Worldwide, garment workers’ ongoing crusade for higher wages is yielding mixed results.
In the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, 40,000 power-loom workers have been taking to the streets for the past two weeks in response to a strike request on Aug. 1 by the Pakistan Textile, Garments and Leather Workers Federation (PTGLWF) and Ittehad Labour Union Carpet Industries Pakistan, also known as the Textile and Power Loom Workers Federation.
IndustriALL Global Union, which counts the organizations as its affiliates, said that the minimum wage board had announced a 17 percent pay hike for power-loom workers that went into effect on July 1. Despite the government mandate and efforts to remedy the situation by union leaders, it said, the owners failed to honor the raise. Instead, the power-loom owners shut down 450 units on July 26 in response to the demands.
“The workers are using a strike which is their right in law as the legally mandated wages are not being paid,” said Nadeem Parwaz, general secretary of the PTGLWF. “Inflation in Pakistan this year is at an all-time high. The government has withdrawn all subsidies and increased the prices of electricity, gas, petroleum and almost all household items, following the demand of the International Monetary Fund. Power-loom workers have no choice but to strike for the payment of their wages.”
The circumstances echo those of more than 400,000 garment workers in the Indian state of Karnataka, who are only just now seeing a favorable conclusion to a two-year battle over an unpaid minimum-wage increase. Nearly 210,000 workers have managed to wrest back $23.1 million of the $30.7 million they were owed by 21 of the region’s largest apparel manufacturers, who have also agreed to pay the correct minimum wage moving forward.
A smaller victory was achieved in Chennai after a recent court order reinstated 150 workers who labor advocates say were unfairly dismissed by Slam Clothing at a factory in the Tamil Nadu capital.
IndustriALL affiliate Garment and Fashion Workers Union (GAFWU) said that Slam management had locked out the workers to stop them from entering the factory following the union’s demand for outstanding wage payments. Slam’s leadership also forged workers’ signatures on resignation letters, campaigners claimed. (Slam did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
GAFWU escalated the matter with the labor commissioner’s office but due to management’s alleged refusal to participate in the mediation process, was referred to an industrial tribunal for adjudication. The court order granting payment of back pay, the union said, will help its efforts to recover the lost wages from Slam.
“Our fight will only intensify from here,” said Palani Bharathi, general secretary of GAFWU. “We have won the battle in the courtroom but management that arrogantly chose to sit out the entire proceedings still needs to be held accountable for the serious violations of workers’ rights.”
In the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, members of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) recently formed a human chain to urge the government to establish a new wage board for them, according to local media.
Workers are experiencing “dire and miserable circumstances” as a result of inflationary pressures that have driven up the cost of food, fuel, medicine and other daily necessities, TBS News reported earlier this month. Earlier this month, Bangladeshi officials raised fuel prices by roughly half. The last time the government adjusted the minimum wage for the country’s 4 million garment employees, who are responsible for more than 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, however, was in 2018.
”We demand the formation of a new wage board for garment workers and a dignified standard of living for workers, given the country’s economic advancement,” NGWF president Amirul Haque said.
Over in Haiti, a coalition of unions negotiated an agreement with the government to provide garment workers in Port-Au-Prince with transportation and food stipends, though the protracted battle for wages that can lift them out of their perpetual poverty continues, the Solidarity Center reported Tuesday.
The government, campaigners said, has promised to provide the garment industry’s 57,000 employees with transportation and food costs for an amount of 135 million gourdes ($1 million), which it will distribute through a mobile app.
“In our struggle for a better working environment and fair wages we have always emphasized that the government should provide social support to workers, especially those in the textile sector,” said Telemarque Pierre, coordinator of the union SOTA-Batay Ouvriye. “And here it is for the first time that our demands have been heard, even if it is not yet in effect.”
According to a 2019 survey by the Solidarity Center, the minimum wage for a 48-hour week covers less than a quarter of what workers require to adequately provide for themselves and their families. Many of them end up spending more than half of their earnings just on their commute to and from work, plus a simple lunch to get them through the day.
“From now on, we would like the government to take care to include these accompaniments in the annual budgets so that the workers can always benefit from these advantages,” Pierre said.
Port-Au-Prince and Trou-du-Nord erupted in demonstrations earlier this year over the minimum wage, which hasn’t improved in three years despite inflation blowing past 22 percent on an annual basis in 2020. Brawls between workers and police quickly turned violent, injuring many and killing at least one journalist who was present. In the aftermath, the government agreed to increase the minimum wage from 500 gourdes ($3.91) per day to 685 gourdes ($5.35) per day, though this is still far less than what many would consider a living wage.
Progress ‘not good enough’
The Industry We Want, a new multistakeholder initiative helmed by the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Fair Wear Foundation, estimates that garment workers face, on average, a 45 percent wage gap between minimum and living wages. The divide is worse in countries such as Bangladesh, which faces a 61 percent wage gap, and Indonesia, which grapples with a 71 percent wage gap.
“This tells us that, on average, workers in these countries are receiving just over half of the money they need to reach a decent standard of living,” Olivia Windham Stewart, a business and human-rights specialist, said at the launch of the Industry We Want’s dashboard, which also includes metrics for purchasing practices and greenhouse-gas emissions, in February.
“This is, of course, not new information,” she said. “The garment and footwear sector is known for being a sector characterized by the use of cheap and disposable labor. But I think we can all agree that if we are working on a traffic light system, this indicator would show up as red. These are real lives, real workers and real wage gaps and the progress is simply not good enough.”