24 April, 2017

Giving a voice to Bangladesh’s Women Garment Workers

Nazma Akter 2
by nz_publisher

Nazma Akter’s journey in the garment industry began when she started work at age 11. Her experiences were reflective of the sector’s attitude towards workers who were, in her own words, seen as ‘just there to make the business a profit’.

Nazma was not content to accept the status quo of unsafe working conditions, poor wages and discrimination. Instead she chose to stand up and fight, not just for herself but for her fellow garment workers. Today Nazma is the head of AWAJ, a foundation with over 37,000 members dedicated to giving voice to Bangladesh’s women garment workers.  At Fairtrade, we believe in connecting shoppers with the people who make our clothes, so we interviewed Nazma Akter to learn more.

What has changed since last year?

Last year the Ashulia crisis occurred, during which [thousand of workers were sacked] and a number of workers were arrested and imprisoned. A number of unions have signed agreements with their companies to increase their salary and welfare benefits (festival bonus, day care centers, grievances mechanisms etc.). Factories with functioning unions leveraged their power to pass agreements with management that increased their power and benefits. Although the event was very difficult for the industry, it also served as an example of how unions can help stabilize the industry for the benefit of management and workers. 

What are the current developments?
We are continuing to work to stabilize the industry in the wake of the crisis. There is also increased price pressure in the industry, which is impacting on worker well being. Saying that, many things in the industry are improving. Women's participation is increasing, alongside improved safety and security, and factory infrastructure. Benefits for women are also growing, with greater recognition and implementation of benefits such as maternity leave etc. Workers themselves are more actively aware of and addressing decent working conditions. 

What obstacles currently still exist?
Low wages remain the key issue in the industry. This means living conditions and nutrition among workers continue to be of a very low standard and there is also a lot of pressure on workers to do excessive hours. It is also hard for workers to remain in the industry after the age of 40 due to high production pressure. Women are also under-represented among middle management and decision makers.  
Transparency in the industry is also still at a low level, so standards and subcontracting can be hard to manage. There is also limited access to education for children, which reduces opportunities for the next generation to reach a good standard of earning and living. 

Are there positive changes on the ground?
I started working in the garment industry in 1986 and have seen a huge number of positive changes since that time. The area that lags is wages. These remain far too low, while living costs are only increasing. Price pressure from brands is also intensifying, which means factory management have no option but to put increasing pressure on workers. We need to focus our efforts on better profit distribution in the supply chain, particularly between the brands and the factories, who need to be making enough money to pay workers fairly and maintain decent working standards.  

What should consumers do to help improve the situation of workers along the supply chain?
Consumers have been encouraged, through a culture of “buy one get one free” deals to want ever cheaper products and to want them now. But nothing in life comes for free. At the moment, women and workers are paying with their blood and sweat so consumers can enjoy cheap fashion. I don’t believe anyone really wants that. We all need to be able to eat well, have a decent life with access to education and healthcare. Let’s slow fashion down, and transform the industry to change people’s lives for the better.