An Insensitive Economist: Meghnad Desai on Bangladesh Garment Factory Wages

bangladesh garment factory workers

Renowned British economist and a Labour Party member of the House of Lords, Lord Meghnad Desai on January 23rd wrote a letter to the Guardian, as a rebuttal to Simon Murphy’s investigative op-ed, posted from Gazipur Bangladesh, “Inhuman conditions: life in factory making Spice Girls T-shirts”, published on January 20th in the same paper. Lord Desai’s letter is simply a pathetic one, at most could be considered a by-product of his ignorance about the cost of living in Bangladesh, and the deplorable condition of the garment factory workers there.

An economist of Desai’s stature should not have written something without having any idea about the cost of living in Bangladesh. He seems to be totally unaware of the ground reality in Bangladesh vis-à-vis the negative correlation between seven per cent GDP growth and – as the World Bank reveals – fifty-two per cent Bangladeshis living below the poverty line at $2 per capita income per day. Even those making $2 (Tk166) per head per day, can barely afford nutritious food, live in a hygienic place with clean drinking water, get medical attention and good education for their children. Surprisingly, on January 23rd, Lord Desai has browbeaten Simon Murphy, the writer of the investigative piece, which just showed the tip of the iceberg of tyranny and exploitation by the garment factory owners in Bangladesh.

Murphy’s calling a spade a spade seems to have annoyed Lord Desai, a lot. I cite the following excerpts from the investigative piece:

Workers producing tops sold to raise money for Comic Relief [by Spice Girls] receive far below a living wage”. Murphy further explained: The T-shirts, which also have the words ‘gender justice’ on the back, were made by workers earning significantly less than a living wage. The factory is part-owned by a minister in Bangladesh’s authoritarian coalition government, which won 96% of the vote last month in an election described as ‘farcical’ by critics. There is no suggestion any of the celebrities were aware of conditions at the factory. Perched on a chair in the tiny room she [a worker] shares with her husband and seven-year-old son – barely more than 3.5 metres by 3.5 metres (12ft x 12ft) in size – she describes the harsh reality of her working life at the Interstoff Apparels factory. A small gas-burning stove on the floor in a small corridor is shared between four families. There is one toilet – a hole in the ground – and an overhead pipe without a shower head for washing. Despite her modest surroundings, at 5,000 Bangladeshi taka (£46.30) a month, the rent eats up more than half her 9,080Tk salary, which includes an attendance bonus that she does not receive if she is sick.

The piece that forced Lord Desai to write a rebuttal to it, revealed that garment bosses’ using obscene language to workers, like “khankir bacha” (daughter of a prostitute), and that “sometimes many female workers can’t bear the insults and pressure from the management, and they quit.” Garment bosses also force workers, “including those who are pregnant”, to work over-time, the report revealed.

In strong disagreement with Simon Murphy’s investigative op-ed, posted after he had visited a garment factory at Gazipur (north of Dhaka), Lord Desai wrote: “What may seem like poverty pay to a Guardian reader need not be so for a worker in Bangladesh. A pound is worth roughly a hundred taka, so 35p is 35 taka. If someone works 40 hours a week, she would make £14 a week. The per capita income of Bangladesh is £1,400 (£3,650 in purchasing power parity). If she were employed for 50 weeks she would make up to half the per capita income – not rich, but not poor by local poverty standards…. If the ‘radical anger’ of Guardian readers leads to cancellation of the contract, the Guardian readers may be happy, but not the Bangladeshi workers. Wages in Bangladesh will take another 50 years to catch up with the UK. The economy is growing healthily. It can grow because its low wage attracts orders and helps exports. Leave it alone to grow [italics mine].”

I find the caption of the letter, “£14 can go a long way in Bangladesh” as insensitive and offensive as his hyperbolic assertion that Bangladeshi garment workers are “not rich, but not poor by local poverty standards”. One wonders, what the renowned British economist know about “local poverty standards” in Bangladesh! His advocacy of paying low wages to the garment workers to attract orders from foreign buyers to promote exports is an epitome of warm approval of neo-colonial production relations.

One who knows, knows it well that most garment factory workers who earn between Tk 4,000 and 16,000 per month (from $47 to $188) live below the poverty line, and some having fewer dependents to look after, just make enough for bare subsistence.

Most garment workers not only make below subsistence wages, they also neither have any job security nor a safe and hygienic workplace. By now, several hundred have been burnt alive in factories with no fire exit. The whole world knows about the Rana Plaza disaster. On 24 April 2013, 1,134 workers died and many seriously injured when the multi-storied building collapsed, allegedly due to “structural failure”. Last but not least, the Bangladeshi garment workers – make two per cent of the sell-price of apparel in the international market – contribute most to the GDP growth of the country, which is around eighty per cent.

There are more than four million of them – mostly malnourished rural women – who live near the factories in unhygienic condition, six to twelve of them sharing one bedroom, in and around Dhaka city, and elsewhere across Bangladesh. Their rights and privileges are non-existent. The rapacious factory owners run the so-called labour unions by their own people. Workers who demand living wages and job security are shown the door.

Last month, as media reported: “Nearly 5,000 low-paid Bangladeshi garment workers stitching clothes for global brands have been sacked by factory bosses for joining strikes over wages this month that turned violent” [Dhaka Tribune, January 29th, 2019].

The garment factory workers must assert they want living wages, nutritious food, healthcare, good housing, and good education for their children. They must put their foot down and assert the system that allows two per cent of the selling price of apparel to the workers is slave labour. And it is not acceptable, anymore! The people must tell the authorities they do not want to hear by how many percentage points their GDP is growing, anymore; they just want their due share in the pie.

In sum, it is time to address the issue of exploitation of the poor by the garment factory owners, and others employing workers at best on subsistence, and at worst below-subsistence wages; and de-humanise them with abusive language, and force them to work over-time. We know the IMF, World Bank, and their admirers at home and abroad are rich, powerful, and influential people. They must not go unchallenged. Bangladeshis across the board must protest their browbeating, condescending lies, and false promises.

Dr. Hashmi is an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, US. He is an analyst, historian, cultural anthropologist, and author of several books.


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