Garment workers linked to M&S ‘underpaid’

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WORKERS manufacturing clothes for Marks & Spencer (M&S) employed in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India continue to be underpaid, a report by Labour Behind the Label has revealed.

The workers’ rights group states that wages being paid by M&S supplier factories are far less than is required to maintain a decent standard of living. This is despite the company’s claimed ‘Plan A environmental and social policy’ in the three Asian countries.

According to the plan, M&S was to ‘implement a process to ensure (its) suppliers are able to pay workers a fair living wage’. However, while the London-headquartered company said that its target as per this policy was achieved in 2015, the report shows otherwise at three factories each in Sri Lanka and India and two factories in Bangladesh.

The report shows that in Sri Lanka, the average monthly basic wage paid at M&S’s supplier factories was LKR13,500 (£64, 83 euros, $93). This falls short of the LKR33,000 that is needed – according to campaigners – for a decent living in the subcontinent.

Moreover, Labour Behind the Label spoke to workers there, most of whom are living in a single room under a tin-roof, which has no access to running water. The average monthly wage in India stood at Rs6,284 (£64, 82 euros, $92), which is 50% below that needed for a decent living, according to the workers.

Those interviewed in India said that the money was enough to provide their families with shared toilet and tap water facilities, but it was difficult to meet food and education expenses on that salary. In Bangladesh, while only a small number of workers making clothes for the retailer were interviewed, it was found that all of them lived in slums and earned a maximum of BDT8,000 (£70, 90 euros, $101) even after working overtime.

This fell short of the BDT15,000 required to meet basic living expenses. Anna McMullen, a campaigner with the rights group said that she was ‘disappointed and angry’ as M&S had fallen short of its promises. ‘Everybody was lauding M&S as having achieved something great, but when we checked it out, there hasn’t been an effect,’ she said before calling on the retailer to be more transparent.

An M&S spokesperson claimed: ‘We are committed to further improving working conditions in our clothing supply chain and our work since 2010 has made a significant difference.’

Meanwhile, Archana Rampure, a senior officer with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) National Services department, has produced an account of the union’s recent delegation trip to Bangladesh. There are over 5,000 readymade garment factories in Bangladesh, she wrote.

Despite years of organising, fewer than 60 of them actually have trade unions, which represents about 20,000 out of four million garment factory workers. The Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) invited a trade union delegation comprising CUPE (Sharon Hubely from CUPE 1867 and Archana Rampure from CUPE National), PSAC, USW and UNIFOR to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

This was the second delegation to Bangladesh CUPE has participated in following the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in April 2013. Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of BCWS, travelled in 2014 to Canada to expose the conditions under which so many women work in Bangladesh.

After her visit CUPE committed to meeting with these workers to see and hear firsthand accounts of the working conditions. The delegation arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, on February 3rd and spent the first few days meeting with, and listening to, workers in the garment industry.

Many workers are primarily young women and have moved to the city from rural areas.

Desperately looking for work, they are forced into factories. The normal workday is supposed to be eight hours, but is generally at least 10 and often 12 hours, with the extra hours being mandatory unpaid ‘overtime’.

The delegation heard amazing stories from young women who have been working in factories since they were 12 or 13 years old and were fired for trying to organise unions. Many workers told of the pressure to meet production quotas, not being allowed lunch, or even water and bathroom breaks. They have endured physical and emotional abuse.

Some workers who tried to organise have been arrested on false charges of terrorism. Other workers were beaten and their families were intimidated. Almost all of them have been threatened with the loss of their jobs if they did not lie to outside auditors and state that working conditions were great.

Workers told how they were forced to sign papers showing that they received amounts of money vastly inflated from what they were actually paid. One woman told her story of being videotaped while receiving her maternity benefits and then having them forcibly taken away.

The delegation was told about former colleagues being fired for speaking out, or arrested, beaten and blacklisted from the industry so that they are no longer able to make a living. These are not the working conditions of people living in the 1800s. These are the current conditions under which millions of mostly young women work to produce cheap clothing for large multinational corporations, whose demand in the West continues to grow exponentially.

Over four million Bangladeshis work in this sector. Their work helps bring in over 75 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange, yet the vast majority of them work for less than $100 CDN a month. The delegation visited the sites of the Rana Plaza building collapse and the Tazreen Fashion factory fire with Akter, who recounted the tragedies that took the lives of over 1,300 workers.

Akter told about going into the Tazreen building and retrieving documents that showed that brands such as Wal-Mart were sourcing work from that building. When the company tried to deny their presence in the building and therefore their culpability in the fire, the documents she collected helped to prove what really happened.

Many of the workers believe that their only hope is to pressure the global brands, so they will compel the factory owners they subcontract work to in Bangladesh, to respect health and safety regulations and the right to organise unions.

Workers appealed to the delegation to ensure that consumers in the West understand the conditions under which they work, and to expose the brands that continue to look the other way. There is a feeling among workers that if Canada actually cared about the conditions under which they work, the government would make access to the Canadian market dependent upon better working conditions.

The conditions should include a living wage and access to public services such as health care, clean water, and health and safety regulations that are actually enforced. The BCWS offers hope in the middle of this dreadful situation.

With a handful of organisers, three labour lawyers and a few other dedicated staff, the centre tries to provide education about workers rights under Bangladesh’s labour laws. This work has drawn the ire of the authorities, and the centre’s staff have been arrested, threatened and beaten.

In one case, their colleague Aminul Islam was murdered. Despite the constant threats the centre keeps doing the work, and workers keep organising. If there is any hope for the millions of unorganised garment industry workers in Bangladesh, it lies in the determination of the activists the delegation had the privilege of meeting over the last few days. Their courage in the face of such incredible odds left everyone in awe.