Work conditions: informality, coercion, and change
The recent factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh reminds us that working conditions in the developing world can be unsafe and sometimes even fatal. Workers often face low wages, informal status, and long hours. Conditions are often dirty and unsafe, with uncontained contaminants and dangerous machinery or buildings.
The following reports from our community managers describe attempts to address these issues in Dhaka, Bangalore, Nairobi, Lagos, and Rio de Janeiro. Read on, then join the discussion in the comments below.
Working conditions in the Bangladeshi apparel industry: grief and hope
Ulfat Jahan, Dhaka Community Manager
Bangladeshi garment factories have become synonymous with deathbeds, as evidenced by the frequent accidents, fires, and building collapses in recent years. The recent building collapse in Savar caused the deaths of thousands of workers. As a consequence, foreign investors are withdrawing their investments from the garments sector, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's export earnings. It is surprising that despite the overwhelming importance of this sector, law enforcement in this sector is depressingly weak.
How do we explain the negligence towards safety in such a vital sector? One explanation is that 42 percent of the owners of garment factories are in fact lawmakers, and proper enforcement of the safety regulations would reduce their profits. They have little incentive to facilitate the enforcement of these laws. The major buyers, another important group of stakeholders, have taken initiatives such as producing training films and conducting private audits, but these initiatives have made only a small impact. The trainings are ineffective when confronted with real crisis situations, and the private audits have been proved to be futile since some of the factories that had passed these audits experienced major accidents soon after.
The indifference of the lawmakers and the failure of the buyers are frustrating, but there are other actors fighting for workers' rights. Although the Bangladeshi government has been restrictive regarding the formation of trade unions, the National Garment Workers' Federation (NGWF), Bangladesh's largest trade union federation, has been relentlessly working for garment workers' rights for 29 years. Two of its main objectives are to ensure decent working conditions and fair living wages. The NGWF negotiates with the government, factory owners, and multinational corporations for stronger legislation and proper enforcement. Additionally, it provides legal advice to workers and organizes training sessions to create awareness among the workers about their rights. The NGWF drafted the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement in 2011 with other labor organizations; it proposes the creation of a team of independent inspectors to ensure safe working environments. However, the major buyers denied the proposal since it requires massive investment. The Savar tragedy has revived the enthusiasm of NGWF's president, Mr. Amin, who has started a petition calling on retailers such as Primark, Matalan, Mango, and Bonmarche to sign the agreement, as these companies had contracts with the factories in the collapsed building. As of May 2013, Primark and H&M had signed the agreement due to popular pressure.
The Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) is a non-profit organization that also promotes workers' rights in the apparel industry. In addition to building the workers' capacity to advocate for their rights, BCWS is renowned for the documentation of labor abuses and violations of labor rights. Its leadership training program for female garment workers has successfully educated workers about their rights, and has led to the creation of female-led trade unions in a number of factories.
These organizations' road to success is not easy. It is difficult to attract exhausted and underpaid garment workers to union meetings. More challenging is to influence the government and the buyers, since the interests of these two groups sharply contradict with the workers' interests. In addition, court cases and police repression against members are all too common.
Hopefully, the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement will be signed and will be implemented effectively, improving the factories' working conditions. The labor organizations must work together to negotiate with the lawmakers, and should raise support from international consumers as the consumers' collective buying power can significantly impact the retailers.
Has the Dhaka garment tragedy taught us anything?
Carlin Carr, Bangalore Community Manager
The Bangladesh garment factory collapse reminded us of the humanity behind our everyday fashion. The substandard conditions are common to stitchers in Bangalore as well. Even before the tragedy in Dhaka, Bangalore played host to a people's tribunal, "Living Wages for Garment Workers," to hear the voices behind the brands speak on issues related to living wages and decent working conditions as a human right. It was the "first-ever attempt" to bring together workers from all major apparel hubs from across India.
