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Potential Storm: Threat of Violent Wage Protests in Bangladesh Poses Risk to Leading Fashion Brands


"Crisis in the Threads: Violent Wage Protests Grip Bangladesh, Posing Threat to Top Fashion Brands"

For the past two weeks, Bangladesh has been ensnared in a maelstrom of violent protests as thousands of garment workers flood the streets, vehemently demanding improved wages for the nation's four million-strong workforce. Tensions have escalated to clashes with the police, leading to the tragic deaths of three workers. Reports from affiliated unions in Bangladesh, connected with IndustriALL Global Union, reveal the use of tear gas and rubber bullets by the police, marking a troubling turn in the nature of the protests.

Christina Hajagos-Clausen, the Textile and Garment Industry Director at IndustriALL Global Union, expressed concern about the intensifying violence, noting that the situation is becoming increasingly hostile. On Tuesday, the country's wage board announced a $113 per month increase for garment workers, slated to come into effect on December 1. However, this decision has been met with rejection from workers and labor groups who argue that wages have failed to keep pace with inflation over the past five years.

The backdrop of economic challenges is evident, with inflation soaring to 9% between 2022 and 2023—the highest average rate in 12 years, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Currently earning $95 a month, garment workers producing for major brands like H&M, Zara, and Levi’s are demanding a monthly wage of $208. To put this in perspective, it remains lower than the weekly earnings of American workers receiving the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour before taxes—a figure widely criticized as a poverty wage by many labor groups in the US.

Narza Akter, President of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, one of Bangladesh's largest unions, decried the wage board's announcement, asserting that it makes a mockery of garment industry workers. Akter warned of the potential for sustained labor unrest if the minimum wage is not rational and logical, emphasizing the undesirability of such a scenario for workers, employers, and the state alike.

The repercussions of these protests have reverberated across the country, forcing numerous factories to shutter their operations and effectively paralyzing the world's second-largest garment manufacturing hub after China. The toll on human lives is evident, with dozens of protesters hospitalized, a factory set ablaze leading to the tragic death of a 32-year-old worker, Imran Hossain, and intense clashes with the police resulting in the death of 26-year-old Rasel Howlader, as reported by the US State Department. The crisis in Bangladesh casts a shadow over the global fashion industry, raising concerns about the ethical and humanitarian dimensions of garment production for major international brands.

"International Concerns Mount as US State Department Addresses Bangladesh Workers' Struggle for Fair Wages"

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the US State Department, voiced concerns about the ongoing repression faced by workers and trade unionists in Bangladesh. The statement urged a reevaluation of the minimum wage decision through the tripartite process to address the economic pressures confronting workers and their families. The garment industry, which employs some of the country's most economically vulnerable individuals, has become a focal point of global attention due to recent violent protests.

The Southeast Asian garment industry, particularly in Bangladesh, has faced scrutiny regarding working conditions in the past. However, the current wave of protests, marked by an unprecedented level of violence, is reminiscent of the turmoil following the Rana Plaza collapse a decade ago. The tragic incident claimed the lives of 1,100 people, mostly women, and prompted improvements in working conditions and incremental increases in wages over the years.

Despite these advancements, the growth of the garment industry has far outpaced these improvements. Bangladesh's clothing exports surged from $14.6 billion in 2011 to $33.1 billion in 2019, reflecting the sector's dominance, accounting for 35.1% of the country's annual gross domestic product, according to the US Commerce Department.

A coalition of eighteen major brands, including H&M, Levi’s, Gap, Puma, and Abercrombie & Fitch, recently addressed a letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, calling for peaceful negotiations and advocating for a new minimum wage that adequately covers basic workers' needs. The American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFP), representing US brands, emphasizes the need for a more frequent minimum wage review, challenging the current five-year interval in Bangladesh.

Nate Herman, Senior Vice President of Policy at AAFP, highlighted the importance of annual wage level reviews, stating that this practice is critical in the suite of better buying practices deployed by responsible brands. Notably, brands like H&M, although not owning factories in Bangladesh, contract with local factory owners who bear upfront costs, including supplies, facilities, and labor.

As international pressure mounts and concerns for workers' rights intensify, the situation in Bangladesh underscores the intricate global supply chain dynamics and the ethical responsibilities of major brands sourcing from the region. The call for fair wages resonates not only within the national borders but reverberates across international dialogues on labor rights and corporate accountability.

"Fashion Industry Giants Respond Amid Bangladesh Wage Protests: H&M, Patagonia, and Levi Strauss & Co Weigh In"

As violent wage protests rock Bangladesh, major fashion brands, including H&M, Patagonia, and Levi Strauss & Co, are grappling with the implications on their production and supply chains. H&M, the Swedish retail giant, acknowledged its role in facilitating the payment of living wages through responsible purchasing practices but downplayed the impact of the protests on its overall operations. Despite some of its partner factories being temporarily shut down, H&M asserted that it anticipates minimal disruption.

