Vol. V, Bulletin No. 6.                                                                       March 13, 2000 

The 'Miserable Life' of Women in Bangladesh's Garment Factories

Why No List of Sweatshop-Free Products?

Dear Human Rights for Workers:  Could you please let me know if there is a list of products that do or do not use sweatshop labor, so that I can do my part as a conscientious consumer? -- Brittany Smith, Provo,Utah.
There is no such list. Why not? Because it's a jungle out there. The global factory system
is so uncivilized and so huge that you can't tell which toys, garments, shoes, and other consumer products are made or not made in sweatshops.

Yes, thanks in part to consumers with a conscience, but most of all because of growing resistance among victimized workers themselves, there are more and more initiatives to rid the world of sweatshops. But the sweatshops are still thriving.

A Close Look at the Facts of Life for Ordinary Workers

Take Bangladesh, long a haven for sweatshops. There the women making shirts, blouses, pajamas, and other garments for export have organized their own union. (See Female Docility? It's Fading Out in Bangladesh's Garment Industry.) There a UN agency, the International Labor Organization, has a large employer-supported project to transfer children under 14 years old from factories to classrooms--an initiative whose success has been hailed even by President Clinton. Furthermore, using the threat of canceling Bangladesh's duty-free privileges for imports into the United States, the American government has periodically pressured Bangladesh to take action against gross violations of worker rights.

And yet how much progress has been made against sweatshops in Bangladesh?  A professor at Dhaka University, Dr. Mokaddem Hossain, decided to check with ordinary workers in the country's two export processing zones where some 70,000 workers produce goods for the American and other foreign markets.  With a staff of 10 interviewers, Dr. Mokaddem conducted a six-month survey of more than 3,000 workers employed in over 50 factories. The results, just released, are disheartening.

"The majority of workers are obliged to lead a miserable life," Dr. Mokaddem writes in his report, titled "A Survey of Working Conditions in the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones [EPZs] of Chittagong and Savar."

Child Labor Still Common in Factories

His most surprising statement, given the praise that Bangladesh has received for combating industrial child labor, is this: "Recruitment of children is very common in most factories in the EPZs."  In fact, every worker interviewed in the study stated there were children working in her or his factory--as many as 400 in one case.

This might be an exaggeration, since the workers interviewed could have mistakenly counted some teen-age children (those above 13) whose employment in factories is legal under Bangladesh law. But at least some factory managers do not share any such confusion. They know who is underage, and they hide them when foreign buyers visit the factory.  According to interviews with several of those underage workers:

"Many times in the past, these children were kept in the toilets, but the buyers, having come to know this system of hiding, started to check the toilets...Children are now kept hidden in packing boxes [four or five in a single box], as if they were merely material objects like the garments they are producing."
Females Forced to 'Satisfy Sexual Appetites' of Bosses

Other characteristics common to sweatshops were also reported to be widespread in the two export processing zones: substandard wages; long delays in payment of wages; illegally long overtime hours; no premium pay for overtime or holiday work; unhealthy working conditions; emergency exits locked 24 hours a day; unreasonable restrictions on the use of toilets; verbal abuse; physical abuse of all kinds (slapping, beating, taping of the mouth); arbitrary discharges; unacceptable forms of discipline (cleaning toilets, standing on a table or outside of factory, as punishment); and sexual harassment and even rape.

You name the abuse; it's there in the two EPZs, according to the first-hand testimony of the workers, and what's even worse, the violations are unchecked by the authorities legally mandated to protect the rights of zone workers.

The most shocking aspect of the report is its revelations concerning the sexual abuse of female workers, including children, by Bengali and foreign managers. Apart from being touched, hugged, and kissed, and being "compelled to satisfy the sexual appetites" of management in factory offices, attractive female workers are pressed into service as escorts for foreign visitors and sexually assaulted in hotels or guest houses. Some are sent abroad for training but actually "to be used as sex-slaves."

In a patriarchal society like Bangladesh's, females almost never discuss their sexual problems with outsiders, Dr. Mokaddem notes.  "They are so distressed [by abuse] that they prefer sustaining various sorts of torment in silence."  How then did this research, in interview after interview, learn about the sexual violations against the zone's women and children? Two clues: the ten interviewers had rapport with the workers because they were all garment workers themselves, and (after special training in survey techniques) conducted their interviews informally in the evenings, usually at the workers' homes.

No Name-Brands Revealed

The study does not list the brand names of products made by the workers surveyed, nor does it provide data on the volume of goods that the two EPZs export to the United States.

