Pay 2p more to garment workers, selfish Western companies

First published for Oxfam at http://tinyurl.com/35mh5km


According to a report released by ActionAid on Monday 5th July, a £4 t-shirt bought from Asda provides the retailer with £2.80, the supplier £1.18½, and the worker who uses their bare hands to assemble a throw-away item to a Western consumer- just 1½p.

The week before, garment workers across Bangladesh, where Asda has five factories, took to the streets.

The Bangladesh Sun said: “low wages, poor working conditions and non-compliance of past agreements by employers have resulted in recurring industrial violence”.

The Guardian explained that: “lower paid workers earn a minimum monthly salary of 1,660 taka, equivalent to less than £18. They have demanded an increase to 5,000 taka. Owners said last week they could pay no more than 3,000 taka a month.”

ActionAid actually sets the “living wage” in Bangladesh at 10,754 taka.

Photographs have emerged of police, working on behalf of the government, apparently hitting children during the riots.

Like low-paid workers across the world, most of the garment makers in Bangladesh are women.

At first, the government shirked responsibility. There was not a problem.

According to journalism.co.uk after the riots began, the Information Minister Abdul Kalam Azad announced plans to introduce a new law to target “yellow journalism”.

He is reported as saying: “newspapers and television and radio channels that are making false and misleading news to tarnish the image of ministers, lawmakers, the government and the country are in fact doing yellow journalism”.

Bad, “yellow” journalism? Or reporters capturing images of violence that bring the police, and possibly the government into disrepute?

Now, according to several English language Bangladeshi newspapers, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has promised an early pay revision for the ailing sector, saying current levels were “too little to meet the basic needs of life”.

It is unsurprising the Prime Minister has made such a move. The garment industry accounts for more than 80% of Bangladesh’s £10bn annual export earnings, according to commerce ministry data.

The Bangladesh Daily Star reported that European Union delegates led by the EU Ambassador Stefan Frowein have visited the region.

Not to help mediate, or call Western companies to account for taking profits over fairness, but to express “concern” from European consumers about the unrest.

But has anything been vocalised on the British High Street about a scarcity of fashionable garments? Do most people even know this is happening?

Should the EU, with its growing influence as a global actor, be trying to find those who can make the workers pay up to a “living wage”? So the “market”, a sterile word that masks suffering at the bottom of the supply-chain, need not be disrupted again.

Oxfam explains: “Through the World Trade Organisation and regional and bilateral trade agreements, corporations now enjoy global protection for many newly introduced rights.

“As investors, the same companies are legally protected against a wide range of governments’ actions.”

Ultimately, it may not be the Bangledeshi government’s call.

So, is it clear who should be making the sacrifice?

Asda, the UK’s second biggest supermarket, behind Tesco, with desires to over-take Primark as the cheapest clothes retailer made profits of half a billion pounds in 2008.

Walmart, its US parent company and the third-biggest company in the world, made a £16.3 billion profit from sales- equivalent to the economic output of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka combined.

From a £4 t-shirt, nearly three quarters of that goes right in ASDA’s pocket, and the shareholders who get that money won’t have sewn a stitch

ActionAid believes that if ASDA paid just 2p more on every t-shirt it buys from developing countries, its workers could afford to feed and clothe their families.

A drop in the bucket for the ‘family-friendly’brand.

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