When questioned by CNN about the specifics of its practices to enable living wages, H&M did not provide clarification. Meanwhile, outdoor apparel company Patagonia voiced explicit support for the workers' demand for a minimum wage of $208 a month, aligning with the ongoing protests. The company acknowledged the progress made by one of its longstanding factory partners in Bangladesh but emphasized the continuous need for collaborative efforts to achieve living wages.

Levi Strauss & Co issued a statement expressing its encouragement for the Government of Bangladesh to establish a fair, credible, and transparent process for regular minimum wage setting. While brands lack the direct authority to set wages in Bangladesh, they wield significant influence through pricing pressure. CNN reached out to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, representing factory owners, for comment but received no response.

Elizabeth Cline, a Fashion Policy lecturer at Columbia University, highlighted the critical role of brands in influencing factory conditions and wages, emphasizing the need to address the pricing problem within the fashion industry. The pressure on factories often originates from brands and retailers, making it imperative for the industry to confront this issue openly.

A significant aspect of the conversation revolves around the global consumer base for apparel made in Bangladesh, with nearly all consumers located outside the country. In 2019, garment exports accounted for a substantial 84% of Bangladesh's total export earnings, emphasizing the industry's reliance on international markets. As consumer preferences lean towards fast, affordable fashion, industry dynamics are evolving amid inflation. Jason Judd, Director of the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University, emphasized the challenge of relying solely on consumers to drive change, underscoring the need for a concerted effort by brands to bring about meaningful transformations in wage structures and labor conditions.

"Resilience and Reform: Grassroots Movements and Policy Advocacy Shape Labor Dynamics in the Garment Industry"

In the wake of the pandemic, brands globally canceled an astounding $40 billion in orders, leaving factory owners and suppliers to bear the financial burden while workers faced the harsh reality of wage loss. However, a transformative grassroots labor movement, fueled by the "Pay Up" campaign on social media, managed to recoup $22 billion of the owed $40 billion, as reported by the Workers Rights Consortium. This campaign showcased the power of collective action, compelling brands to honor their financial commitments amid the crisis.

Jason Judd, Director of the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University, acknowledges the impact of such grassroots efforts but underscores that enduring change requires systemic shifts in policy and within the affected countries themselves. The parallels drawn between the current labor unrest in Bangladesh and the events in Cambodia in 2014 serve as a poignant reminder of the potential for reform.

In Cambodia, garment workers rallied for higher wages after the imposition of a new minimum wage by the government. The response was brutal, with security forces deployed, resulting in the tragic loss of at least three lives. Yet, out of this unrest, Cambodia witnessed reform, establishing an annual review for the minimum wage for garment workers. Drawing from this experience, labor activists and experts, including those interviewed by CNN, emphasize the need for Bangladesh to adopt a more rational, less violent, and inclusive process.

The call for change is not a call to reinvent the wheel but rather a plea for a proven and humane approach to address the legitimate concerns of workers. As Bangladesh navigates the current upheaval, the experiences of other nations underscore the possibility of achieving lasting reform through a collaborative effort involving policymakers, labor advocates, and industry stakeholders. The ongoing events in Bangladesh illuminate the persistent challenges within the garment industry while simultaneously inspiring hope for a future marked by fair wages, improved working conditions, and a more equitable distribution of resources within the global supply chain.

"In conclusion, the evolving landscape of the global garment industry, epitomized by the recent unrest in Bangladesh, underscores the intricate interplay between grassroots movements, corporate responsibility, and governmental policies. The aftermath of pandemic-induced order cancellations saw the emergence of the 'Pay Up' campaign, a testament to the potency of collective action in holding brands accountable for their financial obligations. While successful in recouping a significant portion of owed funds, experts like Jason Judd emphasize that enduring change demands not only grassroots resilience but also systemic reforms at the policy level.

Drawing parallels with past labor movements, notably in Cambodia, the present unrest in Bangladesh becomes a poignant call for a more rational, less violent, and inclusive approach to addressing wage disparities. Cambodia's journey from tragic clashes to a structured, annual wage review for garment workers serves as a beacon of hope, demonstrating that reform is attainable with concerted efforts.

As Bangladesh navigates these challenging times, the global fashion industry faces a critical juncture to rethink its practices, fostering fair wages, improved working conditions, and responsible purchasing. The interconnected dynamics of brands, factories, and workers underscore the need for a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach. The events unfolding in Bangladesh prompt reflection on the ethical responsibilities of international brands, the resilience of labor movements, and the pivotal role of governments in shaping a sustainable future for the garment industry.

In this complex tapestry of challenges and opportunities, the shared goal remains clear: a more equitable and humane global supply chain. It is a collective responsibility to transform the lessons learned from grassroots movements into lasting policy changes, ensuring that the garment industry becomes a beacon of fair labor practices, uplifting the livelihoods of workers around the world."