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Working hours in garments sectors


There are two ways of looking at the garments sector in the country. The first is that they have certainly made an immense contribution to the national economy through projecting their products in the international market, a step which has always been appreciated by the people of this impoverished country. And the second is that they have made it possible for tens of thousands of poor people to be employed in their factories and thereby contribute somewhat to the economic welfare of their families. Besides these two aspects of garment sector operations, however, there is a third. It is basically that for years together there have been a number of complaints —- and they have kept growing —- that workers in many of the garments establishments are subjected to maltreatment in various forms. There are units the management of which almost regularly default on matter of a payment of wages, sometimes for months together. How that happens to be comes across rather clearly when workers in many instances are observed demonstrating in public for the realisation of their dues. The most embarrassing conditions are reached when the management of some industries solicit the assistance of the police in quelling the protests, with the result that a number of the poor agitating workers eventually bear the brunt of police excesses. Such acts have surely not enhanced the image of the garments sector.
But what concerns us now is the newest grievance of the garments workers. In a condition where trade unionism is going out of fashion, killed as it were through a combination of certain unholy interests, it is quite natural that the poor (and they are generally always the hard-working workers in industrial units) will suffer. The government, it appears, has opted to defer to the appeals of the garments owners about an extension of working hours at the garment units from the existing eight hours to twelve. A government gazette has already come into force and through it workers in the garments sector must now put in seventy two hours of work a week. That translates into twelve hours a day. But, as the leading lights of the Garments Shilpa O Sramik Rakshya Jatiya Mancha have pointed out, such a move is in direct violation of the country’s labour laws and is also in contravention of the conventions of the International Labour Organisation. That being the situation, it makes sense for the authorities to rethink the entire issue. It is irrelevant as to whether or not the government has made the move in line with the appeal of such bodies as the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Employers Association. The facts are what need to be taken into account. On the moral plane, it cannot but be acknowledged that the nation’s garments workers already are subject to a variety of pressure at their work places. Despite the eight working hours’ principle, a very large number of them are compelled to put in a longer period of time. One might ask why they have not protested against such activities on the part of the management. The answer to that is simply that the precarious economic situation of the workers does not always allow them to place principles above their meagre earnings. But that certainly should be, or should have been, no cause for owners to use exploitation as a weapon.

There are a number of areas where the welfare of garments workers has not yet been looked into. The many incidents of workers dying or getting injured as a result of fires has somehow never been investigated thoroughly. There is little evidence that the owners of factories where workers have died in accidents have been penalised under the law of the land. Given such circumstances of clearly anti-poor behaviour, it is not right or judicious that the pains of the garments workers should go up by a few notches only because some people feel they should work for four additional hours a day. Making products is not all. There is also something called the happiness of the worker.