Bangalore has 500,000 garment workers — almost 90 percent of whom are women. They work for wages that would take them months to save for the fashionable items they spend long hours making. A Guardian article on the 2012 tribunal says the national textile industry is worth $53 million a year and employs 35 million people across India. "Garment exports are worth £21bn. But human rights campaigners accuse international brands of subcontracting to firms paying poverty wages to the people who make their clothes." In addition, workers at the tribunal spoke out on abuse for not meeting impossible quotas, lack of drinking water and toilets, poor healthcare, and long working hours. Many of the women are sole breadwinners for their households and face hurdles in educating their children on such low wages.
Trade union leaders say that Bangalore's garment workers are being paid half of what they should be paid for supplying to major retail outlets such as Gap and Walmart. "The textile industry accounts for nearly 12 percent share of the country's total exports," said K.R. Jayaram of the Garment and Textile Workers' Union (GATWU) in an article in The Hindu. "Despite the economic importance of this industry, garment workers receive less than half of what is needed to support their families." GATWU has successfully lobbied for higher minimum wages in Karnataka, Bangalore's home state, though these are incremental steps toward a livable wage and many workers continue to get paid below minimum standards.
While unions such as GATWU have made headway, grassroots organizing for female garment workers faces its own challenges. Since many employers are against unionization, employees fear joining unions. Also, according to a study on Bangalore's garment workers, female laborers have many responsibilities besides their jobs, and "the practicalities of their lives leave the women with limited energy, time or space to engage in the activities necessary to build solidarity." The complicating factors have forced grassroots movements to take creative approaches to aligning the women for their own cause. The study cites the example of Munnade, which started off as a micro-savings scheme for women. The group grew tighter and within a couple of years emerged as a women's movement. Today, as a union, Munnade "has given women the confidence to begin to challenge their work conditions."
In the aftermath of the Bangladesh disaster, female workers in Bangalore spoke out again on issues that continue to go neglected. Little progress has been made since last year's tribunal. It took devastating circumstances in the U.S., such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911 that killed 146, to improve the conditions of garment workers there. Disaster has already struck neighboring Bangladesh. Hopefully India will tighten regulations before headlines burn with yet another tragedy.
Photo: Pagla Dashu
Nairobi informal service providers: formalizing in line with the city's development
Katy Fentress, Nairobi Community Manager
Nairobi is not the city it was five years ago.
The capital of Kenya is transforming its skyline: high-rises are mushrooming up and away from the Central Business District in a quest to find unoccupied space and expand. Accompanying this vertical climb is the ongoing construction of a network of roads and bypasses, aimed to make Nairobi a more fluid and modern city.
Some of the key roads that are now nearing completion have been under construction for years. This has opened up an opportunity for street vendors to create informal markets and stalls from which to provide the workforce with food and refreshments.
One such cluster of traders has been operating from an area called Riverside for half a decade. "When we first came here we agreed with the City Council that we could stay," says Mary Wambui, who prepares large quantities of tea, maize meal, and stew over a small wood fire in a series of scorched and battered tin pots. "The agreement was verbal and they never issued us with licenses. Over the years we have been forced to move again and again. Recently the police have really stepped up the pressure: as soon as they move us from one precarious piece of land to another, the cycle of harassment starts again."
Frustrated by what they see as double standards on the part of their constituency officers that on the one hand charge them a set fee to operate their stalls but, on the other, disrupt their work, the vendors have organized themselves into a formal self-help group.
The objective of the group is to petition their constituency representatives into recognizing that they are providing a much-needed service to workmen and commuters alike, and that as such they should be assigned a plot of land from which to operate.
"We would like it if the City Council built modern kiosks for us," says Simon Wachira, head of the association. "A few years back we were told that there was some money that had been set aside to help us relocate but that members of the previous administration took it for themselves. As a result, now we would just like to be assigned a piece of land and have a license to operate without fear of harassment; once we have that we can, as a group, find a loan with which to build the kiosks by ourselves."
Without any documents to prove they were given consent to trade on the road, the association is faced with an uphill struggle. Nevertheless they are determined to open up a dialogue with their councilor and to use their strength as a registered organization to negotiate a series of basic rights for themselves.
