Caritas Luxembourg has been working in Bangladesh on development projects since 1999. For the past five years, Plaidons Responsable has been conducting in-depth work on the impact of the textile sector on people and the planet in Luxembourg with special reference to Bangladesh. The Ministry for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs visited Caritas Luxembourg projects as well as a garment factory in Bangladesh last mai.
Bangladesh is not a top tourist destination. At least not in the 5 star resort and luxury safaris kind of way. It has warm weather and incredibly kind, welcoming and generous people, but it is a country where many are stuck in a virtuous cycle of poverty and extreme precariousness. Plaidons Responsable’s work is to advocate for social and environmental justice by raising-awareness on how actions in Luxembourg can damage the planet and violate human rights on an international scale. Therefore, as a country with the financial resources, the advanced technology and where people can expect to enjoy their human rights, Luxembourg bears a responsibility in allowing and supporting low income countries, such as Bangladesh, to develop in a manner where all people can enjoy the 30 basic human rights as outlined in the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). We can do so by actively advocating for them and with them, but also being mindful of the impact of our actions and consumption patterns on others.
Caritas Luxembourg’s projects with Caritas Bangladesh
Accompanying the international cooperation department, Plaidons Responsable visited projects from Caritas Bangladesh supported and coordinated in partnership with Caritas Luxembourg. We met many local communities, each facing challenges threatening their livelihoods.
In the span of seven days, we visited three cities (Dhaka, Mymensingh and Khulna) and more than a dozen projects. The communities and social groups we met included sex workers, drug addicts, a day care centre with children whose parents are garment workers, indigenous communities advocating and fighting for their land rights, people impacted by climate change, and women groups building solidarity amongst themselves for more independence.
Each of the communities we encountered welcomed us warmly and opened themselves up by sharing their stories, experiences and hardships with us. There was a major language barrier and we were only able to hear their tales through a translator, yet we could see and understand how exhausting it was for them to endure and face certain daily challenges.
Following each visit, our emotions were split between empathy towards the beneficiaries for having to fight for their fundamental human rights to be respected, and admiration for their strength and resilience to continue their battles whilst remaining hopeful. Additionally, we were impressed by their ingenuity to find solutions with limited resources. There was such a strong solidarity amongst communities, especially women social groups, where they shared their knowledge, discussed issues and found solutions together.
For more details on the projects from Caritas in Bangladesh, please visit this website: Caritas Luxembourg au Bangladesh | Caritas Luxembourg
Updates on the textile sector in Bangladesh
The main reason for Plaidons Responsable’s presence in Bangladesh was to observe and get an ‘on-the-field’ impression of the garment sector. Indeed, Bangladesh has a prominent garment sector with thousands of garment factories (approx. 7.000) and millions of garment workers (approx. 4 million). The activities are predominantly focused in Dhaka and Chittagong, however Chittagong was not on the itinerary. On the itinerary regarding garments, we visited a garment factory, a polluted river and spoke to garment workers on two occasions.
To set the scene of Dhaka, you can imagine chaos. The streets are overflowed by people, cars, animals and trash. Your senses are overloaded under 30° weather by noises of constant honking and the smell of garbage. Chicken, fish and other meats were sold from buckets on the sidewalk. Poverty is omnipresent with homeless people, including young children, sleeping on concrete and surrounded by rubbish. People with physical disabilities clearly do not receive the care they need as some were seen pushed or pulled in carriages, others were walking on their knees rather than having wheelchairs.
Garment factory visit
To fulfil the demand of the minister, we organised a visit of a garment factory in the Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ), with his delegation, a few journalists, and a handful of people from Caritas Bangladesh. The DEPZ is basically an entire village within the capital with hundreds of garment factories. There were food and textile vendors, and potentially schools as we saw children roaming the streets.
First and foremost, finding a garment factory to visit was a challenge, especially with an official delegation and the media. Many turned us down by fear of getting a negative reputation, which probably implies that many are far from up-to-date with safety and ethical regulations. The garment factory we were allowed to visit seemed somewhat decent, although no comparison can be made as no other factories were visited. Some positive (or at least not negative) points include:
- All workers wore face masks, probably to protect them from the harsh chemicals in the materials,
- There were many ventilators and some open windows,
- There were many signs with safety exits, ethical standards and safety guidelines hung up throughout the entire factory,
- No children were seen working in the factory.
However, we remain sceptical of what we have observed. Although this specific factory seemed decent, we believe it’s a rather exemplary factory rather than the norm. We remain especially sceptical about the observation on working children. The international labour organization (ILO) defines child labour as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”. In Bangladesh, the legal working age is 14 and school is mandatory until 8th grade (where children are usually 13/14 years old). Although we haven’t identified any children working, it would’ve been difficult to observe in such large crowds and under the masks. It is understandable some children (if in working age) must work to support their families, however, we strictly condemn it if it prevents the child to benefit from a formal education, as indicated in the ILO’s definition.
