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Improving working conditions in Bangladesh garment factory

20 January 10 23:42

By Caroline Bayley
BBC Radio 4 In Business programme

Shulie sits bent over her sewing machine amidst row upon row of Bangladeshi garment workers - a sea of denim blue as each one whizzes up and down the seams of jeans destined for Zara, the Western fashion chain.

The deafening whirr of hundreds of sewing machines, the faces covered with masks, the fixed concentration, all reflect a modern Bangladeshi garment factory. It is hard work, long hours and by Western standards, low pay.

But it is one of the better ones.

This is Windy Group, a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. A few months ago the company moved into this new modern facility. It is spacious, cool and well lit.

And BBC Radio 4's "In Business" has played its own small part in bringing about change in this particular supply chain company.

Bad conditions

Eighteen months ago, we highlighted the appalling conditions in one of its city centre factories, Windy Apparels, after the BBC's Dhaka reporter spoke to some of its workers. Two of them said they were making clothes for Zara.

In Business alerted Inditex, the owner of Zara, and their Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, Javier Chercoles, flew to Bangladesh to investigate. He established that this particular factory was not making clothes for Zara.

However, he realised that it was a sister factory to another which they were using as suppliers. And when he finally got inside the factory he was shocked by the conditions there:

"Conditions were bad because it was an old factory from about 1975 to 1980, four floors, city centre of Dhaka, no evacuation stairs, too many people."

Javier Chercoles gave the factory owner, Mesbah Uddin Khan an ultimatum: close this factory and improve conditions at a new site if you want Inditex (and Zara) to remain a customer of yours.

Mr Khan was told by Inditex that if he was willing to bring about major changes, they would support him and give him orders. "They said we will get priority," he remembers, "if we can improve our working conditions as they want."

Neil Kearney

Now, more than a year later, two thirds of the staff have moved to the new modern site and those who did not want to were given severance pay. All the Windy Group companies have been amalgamated at the new factory which has several storeys and room to increase production further.

One of the main players who helped influence and bring about this transformation at Windy Group was the late Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) - the global umbrella federation of unions for the worldwide garment sector.

He spent a day with us to help tell the story. Tragically he died of a heart attack in Bangladesh after the programme was recorded. He had worked tirelessly around the world, and particularly in Bangladesh, to improve working conditions in the garment sector.

Here is how he assessed the new Windy Group factory: "This is what factories on the way to progress should look like. This factory is very much better than the majority of traditional factories in Bangladesh.

"Of course there are many improvements that can still be made," he added. "But it is a long way from what many of these workers were involved in six months ago."

Although this was only one factory out of more than 4000 in Bangladesh, Neil Kearney said simply that you have to start somewhere. He believed that currently out of 10,000 Western buyers only about 100 of them were trying to improve working conditions. And it was the buyers who had the power to make change happen.

"It's what every factory should be moving towards and every buyer should be doing the same thing," he said. "Because if the buyer makes the demand, the industry has to respond to that."

Javier Chercoles of Inditex says "We have the first one here. An example" which he hopes others will follow. Since the old Windy factory was closed, Inditex has persuaded another company, Elaine Garments, to close its dangerous city-centre site and move to a safer, more modern factory.

Increase wages

For Neil Kearney the major issue in the garment sector was wages. He was extremely concerned that the minimum wage set by the Bangladesh government had not been raised for three years. It is currently 1662 Bangladeshi Taka a month, about £15 or $24, for an entry level worker such as a "helper" in a garment factory.

He took us to a meeting at the Bangladesh parliament with Israfil Alam, who is a member of parliament and chairman of the Standing Committee of Labour and Employment.

Israfil Alam said the government planned to double the minimum wage but that it would not be raised on an annual basis: "Our prime minister is committed to increasing the salaries and wages of all workers of Bangladesh."

Israfil Alam pledged that it would be done within the next year, and also that Bangladesh would embrace an International Labour Organisation (ILO) programme to improve working conditions.

"If you come back to Bangladesh in a year's time, you will see that everything is okay."

Neil Kearney was pleased with the breakthrough, but realistic:

"I wouldn't be so optimistic as to say everything will be okay, but hopefully we will be on the road to much better conditions."

That evening, after that meeting and visits to the Windy Group, he died in his hotel in Dhaka, shocking the many people who had worked with him to such effect in many parts of the world.

He had visited Bangladesh more than 50 times since 1988, constantly striving to improve conditions in the garment factories. The day after he died the Bangladeshi unions and the factory bosses' organisation jointly described Neil as "a true friend of Bangladesh" and three days of mourning were declared in the textile and garment sector.

You can hear this edition of BBC Radio 4's In Business on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 21 January 2009 at 20.30 GMT and Sunday, 24 January at 21.30 GMT. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to Peter Day's World of Business podcast.

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