"This morning the police came and made a swoop," says Wambui. "We had just finished cooking, but now we have no plates on which to serve food. Instead of going to the police station ten kilometers away, we have decided to write a letter, which we will present directly to our councilor. If they want to relocate us it is fine, but now we are a group and as such they must treat us with more respect."
For a small group of traders like this, formalization is the first step towards ensuring legal recognition and, in time, to secure the ability to ply their trade without fear of eviction and harassment. The newly elected government has still not made it clear how it intends to deal with what is a divisive citywide issue. The fate of these and many other informal traders is yet to be sealed.
Employee unions: the first step in fighting against dire working conditions
Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi, Lagos Community Manager
Labour laws exist to protect employees from exploitation by their employers. Unfortunately, many companies and factories in Lagos do not adhere to these laws, leading to overworked, underpaid workers who perform in hostile, unhealthy, and dangerous work environments. In one recent case in Lagos, an employee lost his life while on duty in a Chinese-owned nylon manufacturing company with over 500 factory employees. This incident set off a series of worker protests against labour violations and unjust employment conduct.
Earlier this year, the workers of the Chinese factory went on strike, demanding retribution for the family of their deceased co-worker who passed away. They protested against the lack of safety tools, and for better work conditions, fewer working hours, and increased pay. In this factory, employees work long hours and are paid below the stated minimum wage as a contract staff. The Campaign for Democratic Workers Rights (CDWR) has been instrumental in supporting the factory workers' struggle for better employment conditions.
The CDWR is an international campaign that aims to promote and to strengthen the workers' movement in Nigeria by providing practical and financial solidarity. The organisation is known to take up the causes of various work groups, including the LAGBUS workers' union formation in 2008, and the Lagos State Rural Transport Initiative's reduction of work hours from 60 hours to 40 hours per week in 2011. The CDWR is now championing the cause of the Lagos-based Chinese factory workers. The organization sees the need for the creation of a union at the factory to help the workers advance their cause with this issue, and in the future should the need arise. With support from the CDWR, the workers have petitioned the factory for the creation of a union to help negotiate better working conditions and better pay. As the publicity secretary for CDWR has stated, this is the surest way to ensure that labour laws are adhered to and that workers rights are not constantly violated by the company.
On behalf of the factory's staff, the CDWR demands not only that the management allows unionization of employees, but also that it pays adequate compensation to the family of the deceased worker, that it provides enough safety tools, and better working conditions for all workers so as to avoid future casualties. The organisation is also petitioning the management to end "casualisation" in the company, a practice that allows the majority of staff to be underpaid, since they are considered contract staff. Furthermore, the CDWR is appealing to the Nigeria Labour Congress to get involved in ending unjust labour practices. Conversations regarding unionization are still ongoing between the company, its employees, and the CDWR, but since the CDWR's intervention, the factory has introduced some safety and precautionary tools to the factory. The organisation is dedicated to seeing the issue of unionization resolved and is prepared to support the workers' cause for as long as it takes to secure just labour terms.
Melhores condições para os trabalhadores no Rio por meio de formalização e educação
Catalina Gomez, Coordenadora da Rede em Rio de Janeiro
Brasil vem avançando a partir de 1950 na expansão da proteção básica para todos seus trabalhadores. Entre os avanços mais importantes estão à aprovação de um conjunto de leis e normas para garantir um salario mínimo para todos os trabalhadores formais, além de outros benefícios, como o seguro de desemprego, beneficio de maternidade, aceso a um fundo de popança, feiras remuneradas e bolsas de transporte e alimentação.
Reconhecendo estes avanços o principal desafio que o Brasil enfrenta atualmente é aumentar a formalização de trabalhadores que continuam na informalidade. Para colocar uma perspectiva de cidade, observemos a situação no Rio de Janeiro. Segundo a iniciativa cidadã Rio Como Vamos, em 2007 Rio tenha 2,174,568 trabalhadores formais e em 2011, só foram registrados 320 mil trabalhadores a mais, tornando-se urgente maiores esforços na formalização. Os grupos que seriam mais favorecidos com esforços específicos de formalização são os pequenos empreendedores de baixa renda e outros trabalhadores informais com pouca visibilidade tais como os domésticos e catadores de lixo.
