Regrettably though, women working in the Bangladesh garment industry are still seen suffering under the devastating impacts of the Covid health crisis, according to new findings. A study by researchers at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and trade justice charity Traidcraft Exchange, United Kingdom (UK), unearths the truth around who are being hit hardest by the pandemic. The study report, circulated by Euronews, reveals the repercussions of Covid-19 and consequent actions taken by Western retailers- such as cancelling orders, refusal to pay for work in progress and demands for discounted prices.
It also shows how vulnerable women workers have been disproportionately affected by rising levels of gender violence, abuse and economic hardship. Shocking findings also show an increase in sexual and verbal abuse and symbolic violence mainly from line supervisors pushing women to work faster to meet unrealistic production targets. The research found a surge in intimidation and threats, physical and sexual violence, and restriction on movement of workers in factories across the region.
''There are many things I dislike about the factory. The one I most dislike is the rude scolding and shouting of the supervisors. They physically abuse us by hitting or slapping us. They slap us to force us to work," says one female RMG factory worker.''The part that was alarming was that, among female workers, pregnant women were sacked from their job because they were entitled to maternity benefits. The elderly female workers who had served more than five years were also sacked because they were entitled to service benefits',' adds one trade union leader in narrating the flipside realities of their jobs in stitching world-class wear. Their hard-luck stories focus on their social predicament and career conditions, having hardly any choice. ''The majority of workers in the RMG industry in Bangladesh are women who are young, poorly educated and from rural areas with few alternative employment options. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation,'' says project lead Muhammad Azizul Islam, Professor in Sustainability Accounting and Transparency at the University of Aberdeen Business School.
Legal protection for women workers meanwhile is described as limited, as are the grievance mechanisms in place. Those which do exist were said to be often disregarded with impunity by many factory owners and managers, or so the report runs.
''During pandemic time, workers could not afford to be sacked. These devastating impacts were heightened and, in some cases, directly caused by retailers and brands selling into the UK and other markets in the Global North.''
The in-depth research saw face- to- face interviews carried out with female and male garment workers, factory managers, industry leaders and trade unions over the course of eight months between November 2020 and July 2021. The interviews were conducted alongside discussions with a number of development agencies and international advocacy NGOs. It found that some employers refused to let workers return after lockdown. Most who did return said they had been forced to sign new contracts, losing access to benefits and protection they had previously accrued.
The RMG industry is the mainstay of the Bangladesh economy, accounting for 85 per cent of export earnings, about 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and directly employing about four million workers, with more than 12 million people in total dependent on the sector.
Although most RMG factories in Bangladesh are signed up to the international frameworks for promoting gender equality, including in employment, researchers found significant gaps in the labour laws. Even when international frameworks have been incorporated into domestic law, they are disregarded by many employers and rarely enforced. Compliance audits in factories carried out by companies were found to be largely ineffective, with around 20 per cent of social- compliance auditors not including women's equal-rights issues in their audits, and 40 per cent not auditing the right-to-trade-union recognition.
''UK retailers and brands should consider only sourcing products from suppliers with policies and mechanisms in place that protect workers' rights and address gender harassment, abuse and gender discrimination. They should also require independent audits, covering both manufacturers and sub-contractors, to include this as a priority,'' adds Prof Islam.
Fiona Gooch, senior private- sector policy adviser with Traidcraft Exchange, UK, makes some swinging observations cutting across the trade chain, saying that UK fashion brands' purchasing practices are among the most abusive and least regulated in the world. ''A key recommendation in this report is that the UK set up a fashion watchdog to stop abusive practices in their supply chains. This would help protect garment workers in Bangladesh and other countries, including the UK, from having to risk working in abusive and unsafe situations, where conditions sometimes resemble slavery.''
The report calls for UK retailers and brands to find mechanisms to eliminate the exploitation of workers in the supply chains that supply them with products. But it's clear that this isn't just a case of regulation saving the day. The unrelenting pace of the global fashion industry and consumption across the Global North has forced the garment workers to pay a price – pandemic or no pandemic. Brands must take responsibility for all elements of their supply chains and the pressure they put on the workers to produce at such an intense rate.