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BGMEA Wants Better Nutrition for Garment Workers. Is It Doing Enough?

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) is working with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to improve the health of garment workers powering the world’s second-biggest garment-exporting sector.

The duo will create a space for advocating an enabling environment for ensuring appropriate nutrition for ready-made garment (RMG) workers, according to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that BGMEA president Faruque Hassan and GAIN country director Dr. Rudaba Khondker signed in the capital city of Dhaka on Jan. 4.

They will provide technical guidance to strengthen the institutional capacity of the National Workforce Nutrition Alliance for scaling up the nutrition activities for workers’ wellbeing. Both sides will also collaborate to create collective approaches and mechanisms to improve workers’ access to affordable, nutritious and safe food in RMG factories via Fair Price Shop (FPS), which sell essential commodities at affordable prices. They will work together to provide nutrition services and micronutrient supplementation to workers from various formal and informal sectors. 

This partnership intends to improve the nutritional status of RMG workers in Bangladesh that will, ultimately, contribute to achieving the goal of the Second National Plan of Action for Nutrition as well as fulfilling the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG): SDG 2 (creating a world free of hunger by 2030), SDG 3 (health and wellbeing), SGD 5 (gender equality) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth).

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But some think this isn’t enough.

“Whilst we welcome the focus on workers’ health, this initiative does not address the drivers of poor nutrition and hunger,” Meg Lewis, campaign lead of UK-based nonprofit Labour Behind the Label, said. “Workers in the garment industry are systematically paid wages that fall far short of a living wage. It is only with living wages that workers will be able to afford nutritious and health food for themselves and their families. Instead, wages that were already shamefully low, have stagnated whilst living costs soar. Until brands and employers pay garment workers living wages, initiatives like this are a sticking plaster, treating the symptoms of poverty whilst failing to address the root causes.”

These root causes? For one, the lack of infrastructure that holds brands and retailers accountable for paying their workers fair wages. This results in purchasing practices where no one is held liable to make ethical decisions.

“It doesn’t seem right that you should have situations where the Bangladesh government is bailing out workers, perhaps because the brands have failed to pay, or we now have Swiss philanthropic foundations who are bailing out the workers because, again, the brands are paying essentially, I would argue, a stop-gap function which is needed and essential for people’s lives,” Fiona Gooch, senior policy adviser at UK-based fair-trade nonprofit organization Transform Trade, previously known as Traidcraft, said. “I feel like there’s a real need to call out that voluntary doesn’t work. Brands know that their purchasing practices have a direct impact on the cash flow of their suppliers. That translates into workers being harmed, essentially.”

There’s also a discussion about who carries this onus that’s missing the mark, Gooch said.

“That debate is about you, as a consumer, should feel guilty for buying, and that’s completely wrong,” she said. “We’ve got to change it from being a consumer narrative to a citizen narrative. And the citizen narrative is about saying, ‘we want a fair marketplace.’ I don’t want to be faced with the choice of buying clothes based on exploitation. I want to go into a shop and be confident that what is presented in front of me has got people paid with a living wage.”

Gooch raised a bigger question: is GAIN letting big-name retailers like Inditex and H&M off the hook by stepping in with stopgap support?

“I don’t know if [GAIN] is a family or not, but why should one family or one foundation with good intentions be bailing out the wealth of some other people? It feels wrong to me,” she said, noting that GAIN receives funding from the UK government, among others. “I don’t think it’s right that the British taxpayer is basically subsidizing clothes that are sold on the UK market and making a profit for these companies.”

BGMEA and GAIN did not respond to Sourcing Journal’s request for comment.