Outro tema prioritário que precisa melhoria é a educação dos trabalhadores. Atualmente em torno de 40 por cento dos trabalhadores só tem completado ensino médio. Como os setores de maior crescimento na cidade são aqueles de serviços e comercio, é prioritário educar e treinar os trabalhadores para este mercado. Além destes esforços também é urgente aprimorar a capacidade daqueles trabalhadores para conseguir empregos melhor pagos sendo que 52 por cento dos trabalhadores tem uma renda media mensal de 2 salários mínimos.
Para atender estes desafios no Rio, existem varias iniciativas lideradas pelo governo local. Por exemplo, existem varias iniciativas e serviços que oferecem apoio aos trabalhadores a formalizar suas atividades. A maioria destes serviços é oferecida pelos Centros Públicos de Emprego, Trabalho, e Renda localizados em áreas estratégicas da cidade. Estes centros oferecem informação para os trabalhadores no processo de formalização e na expedição da carteira de trabalho. Adicionalmente, a Secretaria Municipal de Educação, opera os Centros de Educação para Jovens e Adultos (CEJA) para que pessoas de baixa renda possam completar os ciclos de ensino fundamental e meio, além de achar oportunidades de treinamento e de geração de renda. Para facilitar o aceso, muitos dos cursos podem ser feitos mediante aulas virtuais.
Um desafio que ainda precisa urgente atenção é a melhora no aceso e qualidade de creches e educação infantil para os filhos dos trabalhadores, especialmente para as mulheres chefe de família. Atualmente o governo local vem fazendo melhoras, mais ainda precisa dar uma expansão significativa que beneficie mais trabalhadores.
Crédito fotográfico: Portal Brasil
Improving work conditions in Rio: greater focus on workers' formalization and education
Catalina Gomez, Rio de Janeiro Community Manager
Since the 1950s, Brazil has been taking important steps to ensure the basic protection of all its workers. The most relevant advances include the approval of a series of laws and regulations that ensure formal workers a minimum wage, and a number of benefits, including unemployment benefits, maternity leave, access to a pension fund, and paid time off, and sometimes transportation and meal subsidies.
Given these advances in workers' protection, Brazil's current challenge is to increase formality among workers who remain informal, so that they too can receive the various basic protections and benefits associated with formality. To illustrate this challenge, let's take Rio de Janeiro as an example of what happens at the city level. According to the citizen initiative Rio Como Vamos, in 2007, there were 2,174,568 formal workers in Rio de Janeiro. Five years later, there were only 320,000 more formal workers. In order to significantly increase the number of formal workers, efforts are needed to target low-income populations working as entrepreneurs and also in other less visible sectors, like domestic work and waste picking.
Another aspect that needs to be improved is the education levels of the city's workers, as only 40 percent of them have completed middle school education. Given that Rio's fastest-growing sectors include services and commerce, educating and training the labor force would let them qualify for these dynamic sectors. Workers also need greater access to better paying jobs than their current ones, as about 52 percent of formal workers in Rio only earn up to twice the minimum wage.
In order to improve workers' conditions in Rio, there are various measures being implemented at the city level. The local government promotes a series of campaigns and assistance to low-income workers so that they can receive support in formalizing their work. This is carried out by the Centros Públicos de Emprego, Trabalho, e Renda (the Public Employment, Labor, and Intermediation Centers), which are located throughout the city. In these centers, low-income workers receive guidance on the requirements and benefits of formalizing their activities, and they can get help in issuing their worker's identification. In addition, the city's education secretariat operates various youth and adult education centers, where residents can continue their primary and middle school education, and be connected to additional training or practical income-generating activities. Some of these courses offered by these centers can be carried out virtually, which facilitates access.
A key aspect that is still unresolved is ensuring better access to affordable and quality childcare, which has always been one of the biggest bottlenecks for working parents, especially women. Currently, the local government is supporting initiatives to expand such services, but greater efforts need to be taken in order to benefit even more of Rio's workers.
Photo credit: Portal Brasil