Additionally, here are some negative aspects we noticed:
- Many rooms were overcrowded with workers,
- Not all workers wore safety gloves (e.g. for cutting textile),
- Unsanitary conditions.
The overall conclusions seemed to suggest that improvements have been made since the Rana Plaza collapse, however many improvements are still necessary to ensure garment workers have safe and decent working conditions. We don’t strictly blame the factories managers for the poor working conditions. Many actors play a role in ensuring workers get decent conditions: stricter and better monitored regulations, support from the government to protect the workers, brands fidelity to their suppliers by establishing a trusting partnership, brands paying the suppliers enough to ensure workers receive a living wage, citizens worldwide can advocate for garment worker rights, etc.
Only a 10 minute car ride from the DEPZ, we stopped to look at a river. What first hit us as we stepped out of the car was the horrendous smell, a blend of rotten garbage and chemicals. Thereafter we saw the river, dyed black from the chemicals used to make the garments and the garbage piling up on the side of the river and floating in the river.
The problem is not just the smell. The water from this river could’ve been an important source of water for the inhabitants of surrounding villages. The water from the river could’ve been used for household purposes, cleaning chores, washing fruits and vegetables, sanitary reasons (i.e. washing hands or showering), if filtered properly it could’ve been drinking water. The restricted access to water amplifies poverty and has other long term consequences, notably on the health of local communities. As a matter of fact, polluted water is sometimes used for the above mentioned purposes, dangerous for the lives of locals, often children as well.
Jamgora Day Care Center
On two occasions we got to have conversations with garment workers. The first time was during the visit of the Jamgora Day Care Center in Dhaka, where we spoke to the children’s parents who were all garment workers. In Bangladesh, it is mandatory for garment factories with over 40 employees to provide day care facilities for children aged 0 to 6 years old. Although this service is free, the majority of garment workers don’t use them, as they are inefficient and often unsafe for multiple reasons: lack of space, inconvenient to bring children to workplace, non-pedagogical education.
The Jamgora Day Care Centre is situated in a slum where garment workers live. Hence, it is convenient for the parents to drop them off in a day care facility, closer to their home so they can walk to work and save on transport.
Although the Day Care Centre comes at a cost (approx. 2000 Taka (18€) per month, per child), the parents preferred their children in a private facility where they receive a pedagogical education, develop social skills, are in a safer space with trained educators, and receive nutritious meals every day.
Private Day Care Centre are considered better than the free facilities in the garment factories but the cost remains a constant burden and parents do not receive any state subsidies to help them support their children and the wage of garment workers remains insufficient.
Exchange with garment federation leaders
The second time we had a conversation with garment workers was an intimate exchange with two leaders (one women and one man) of a garment federation (th
eir names and the name of the federation will remain confidential for their safety), the minister for international cooperation, Franz Fayot, the director of Cooperation, Christophe Schiltz, and the New Dehli Ambassador, Peggy Frantzen.
During the exchange, we discussed wages. The minimum wage in Bangladesh is 1.500 Taka (13€) per month and on average a garment worker is paid 8.000 Taka (70€) per month. However, a living wage in Bangladesh is 54.000 Taka (470€). Although garment workers receive the minimum wage, legally fixed by the state, it cannot be said that garment workers receive a decent wage.
Receiving such low wages has an impact on multiple aspects of their lives. Although they work, they remain in poverty and cannot afford fundamental rights such as a good education and access to medical care. Additionally, the wage they receive does not allow them to expand opportunities towards careers they would rather pursue. Many garment workers come from remote areas to find employment in garment factories in Dhaka. However, to be able to save money to send to their families, they compromise on time with their families and their quality of life by living in highly unsanitary housings, crowded with people in the same situation.
We also talked about gender disparities in the garment sector. During our visit of the factory, we were surprised to see so many men. Based on a rough estimate, we saw almost as many men as women. This contradicts what we are often told that 80% of garment workers are women, however, we only visited a single factory. What came up in the discussion is that women are paid less than men (no numbers were given), women don’t get paid maternity leave but they get a few months off for maternity leave, and they cannot speak up as they face verbal (sometimes physical) discrimination and abuse. Although the female federation leader stated that progress has been made since the Rana Plaza collapse, the garment sectors remains an unsafe environment for women.
What’s the point of it all?
Although it is obvious, it is an important reminder that garment workers are not just that, they are also caretakers to their children, parents, siblings, spouse, etc. The people who make our clothes are human, they have responsibilities, as well as mental and physical boundaries.
We as consumers, politicians, brands, or citizens have a responsibility ensuring the people who work hard to make our clothes have decent working conditions, that they have their fundamental human rights respected.
by Plaidons Responsable (2023)