The realisation that the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA), in place since 1974, will be phased out by the end of 2004 has produced something close to national panic in Bangladesh. Many people seem convinced that when the garment industry is no longer cushioned from the vagaries of the ‘free market’, its prospects for survival will be slim, at best.
Governments renegotiate the quantity of trade in this category as per the MFA, which sets developed country import quotas on textiles and garments manufactured in developing countries, countries renegotiate the quantity of trade in this category. In 1994, as a result of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), member countries agreed to phase out the MFA over 10 years, in accordance with official GATT-WTO goals of eliminating quota systems and protectionist markets. One of the member countries is Bangladesh, whose economy’s reliance on export earnings from the apparel industry is overwhelming.
It is difficult to predict what will happen in Bangladesh once the apparel industry loses its fixed and protected export market. The greatest fear is that hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly female, will be retrenched as a consequence. Available evidence, however, does not lend weight to predictions of such drastic change, at least according to many industry pundits. They point out that quotas on several items have already been phased out without any substantial effect on overall earnings. Rather, large-scale retrenchment in the last two years resulted from other factors, such as the global economic slowdown following 11 September 2001. On the other side of the argument are those who note that the present quota system for most Bangladeshi export items is also scheduled for phasing out in 2004. They are convinced that a large number of factories will not be able to compete in the global market, making the prospect of mass unemployment imminent.
Whatever the prognosis, the plight of garment workers has suddenly become a matter of great concern, even to those who previously exhibited little interest in their well being. Factory owners, social activists who might otherwise have little to say on labouring women, and trade unionists alike are now highlighting the need to prepare for the end of 2004. While there is little apparent concern about what the numbers or statistical trends have to say, Dhaka is abuzz with talk about “1.5 million workers losing their jobs overnight”.
One can only speculate on the various interests involved in such suppositions. Factory owners appear to be using this as an opportunity to push the government to implement a long-standing set of demands – the provision of a central bonded warehousing facility, lowered duties on certain import items and improved port facilities, among other things. Indeed, the recently proposed national budget clearly took the concerns of this sector into consideration with its offer of substantial tax reductions for the industry.
A number of prominent trade unionists are enjoying a rare moment in the sun, having become regular speakers at the many seminars and symposiums on the subject. Lastly, many concerned citizens worry about the social consequences of having so many young, unemployed women on the streets of the capital. Indeed, an underlying anxiety about uncontrolled working class sexuality seems to be a common thread running through discussions on the topic.
Rarely brought up in these discussions, though, are some aspects of market access and productivity that have a direct relation to maintaining the garment industry in good health. After all, the future viability of the industry depends to a great extent on its ability to gain access to more diverse markets and to increase labour productivity.
In response to a question on image and marketability, factory owners at a recent roundtable on the impact of the MFA phase-out noted that they find considerable sympathy abroad for Bangladeshi workers. They take this to be a wholly positive development, given past boycotts and the general demonising of the garment industry. However, it should not be taken for granted that this sympathy always translates into actions that help workers. For one thing, today a growing number of consumers ‘with a conscience’ in the North are unwilling to buy clothes made with ‘sweatshop labour’. These consumers, along with student activists and labour organisers, form the core supporters of the movement to establish universal labour standards. Unfortunately, it is all too clear that the demand for uniform wages frequently acts as an alibi for justifying Northern protectionist trade policies. Double standards invariably operate in the discourse on ethics in the labour market, placing poor countries at a distinct disadvantage.
Some of the images of the exploitation of women workers in circulation are irresponsible, to say the least. A college textbook published several years ago claims that in the slums of Bangladesh, there is a saying that “if you’re lucky, you’ll be a prostitute; if you’re unlucky, you’ll be a garment worker”. An investigative journalist hired by a US trade union coined this saying; the conflicting interests at stake here, given the politics of international trade, are not difficult to grasp. This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that generates sympathy for Bangladeshi workers from politically correct Northern consumers. The consequences of such attention and sympathy have been disastrous at times, as the boycotts of earlier decades painfully demonstrated.
But, the reality is that Bangladeshi garment factories remain notorious for their sweatshop-like conditions. Without doubt, there are serious violations of labour rights in the garment sector. Labour exploitation is alive and well in many factories. However, a blanket condemnation (or celebration) of the industry does not do justice to the complexity or diversity of working conditions in the sector. There are substantial differences in working conditions between large, well-established factories and small, barely viable ones, and between those in the Export Processing Zones – investment-friendly areas near Dhaka, in Chittagong, and as yet in the implementation stage at Comilla and Ishurdi – and those outside.
