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Bangladeshi garment workers need a wage hike

Bangladeshi garment workers need a wage hike

 Bangladeshi   garment workers   need a significant 
 wage hike 

 

Labour Behind the Label is campaigning in support of a wage increase in Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi unions’ 23,000 taka minimum wage demand.

For the first time in five years, the Bangladeshi government has formed a Wage Board to revise the minimum wage for the country’s ready made garment sector, which employs roughly 4 million workers.

The current minimum wage of 8,000 taka (roughly £57 a month) was already insufficient for a decent living when it came into force in 2019. Since then, workers have had to endure the additional pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent high inflation without seeing their wages increase at all.

A new monthly minimum wage demand of 23,000 taka (£164 approximately) has been calculated based on an extensive cost of living study done by the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies and has been unanimously supported by trade unions in the country as well as the IndustriALL global union. Clean Clothes Campaign partners in Bangladesh do not hold seats in the Wage Board, and neither do any other independent trade unions, but they will organise local campaign actions to voice this demand.

This year’s minimum wage revision takes place at a difficult time for the Bangladeshi labour rights movement. The recent murder of trade unionist Shahidul Islam is a stark reminder of the incredibly repressive environment in which wage negotiations take place. In the past, the minimum wage revisions led to a shocking amount of turmoil. In 2018 one worker was killed, dozens were left injured and thousands lost their jobs.

Labour Behind the Label stands in solidarity with unions in Bangladesh fighting for a higher and more just minimum wage. We urge all involved parties to respect the right of trade unions to peacefully and collectively campaign for their wage demands.

Why are wages so low?

 The Bangladesh textile industry has long marketed itself based on its low pricing. Fierce competition with other Asian economies, and downward pressure from brands’ purchasing practices, have suppressed wages in Bangladesh year on year. The Bangladesh labour law only requires the wage board to convene once every 5 years. This has led to very slow wage growth. Unionisation rates are also low due to the active suppression of freedom of association, by employers and by state actors. So when unions come to the table their power to achieve change is limited.

A new wage is desperately needed. Official Consumer Price Index inflation rates show an increase in recent months of than 9%. Unofficial predictions however are much more abnormal. Some of the main food prices have increased by nearly 100%. Current average take home pay (around 12800 taka, including overtime) is more than 10% less than the national poverty line.

No Pride in Forced Labour

No Pride in Forced Labour

Last month we launched our public campaign targeting Tesco and Intertek to settle the lawsuit that over 130 migrant garment workers in Thailand have initiated against the brand and its social auditor. Here is a little update.

Why are workers in Thailand suing Tesco and Intertek?

At the end of 2022 the Guardian ran a series of stories on the VK Garment factory and the abuse workers there endured over several years. The pieces are not an easy read.

Between 2017 and 2020 hundreds of migrant garment workers in Thailand were making jeans for Tesco’s F&F brand under horrific conditions. They worked excessively long hours for illegally low pay. Their documents were confiscated, their rights were trampled, they suffered various abuses.

But the VK Garment workers story is a story of organised resistance and workers fighting back. 

When they asked for higher wages and more protections at work, the people whose labour creates Tesco’s profits were summarily dismissed. Yet instead of accepting this injustice, the VK Garment workers called on the support of their union, and together with allies here in the UK they are actually suing both Tesco, and Intertek – the social auditors who helped them avoid responsibility. This is a huge step for these workers, and the potential for the garment industry and workers everywhere should not be underestimated.

Yet we know that the legal system is slow, and workers can’t always expect that they will get justice through the courts. That is why at Labour Behind the Label we’ve been busy putting pressure on ‘Britain’s favourite forced labour supermarket’ Tesco and Intertek to settle this case and pay their workers.

How have we been supporting the VK Garment workers?

As an organisation, we exist to support workers’ struggles everywhere and to enable individuals to demand change in our capacity as people, as members of communities and workplaces, not just as consumers. We know public pressure on brands works and in this case we wanted to remind Tesco that we’re here, that we see and hear the VK Garment workers and we will do all we can to amplify their demands and help them win their fight.

Last month, we challenged Tesco CEO Ken Murphy on his company’s continued reliance on the discredited practice of social auditing that fails to protect workers time and time again. In response, we got platitudes about their complex supply chain system and their commitment to human rights. But VK Garment workers’ human rights were violated continuously in the name of Tesco’s profit margins. The role of social auditing in the garment industry is complex, and often deeply damaging. Instead of more accountability, it offers less by allowing brands to outsource control and ultimately further delay responsibility for taking action. So we won’t accept this meagre concession from Tesco and will continue working to expose Intertek’s role in this case. 

