The minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25 per hour. For the fulltime worker, working 40 hours a week, that equates to $58 per day, $290 per week, $15,080 per year. The federal poverty level for an individual is $11,770, and for a family of four is $24,250. There has long been a call to raise the minimum wage in the U.S., one which I fully support. However, I cite these figures today for comparative purposes.
In Bangladesh, 3.5 million workers in 4,825 garment factories produce goods for export to the global market, principally Europe and North America. Nearly every major clothing store in the U.S. sells clothing made in Bangladesh, including Macy’s, The Gap, Wal-Mart, L.L. Bean, Sears, J.C. Penney and many more too numerous to list. While you may pay $40 for that pair of Lee jeans you are wearing, or $75 for the Anne Klein sweater you gave your sister for Christmas, the people who made those items are earning far less than subsistence wages.
In Dhaka, garment workers earn 5,300 taka, about $66.39 US dollars, per month, or about $797 USD per year. Bangladesh is the second largest clothing exporter after China, yet has the lowest minimum wage in the world. The minimum wage rate was increased in 2013 from $38 USD per month.
Last month, workers in Ashulia, a hub for garment factories on the outskirts of Dhaka, tens of thousands of workers joined a large protest for a raise in pay. What they got, however was not what they had hoped for. The protest caused some 50 factories to shut down for a week, many were arrested, and more than 1,500, including some who were not part of the protest, lost their jobs and were blacklisted. Some of those who lost their jobs now fear harassment by police.
The minimum age for employment in Bangladesh is 14, however many smaller factories employ children much younger and pay them only a portion of what adults are paid.
There is also a safety factor to consider. In 2013, known as the Rana Plaza disaster, a run-down eight-story factory complex making clothes for Primark, Benetton, Walmart and other Western brands collapsed, killing 1,138 and injuring more than 2,500 workers. The death toll was eight times that of the historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. One factory worker described working conditions:
“Since the disaster, employees have to work harder. They have higher production targets. If they cannot fulfil them they have to work extra hours but with no overtime. It is very tough; they cannot go for toilet breaks or to drink water. They become sick. They are getting the minimum wage as per legal requirements but they are not getting a living wage.”
When workers took to the streets to protest back wages owed to them, as well as working conditions after the Rana Plaza disaster, police opened fire, used tear gas and batons, injuring at least 50. Western clothing companies, who benefit greatly from cheap labor in Bangladesh factories, were asked to contribute to a compensation fund for the victims, but a year after the disaster, only 5 of the 27 brands had offered to help.
We all complain from time to time about our jobs, working conditions, bosses, salaries, etc. – it is human nature, I think. My daughter and a number of my friends have truly legitimate complaints, and I empathize. However, I think that when we put things in perspective, most U.S. workers have it pretty good. Certainly there is room for improvement, but there always will be. It is all relative – the minimum wage in the U.S. ranks 11th worldwide (see chart below), however Bangladesh is at the bottom of that ranking.
As I was writing this piece, I needed to go upstairs for a sweatshirt, as it is cold downstairs today, so I decided, just out of curiosity, to check the labels on a few articles of my clothing. I found a pair of jeans was made in Egypt, while a t-shirt was manufactured in India. But the one that confounded me was the sweatshirt of which the label says, “manufactured in EU, assembled in Mexico”. It’s a sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, not a 5,000-piece puzzle. Two arms, a front and a back … and they needed to send it from the EU to Mexico to sew those four parts together? I’m still scratching my head over that one!
It should also be noted, though it is not my reason for writing this post, but merely an aside, that some of the shirts in Donald Trump’s line of clothing are made in Bangladesh, while the rest are manufactured in China, Honduras and Vietnam. Make of that what you will.
I do not know what the solution to the working conditions and low wages in Bangladesh are … I wish I did. To boycott products manufactured in that country would only exacerbate the problem, as factories would close, workers would lose their jobs altogether, and poverty would increase. So, while I have no solutions, I think it is necessary for us to be aware. Aware and thankful, for our lives could be so much worse, and I think we often forget that.