn more than 50 cents per hour”, this is the decision of the buyer. It also tells the consumers that companies are producing the same working conditions as they are for workers in the West, with a dignified working wage, a living wage.
Fashion chains recently signed a legally binding agreement to help finance building improvements in Bangladeshi factories. Do you think that’s a positive step?
It is a positive step, but it’s only related to one particular aspect of the whole problem. There are so many other aspects: one is building safety, one is physical safety, working environment, proper facilities for women, toilets, baby care, mother care, health, insurance – we can address those issues. But the basic issue is minimum wage. Once we can handle that, then other things can be handled. For instance, I’ve proposed introducing a new tax called a Happy Workers’ Tax. You have a tax which says, “these are workers, we are taking care of their health, so this is where additional money is added to the cost of providing this service, and this will be given to a company which will take charge of delivering these services to the workers and this will ensure the good quality of working conditions, good quality of health conditions, good quality of insurance, of children’s education.”
What would you say to people who argue that international minimum wage would affect the competitiveness of Bangladeshi garment industry?
I’d say, not at all. Bangladesh would still have the cheapest labour but at the same time have a living wage, and with good quality products because the efficiency would increase the momentum. If people were earning 50 cents an hour, they’d take it more seriously.
Do you believe that if workers are given more incentive to work and more benefits then they’d work better and efficiency would increase?
Much better. 25 cents has to cover the cost of rent of living in the city, and the cost of food as a separate entity, whereas when these women lived in a family there was no cost of rent or food because they’re all eating from the same pot. Now a woman will have to cover rent, food, clothing and also send money home. 50 cents rather than 25 would make such a difference to their lives.
Is there a large proportion of women working in garment factories?
85% are women. It has made huge steps for their independence and transformed the whole of society. Most of the girls are unmarried, and before it was impossible to think in a Bangladeshi family that an unmarried girl was allowed to go someplace on her own.
You spoke yesterday about how the garment industry has had a positive effect on women who want to get into work and become independent. Do you think the garment industry is positive for women in this respect?
Yes, very positive. It is the foundation of a modern Bangladesh, and has made a tremendous impact in our society. Bangladesh is a Muslim society; it’s a poor country where women in the villages are excluded: they’re not educated, they’re not exposed to the world and so on. For the first time, young girls are coming from the villages to the city, being independent, living by themselves, working and earning their own money, and sending money home. It has transformed the whole country, and society has accepted it. We’re not going back to saying, “women shouldn’t work, this is a Muslim country, we will not accept it.” Those kinds of issues have disappeared – even the conservatives have accepted it. There is a new outlook that we are part of a global, modern society.
Do you think that tragedies like the Rana Plaza disaster might put women off going to work and their families off letting them go to work?
In Bangladesh, the poverty is such that even after all this, people won’t be put off going to work. Only a few people will say “well, maybe she’ll get married and not worry about earning money”, but there’s such a desperate situation of forcing girls to work in the factories. Families will still send their girls to work.
What are the next steps in your campaign?
What we should be doing is making absolutely sure that nobody dies, that this is the last accident that ever happens in a Bangladesh factory. My mission is to agree on the international minimum wage and also introduce this Happy Workers’ Tax to bring benefits and in the meantime build security.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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