We also couldn’t stand idly by and watch Tesco promote itself as a champion of LGBTQI+ rights while continuing to undermine workers rights and protections. It seems the retailer values human rights so much, they are one of the major sponsors of London Pride.

But what about the rights of those who were putting in 90-hour weeks to finish orders? What about the LGBTQI+ garment workers suffering abuse and poverty wages in their supplier factories? There’s no parade, no floats, no grand commitments for them. 

Pride is a protest. It’s a call to action to actively defend and fight for the rights won – and the rights yet to be won, by marginalised and exploited communities. Pride is a celebration of shared struggles. And Pride ought to be a threat to corporate interests. So, with the help of our trade union friends we took our campaign to the streets of London to remind Tesco that there is No Pride in Forced Labour. You can’t care for the rights of some of your workers while exploiting others. 

We got a very warm reception not just on the trade union bloc – thank you, Unison, ASLEF, GMB and all others, but also from those who have come out to celebrate Pride and watch the parade. It reminded us how important it is to bring demands to the corporations who seek the spotlight to promote their brand through pink-washing. London Pride has a long history of engaging with labour struggles, and it’s a legacy we vow to continue, no matter how many fossil polluters, debt financiers and forced labour producers try and take advantage of it.

 

What can you do?

So, what’s next? We’ve been told that the legal case proper will get going from October onwards. This means we’ve got the summer left to really pressure Tesco and Intertek into settling. The corporate calendar may have slowed down for the holiday season but remain active on social media in calling the companies out. We will also use this vital campaign to raise more awareness around social auditing as a method of avoiding responsibility.

If you haven’t already, make sure to sign our one-click tool to send a letter to Tesco CEO and Intertek CEO and demand that they settle this case. If you have – why not forward to a friend? Sharing our social media posts, spreading the message and signing up to hear more from Labour Behind the Label is a big boost to the workers – more visibility for them means a higher chance the companies will feel the threat and settle. 

 

Press Release: Tesco to be grilled on rights abuses in supply chain at AGM mired in scandal

Press Release: Tesco to be grilled on rights abuses in supply chain at AGM mired in scandal

For immediate release: 16 June 2023

Hooks: Tesco Chair steps down at AGM following alleged inappropriate conduct towards female staff; Tesco facing forced labour lawsuit from 130 Burmese garment workers in Thailand factory supplying F&F jeans.

 

Representatives from the human rights campaign group Labour Behind the Label will today raise concerns that Tesco’s use of social auditing is putting the workers who make their clothes at risk of abuse.

Tesco and social audit firm Intertek are facing a lawsuit brought by 130 Burmese workers who made F&F jeans for Tesco in Thailand [1]. VK Garment workers say they were trapped in forced labour conditions, working 99-hour weeks for illegally low pay, while auditors failed to report abuses workers flagged. Workers are suing Tesco and Intertek for negligence and unjust enrichment in a case bought by the law firm Leigh Day.

At its Annual General Meeting today Labour Behind the Label will ask the Tesco board why they continue to rely on auditing practices which fail to protect workers in their supplier factories, and whether they will be cutting ties with Intertek after its ineffectual audits opened the company up to international legal action.

The scandal-ridden AGM will also see Tesco chair John Allan stand down following accusations of inappropriate behaviour towards female staff. [2] Approximately 80% of garment workers around the world who make clothes for brands like Tesco are women.

Campaigners are questioning how Tesco as a company is protecting women from rights violations, both within their own operations and in global supply chains.

Anna Bryher, Policy Lead for Labour Behind the Label, said:

“Women in garment factories around the world are routinely subject to exploitation and rights abuse. Tesco profited from the VK Garment workers’ exploitation while Intertek stood by and watched, failing to report the abuse they witnessed including threats, fraud, excessive hours and more. Tesco and Intertex must pay VK workers and settle the legal case being brought against them. It’s the least they can do.”

“Social auditing is a multi-million pound industry that provides a fig leaf for abuse in garment factories worldwide [3]. Fashion brands pay social audit firms to provide plausible deniability, while everyone in the industry knows rights abuse is endemic. Social auditing not only fails to identify human rights violations, but also actively undermines human rights protection. The Rana Plaza building which collapsed in Dhaka housed factories where social audits had taken place just months before the disaster, giving green lights to brands where there should have been warnings.”

“Tesco as a company has the opportunity through this case to cut ties with big audit firms like Intertek, and adopt a more transparent, hands on way of monitoring labour rights in factories, that could see active participation in rights protection.”

The full text of the question being put to the Tesco board is available below [4].

ENDS

Notes for editors

  • Labour Behind the Label is a campaign that works to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry.
  • The Tesco Annual General Meeting will be held in the Heart building of Tesco’s Welwyn Garden City campus on Friday, 15 June at 11.30am.