Equally important, a distinction must be made between those situations where questions of labour rights are embedded in larger structural issues of poverty and those that entail gross violations of human rights. It is critical to intervene in the discourse on global labour standards and bring out this distinction in all its fine points. That is one way to prevent the labour issue from being appropriated by the agendas of Northern capitalists and labour unions.
At the same roundtable, the question of alternative occupations for retrenched garment workers was raised, with the suggestion that perhaps sex work was the only viable option for many women. Invariably, a widely viewed programme on a private TV channel that had suggested as much came up for discussion as ‘evidence’ of this trend. No doubt the show in question was produced out of sympathy for the plight of unemployed garment workers. Yet, by highlighting a dubious but unquestioned link between poor women and sex work, the programme appears to have done more damage than good. Rather than generating serious concern for retrenched workers, or unpacking the pernicious effects of globalisation and structural adjustment on an uneven playing field, the show succeeded only in tapping into a generalised middle class anxiety. This kind of sympathy is always in danger of slipping into voyeurism, leading to a different kind of exploitation of the labouring woman.
The factory owners present at the roundtable expressed unanimous admiration for the diligence and intelligence (quick “pick-up time”) of their female employees. The praise notwithstanding, Bangladeshi garment workers have one of the lowest labour productivity levels in the world. Apart from lack of education and opportunities for skill accumulation, there are invisible social dimensions that affect productivity. Often with women, but not necessarily restricted to women, it is sexual harassment.
A study of the garment industry by the writer earlier this year showed that worker efficiency is closely related to the specific conditions of employment associated with globalisation which create ‘enabling’ environments for employers and others to get away with sexual harassment, simultaneously making it harder for employees to press for redress. In other words, extreme job insecurity in the garment industry promotes rampant sexual coercion and blackmail from superiors. Since workers can be dismissed at the whim of superiors, women – especially if they are financially insecure – often have no choice but to quietly accept harassment and to leave if conditions become intolerable.
A quarter of respondents reported being sexually harassed at least once. 30 percent of all garment workers and 50 percent of workers employed in the Export Processing Zones reported having heard of sexual assaults or rapes in their workplace. Given the stigma attached to making such incidences public, one can assume there was considerable underreporting. The smaller factories were the worst offenders, while very large, well-established factories appeared to afford relatively more protection.
Gauging the impact of sexual harassment on worker productivity, the results of the study were striking. Almost half of the workers reported that sexual harassment impairs their productivity directly. It is not only individual workers who feel the impact. If a woman has been humiliated, sexually or otherwise, and no public action is taken, the atmosphere of fear and resentment infects all workers. Experiences of sexual harassment also generate forms of resistance that effectively lower productivity. In the absence of any mechanism to correct an abusive situation, workers frequently resort to actions such as intentionally slowing down their output per hour or feigning illness. For many workers, this kind of oblique resistance may be the only means of expressing their anger or helplessness. Talking back or seeking help from superiors usually makes things much worse.
The underlying factors that increase worker vulnerability to sexual harassment can be rectified quite easily. Providing workers with appropriate documentation, and eliminating the informal system of hiring and firing workers would be a critical first step. This does not require new legislation but rather the enforcement of existing labour laws. Needless to say, the increased efficiency argument should not be the primary motive for implementing labour laws.
Free trade versus fair
The prospect of social and economic upheaval after 2004 looms large, partly because of the memories from the large-scale retrenchment of garment workers at the end of 2001. At that time, an umbrella group of NGOs established a micro-credit programme to help unemployed garment workers attain self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, despite its reputation in international development circles, micro-credit is not the panacea for all problems in all places. The programme was misplaced and doomed to fail.
The best way to ensure the social and economic security of garment workers is to enable them to keep their jobs. This is not an easy task in the new global order, given the minimal bargaining power that Bangladesh has. Intervening in the global discourse on ethics and ensuring the rights of workers in the workplace can make some difference. Equally important are recent efforts to make international trade fair, rather than free – which it never has been. The Fair Trade Initiative pioneered by Oxfam and others, for instance, seeks to close the immense gap between the manufacturing price and the selling price of goods produced in poor countries. Some people are quick to dismiss the venture as utopian, since it strikes at the heart of the capitalist system of pricing and profits. In response, one can only say that without visions of utopia, meaningful social change would never be possible anywhere in the world.