Foreign brands make huge profits ignoring labour rights

Several thousand workers of the readymade garment factory Stylecraft Limited in Gazipur, staged a protest last December seeking their dues. They demand full wages of November and 35 per cent wages of September and October.

Like in Bangladesh, workers of different export-oriented readymade garment factories of Myanmar, Columbia, Philippines and Ethiopia also took to the streets last year demanding their arrear wages.

At the beginning of coronavirus pandemic, foreign buyers abruptly canceled and suspended their orders, not paying their dues in time, under the pretext of business downturn.

As a result garment suppliers from different countries have paid partial wages to thousands of their workers. Some workers even received nothing from the factory concerned.

However, the brands and buyers who purchased garments from different apparel factories have made profits in the second half of the year. Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) have found such 16 brands and buyers.

A research of BHRRC shows, 9843 workers from eight factories--who supplied the products to those 16 brands and buyers--have not received their wages as per the contract.

These 16 companies which purchased garments for the various factories are Curtis Incorporated, HanesBrands, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co, Lidl, L Brands, Matalan, Mark’s, Next, New Look, Nike, PVH, River Island, Sainsbury, s.Oliver and The Children's Palace.

They have earned profits of around USD10 billion in the last half of last year, which is equivalent to Tk 850 billion. Nike, among these, alone made a profit of USD1.25 billion in the third quarter of last year.

The research has termed pandemic period as profitable for the brands and buyers while it was a great loss for supplier companies and their workers.

Foreign brands and buyers demanded order cancellations, deferrals, delays in payment and sought discounts in many cases to reduce their losses and financial liability as the worldwide lockdown was imposed early last year to prevent the infection of Covid-19.

From April to June last year, foreign brands and buyers canceled purchases, worth USD 10.6 billion, that had an effect on the garment workers.

BHRRC launched ‘Covid-19 Apparel Tracker’ to observe how much the buyers are taking responsibility for the workers. When the findings of this study were revealed, international organisations put pressure on buyers.

Following the outcry, Gap and Primark promised to pay off the wages in full. However, Walmart and Arcadia Group refused to take any responsibility.

BHRRC mentioned incidents of eight factories in their research. One of the significant ones is Stylecraft. The company manufactures clothes for the world-renowned brands including H&M, Next, New Look and River Island. The four brands told BHRRC that they were working together to pay off the workers’ dues. However, the factory workers did not fully get their arrears yet.

Similarly, workers in three factories in Cambodia and one in the Philippines did not receive all the arrears. The workers of Young Clothing in Myanmar have received their full dues while the workers of a factory in Ethiopia did not receive any arrears.

According to the study, 10,000 workers lost their jobs during the pandemic. One out of every four of these workers did not get their legal arrears. And 77 per cent of the workers or their family members face inhuman conditions due to factory closure and the wage deduction.

On the other hand, at the same time, the brands took unfair advantage from the suppliers. Garment suppliers have complained that they have paid up to 12 per cent less in 2020 than they used to pay a year ago.

Brands and buyers are not directly involved in paying wages to the garment workers. But they are always looking for new destinations to produce cheap clothes. Currently PVH, H&M and Primark are moving their garment production to Ethiopia as the minimum monthly wage in the country is only USD26. The hourly wage is only 12 cents.

BHRRC has called on brands and buyers to ensure that workers are paid the wages they need to survive. At the same time, they made a number of recommendations, including ensuring opportunities for workers' organisations to run independently, promising to buy clothing at fair prices, and setting up a fund for emergency relief and financial assistance.

When asked, labour leader Babul Akhter told Prothom Alo that the employer will pay all the dues of the workers as per the labour law. During the pandemic, factory owners and foreign buyers did not display a worker-friendly attitude. As the employers do not care about workers' rights, neither do the buyers.

He further said owners' organisations do not have the eligibility to negotiate with buyers which is why buyers violate the contracts in various ways whenever they get a chance. Had the employer bargained with the buyers keeping the issue of labour rights in view, the number of order cancellations, suspensions and discounts would have lessened. The workers would also get their fair share.