For media enquiries please contact:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/dec/18/workers-in-thailand-who-made-ff-jeans-for-tesco-trapped-in-effective-forced-labour

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/may/19/tesco-chair-john-allan-steps-down

[3] https://cleanclothes.org/file-repository/figleaf-for-fashion.pdf/view

[4] Question text:

Labour Behind the Label Question concerning Tesco’s approach to social auditing in its garment supplier factories 

In December The Guardian reported that Burmese workers who produced F&F jeans for Tesco in Thailand were trapped in forced labour conditions, working 99-hour weeks for illegally low pay. A lawsuit has been launched by Leigh Day solicitors on behalf of the 130 VK Garment workers, seeking damages from both Tesco, and social auditors Intertek, for alleged negligence and unjust enrichment. Intertek’s role in this case is that its audits failed to identify systematic wage violations, forced labour concerns and fraud, year on year, despite workers saying they flagged issues with auditors. While I won’t ask the board to comment on the lawsuit itself, my question concerns Tesco’s ongoing approach to factory monitoring.

Social auditing has been shown not only to fail to identify human rights violations and function as an expensive fig-leaf, but also to actively undermine human rights protection. Indeed, the Rana Plaza building which collapsed in Dhaka had factories with clear social audits, just months before the disaster, giving green lights to brands where there should have been warnings. Therefore, I’d like to ask the following:

  1. Can the board say whether Tesco is concerned about relying on social auditing as a structure in general to ensure human rights are upheld in its supplier factories given the failures of the system to provide real visibility of labour rights and safety concerns?
  2. Can the board comment on whether Tesco is reconsidering its relationship with the firm Intertek specifically after their social auditing services failed to provide visibility of labour rights violations at VK Garments and opened Tesco up to an international lawsuit?
Queer Labour Behind the Label zine online launch

Queer Labour Behind the Label zine online launch

Today we mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia (IADHOBIT) with the online launch of our zine – Queer Labour Behind the Label: a collection of stories from LGBTQI+ garment workers in Cambodia and Indonesia.

In recent years, fashion brands have tapped into the “pink pound”, releasing Pride collections and capitalising on LGBTQI+ struggles to sell fast-fashion. Meanwhile, garment workers in their supply chains – including queer workers – continue to face poverty wages, union busting, discrimination and other rights violations. Visibilising the stories of queer workers resisting intersecting labour rights violations and queerphobic treatment in their workplaces can help stop brands getting away with this pink-washing.

Queer Labour Behind the Label is a zine that brings together queer garment workers’ stories of everyday struggle, resistance and joy. We worked with Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK) in Cambodia and Perempuan Mahardhika in Indonesia to gather the testimonies and images shared by workers that feature in this zine, which forms part of a proud queer history of DIY self-publishing. Throughout the zine we have used the local terms, language and phrases that workers themselves use to describe their identities. 

On IDAHOBIT 2023, and every day, Labour Behind the Label stands with queer workers around the world in our ongoing struggle for a world free from all forms of Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia. The struggle for queer liberation is inseparable from the struggle for workers’ power and through collective action we will win! 

If you love the online version of the Queer Labour Behind the Label Zine and would like a hard copy, you can sign up here throughout May and June 2023 and we will post copies to UK addresses. Keep an eye out for copies of the zine in independent bookshops and community spaces in London, Bristol and more! 

International Workers Memorial Day: Remember the dead, fight for the living!

International Workers Memorial Day: Remember the dead, fight for the living!

International Workers Memorial Day this year comes at the end of a week that started with the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza mass industrial homicide in Bangladesh, in which a preventable factory collapse killed at least 1138 garment workers, mainly young women, and left thousands injured or bereaved.

We call Rana Plaza a mass industrial homicide, taking the lead from trade unionists in Bangladesh, because the bosses, the factory owner and the fashion brands sourcing from Rana Plaza could have prevented it – but they chose not to. We say mass industrial homicide because prior to Rana Plaza there had already been plenty of “wake-up calls” for the global fashion industry, including the Tazreen Fashions fire in 2012, which killed 112 workers.

We say mass industrial homicide because when cracks appeared in the Rana Plaza building everyone knew it was unsafe, but despite workers’ protests factory bosses under pressure from global brands ordered workers to enter by threatening to dock a month’s wages. We say mass industrial homicide because the fashion industry extracts profit by driving a global race-to-the-bottom in working conditions, rewarding suppliers that pay poverty wages and suppress trade union organising. We say mass industrial homicide because on International Workers Memorial Day 2023, ten years on from Rana Plaza, global fashion brands are still profiting with impunity from working conditions that kill garment workers.

We know that fashion brands will concede nothing without a demand. This week, alongside Rana Plaza Solidarity Collective, we organised the actions and events described below, adding our voices to the hundreds of thousands of workers around the world demanding: “Rana Plaza, Never Again!

