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Don't let labour's fruit rot

The suffering of Bangladesh’s ‘slave labourers’ must end. Savar underlines that.

india Updated: May 13, 2013 23:16 IST

For Bangladeshis, the tragedy at the garment factory in Savar is a symbol of our failure as a nation. The crack that caused the collapse of the building has shown us that if we don't face up to the cracks in our own systems, we as a nation will get lost in the debris. Did we learn anything at all from this terrible loss of life? What should we do, now that news of a deadly fire in another factory in Dhaka reaches us?

Important questions have been raised about the future of the garment industry. Pope Francis has said buyers are treating the garment workers like slave labourers. A very large foreign buyer, Disney, has decided to pull out of Bangladesh. Others may follow. If that happens, it will severely damage our social and economic future. This industry has brought about immense change in our society by transforming the lives of women. We cannot allow it to be destroyed. Instead, Bangladeshis must be united as a nation to strengthen the garment industry, and foreign companies must play their part too.

I propose that foreign buyers jointly fix a minimum international wage for the industry. This might be about 50 cents an hour, twice the level typically found in Bangladesh. This minimum wage would be an integral part of reforming the industry, which would help to prevent future tragedies. We have to make international companies understand that while the workers are physically in Bangladesh, they are contributing their labour to the businesses: they are stakeholders. Physical separation should not be grounds to ignore the wellbeing of this labour.

Gaining support for the minimum wage won't be easy, but through sincere discussions with politicians, business leaders, citizens, church groups and the media in consumer countries, it can be achieved. In the past, I have tried to convince foreign buyers - but without success. Now after the Savar tragedy, the issue has gained a new urgency. There is a practical way to help ensure better standards for Bangladeshi garment workers. Let's say a garment factory produces and sells a piece of clothing for $5, which is then packaged and shipped to New York. This $5 includes not only the production, packaging, shipment, profit and management but also indirectly covers the share that goes to the cotton farmers, yarn mills, and the cost of dying and weaving.

When US customers buy this item from a shop for $35, they feel happy that they've got a bargain. But everyone who was involved in the production collectively received $5. Another $30 was added in the US for taking the product to the final consumer. Now, with a little effort, we could make a huge impact in the lives of workers. Would a consumer in a shopping mall feel upset if they were asked to pay $35.50 instead of $35?

I do not expect all companies will immediately implement my proposal. I hope a few come forward to experiment, and that their country's governments, organisations that work to protect labour rights, citizens groups, church groups and the media will step forward to support it, too. This issue should attract attention more urgently now in light of the deaths in Savar. After all this, will we just keep on watching as it keeps on happening, again and again?

First Published: May 13, 2013 23:14 IST