According to U.S. Commerce Department data collected from major shippers, in 1999 Bangladesh exported to the United States apparel valued at $1,676 million from inside and outside the two EPZs. The U.S. report breaks down that total by dozens of product categories--shirts, skirts, blouses, playsuits, sweaters, slacks, gloves, underwear, coats, and so on--but not by brand name.

Where does that leave a conscientious consumer like Brittany Smith?  Initially, I intended to say that we'll get back to that, since the situation calls for a long answer. But I'll give a short and partial response, however inadequate it may be in covering the territory.  See the next item.

What to Do about Sweatshops: Some Ideas

It's tempting to think that you can stay "clean" just by avoiding certain brand names with a bad reputation. Good luck. Sweatshop goods are all over the place.

This doesn't mean that you're helpless. Far from it. Your opportunities to help civilize the global economy depend on your personal situation, your personal concerns, and your willingness to devote some time to those concerns. That includes a willingness to explore the many possibilities open to you, some of which are provided through anti-sweatshop organizations, such as those I list at the end of the page on sweatshops and child labor.

Over and above a search of options, I would suggest a basic tactic: make your concerns known wherever possible, especially to:

In other words, the conscientious consumer needs to become a vocal consumer and citizen. There's no one-size-fits-all formula for doing that. To get a few more specific ideas, check the contents and links in past issues of Human Rights for Workers. And in future ones.

Two Cheers for the Economist

I can't believe that I'm about to write something complimentary about the Economist. But let's give credit where credit is due.

The following pungent points appeared recently in the pages of that London-based weekly:

"Economists dislike talking to people. They prefer a more 'scientific' approach to research, such as number-crunching or abstract theorizing.... [But] since economists are ultimately trying to describe human behavior, meeting real people ought sometimes to help."
Moreover:  "Neo-classical economists...have a starry-eyed faith in the efficiency of markets."

Those quotes are from the magazine's February 26 "Economics Focus" column. It praises a new book by "an intrepid economist [who] ventures into the real world to investigate-- and finds conventional explanations wanting."  The book is Why Wages Don't Fall During a Recession (Harvard) by Truman Bewley, an economist at Yale.

The column examines conflicting theories about why wages are "sticky" in an economic downturn, including Bewley's empirical-based explanation: that "the savings from lower wages are usually outweighed by the cost of denting workers' morale," as the Economist puts it. While "not the last word," Bewley's theory, the magazine concludes, "has a ring of truth to it. And if his example spurs other economists to venture out of their ivory towers, so much the better."

Amen. Couldn't've said it better myself. Though I've tried. For my most recent effort, see Getting Facts, Instead of Spinning Economic Theories.

A Lesson for Today from 'Nazi Terror'

If you were an ordinary Germany in Nazi Germany, you could get away with engaging in a number of illegal activities:

"Nazi society afforded [the great majority of] German citizens considerable space to grumble, complain, and vent frustration over policies and leaders they sometimes disagreed with," Eric A. Johnson writes in a new book But "this does not change the fact that Nazi Germany was a police state....Even the most brutal police state needs to be able to count on the compliance and complicity of ordinary citizens to destroy its enemies and accomplish its goals successfully."

From six years of basic research in Germany, Johnson concludes that the Nazis, in pursuing their heinous goals, "were well aware of whom they needed to worry about, and they acted ruthlessly to destroy them"--trade unions, non-Nazi political parties, and a few religiously inspired opponents, especially the Jehovah's Witnesses.

This insight in Johnson's book, Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans,  can serve to correct a widespread modern impression about the nature of dictatorship: that wearing jeans, singing American pop tunes, telling anti-government jokes, listening to foreign broadcasts, and similar practices show that the regime is losing or relaxing its grip.

That impression is nonsense. A Vietnamese friend of mine agrees. Though absent from Vietnam for more than 25 years, he follows events there closely by mail, email, and telephone. He finds that, among the ordinary people of Vietnam, criticism of the Communist dictatorship is common, but he attaches no political significance to that reality. It means, he says, that people are just venting their frustrations among each other. "It's really a form of political control," because it permits the Party to keep informed enough to take preventive action, when necessary, to destroy trade unions, non-Communist political parties, and religiously inspired opposition. 

Diary: the Clan Increases a Little

A cause for celebration: my wife and I now have a second grandchild. On March 2, in Fort Worth, Texas, our granddaughter, Han, gave birth to Levi Charles Arthurs, weighing nine pounds, seven and a half ounces. Mother, father, and their other son, Anton, all doing well. So are the grandparents, thank you. For a glimpse of little Levi, check our son Thuy's home page.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. V-6, March 13, 2000
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2000
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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