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On Sunday 23 April we took to the streets of central London to call out the high street fashion brands with blood on their hands. We denounced Primark, United Colours of Benetton and Zara: brands that sourced from Rana Plaza, pocketing profits from the miserable working conditions that led to the deadly disaster, yet dragged their feet on paying into the compensation fund for victims.

We left commemorative plaques at Primark and Zara and laid wreaths outside Benetton. We demanded Urban Outfitters and Levi’s stop risking workers lives and sign the International Accord, the only mechanism shown to improve factory safety through enforceability, independent oversight and trade union power. We called on H&M to ensure garment workers in their supply chain are paid a living wage, and heard about regulation needed to change the balance for garment workers.

We ended our Cost of Fashion walking tour by honouring, in grief and in rage, the memory of the 1138 people killed at Rana Plaza, reading the names and ages of every worker whose life was stolen on 24 April 2013 at the doorstep of Primark.

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On Monday 24 April, we held Rana Plaza anniversary events in East London and in Leicester. In East London we joined a memorial at Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel in the pouring rain, where our friends at Rainbow Collective had installed a beautiful memorial of 1138 clay hearts, one for each life lost, made with the help of community groups from across the East End, hanging in front of a banner of the 1138 names. We heard about the devastating tragedy and Rana Plaza survivors’ ongoing struggle for justice from Mayisha Begum, Labour Behind the Label, Nijjor Manush, Rainbow Collective, No Sweat, and Apsana Begum MP who also laid a wreath.

We then went to a packed Toynbee Hall, where Andrew O’Neill spoke with Mayisha Begum and Afzal Rahman about Rana Plaza and workers resistance in Bangladesh and Rainbow Collective screened their film ‘Rana Plaza 10 Years On’. In Leicester, trade unions, community groups, academics and a local MP gathered for an evening educational event, film screening and dinner. We watched the Rainbow Collective film and heard talks from local trade unionists about the struggle that UK workers face and how there are many similarities in terms of brand power and risks for workers. 

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On Wednesday 26, we held a Parliamentary event with the APPG for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion and Fashion Roundtable in Portcullis House, hosted by John McNally MP. We exhibited powerful photographs taken by Rainbow Collective and by Bangladeshi photographer and activist Taslima Akhter, showing the Rana Plaza collapse and workers and their families’ organised resistance in the decade since then. We screened Rainbow Collective’s film, through which Rana Plaza survivors addressed attendees about their ongoing pain and struggle for justice. 

We then heard from MPs and campaigners. Kerry McCarthy MP emphasised the need for corporate accountability throughout supply chains as opposed to consumer choice. Liz Twist MP spoke in support of a Fashion Watchdog – “a low cost intervention with the potential to deliver much better for workers” – explaining that workers rights abuses are often driven by poor relationship between retailers and suppliers in the garment industry. Rushanara Ali MP spoke about the work she had been involved in to advance workers’ rights in Bangladesh, in her capacity as Chair of the APPG on Bangladesh and as Trade Envoy, and underlined the need to keep up the pressure  at a domestic and international level, saying: “companies think they can get away with treating people in developing economies as though they don’t have value and that has to stop.”

Claudia Webbe MP spoke about the open secret of miserable conditions faced by garment workers in her constituency in Leicester – “we are seeing prison houses for workers, people whose lives are submitted to a ‘just-in-time’ production” – and denounced the government for for failing to tackle the situation. Rupa Huq MP connected the environmentally harmful fashion industry to the effects of climate change, particularly for Bangladesh. Mark Dearn from Corporate Justice Coalition called on MPs to pledge to support a new law on Business, Human Rights and the Environment to ensure corporate accountability for abuses in global supply chains and Hilary Marsh from Transform Trade encouraged MPs to support a Fashion Watchdog to regulate the garment industry.

Ten MPs signed the Rana Plaza Book of Commitment to honour the 1138 people who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza disaster and show their commitment to supporting new rules to ensure safety and human rights in fashion supply chains: John McNally MP, Catherine West MP, Liz Twist MP, Rushanara Ali MP, Kerry McCarthy MP, Claudia Webbe MP, Rupa Huq MP, Carol Monaghan MP, Douglas Chapman MP and Ronnie Cowan MP. MPs also left with a Rana Plaza 10th Anniversary Policy Briefing setting out actions they can take to ensure an industrial homicide like Rana Plaza can never happen again.

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This International Workers Memorial Day we remember the lives of the 1138 workers killed at Rana Plaza a decade ago on 24 April 2013, and we commit to continuing the struggle, shoulder to shoulder with garment workers and trade unions around the world, for factory safety and workers power in the global garment industry.