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Dhaka’s garment workers – campaigning for a living wage and safe work conditions

This is the latest of our #SecondHandSeptember blogs on the human and environmental costs of throwaway fashion, and how shopping second hand can help both people and planet.

In Bangladesh, a worker would need to be paid more than 4.5 times more than the current minimum wage to afford a decent standard of living – and almost nine times more to support a family.  

Most workers earn 8,300 Taka (€82) a month, but need 16,000 Taka (€160) for a living wage. This which would cover basic needs such as food, healthcare, education, clothing and transport. 

Oxfam supports formal and informal garment workers through a programme which funds four leadership and empowerment centres for women in the slums. These facilities are training centres where the women can develop new skills and career opportunities.  

We provide business training and cash support to start small businesses. Many participants are doing well, making dresses with sewing machines, or baking goods to sell at school canteens. The programme is also helping women with training on how to cope with sexual harassment at work.  

Oxfam also has a Living Wage campaign for women’s economic empowerment. Working with our partners, including the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity and the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies, we work for decent employment, safe workplaces, a living wage and social protection. 

 

“Our women need support from the global community.”

Rifat, who works with the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, said, “Many female garment workers face challenges in their personal lives because of social norms being cast aside. Women have left family members caring for their children and can face isolation, violence or sexual harassment and bullying in work. Some owners think women do less work than men so they have lower positions as helpers or operators and men get highest positions. 

"When we started the work, we saw many challenges. We could see the management was not aware of, and workers did not know, their rights. Now they are more aware and they can talk for themselves and represent themselves.
“Big brands have a responsibility for ensuring workers rights. The government rates are not sufficient to provide food, education, rent and healthcare. The market prices are high here – a living wage is important. It takes brands, buyers and our national government to respond. They contribute to the economy and we need to help them.”

 

“I survived in 2012. I jumped out a fourth-floor window to survive. I didn’t want to burn. I knew this way if I jumped my parents would get my body.”

Sumi Abedin jumped from a fourth-floor window during the 2012 Tazreen factory fire, a blaze which claimed the lives of more than 110 workers. At the time, she was earning the equivalent of €36 a month and was struggling to get by. Sumi broke her right hand and leg, had head injuries and was hospitalised for six months. Through the International Labour Organisation, she received compensation worth 250K taka, or approximately €2,500. Some people got more depending on their injuries. Sumi now campaigns for workers’ rights.

Why is she speaking out on workers’ rights?

“For awareness and the greater good – to help other people get compensation for what they lost in fires. It doesn’t cover the trauma but it’s still something.”

Sumi went to the US to speak about her experiences – before that, she had never been outside the country. The buyers were denying Tazreen workers had been injured but she was proof they had. Sumi was 17, almost 18, when the fire broke out. She had started working in the facility at the age of 13 even though workers are supposed to be 18.

“Currently things have improved a little regarding fire safety. Most workers have husbands so they can get by but it’s not easy. Many leave kids behind with grandparents and are forced to live separated from their children. They send money to support them each month.”

Sumi meets her child every two months. Others only see them once or twice a year, at Eid when they can afford to travel home.

We asked Sumi if she would ever work in a garment factory again. She said she would not, nor would she allow her daughter to.

“We don’t want any more disasters like Rana Plaza and Tazreen. No parents should lose their children this way.”

The situation for garment workers in Dhaka is just one part of the story – it tells of the human cost of throwaway fashion. But there is also a vast environmental cost to our fashion choices.

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Climate change, COVID-19 and throwaway fashion – how Dhaka’s Garment Workers are some of the hardest hit

During #SecondHandSeptember we will have a series of blogs about the human and environmental costs of throwaway fashion, and how shopping second hand can help both people and planet.

Garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Changes in climate and river erosion are forcing people to migrate from rural areas to Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, where they can make some form of living to provide for themselves and their family.

Eighty-three percent of Bangladesh’s total exports are ready-made garments, accounting for five percent of the global garment trade – and with an available, young, and cheap workforce, Bangladesh is an attractive and competitive option for large western fashion brands.

But clothes, produced cheaply, often means low wages and poor working conditions for garment workers.

There is an estimated four million garment workers in Bangladesh – 80 percent of whom are women. Nine out of 10 people working in this industry live in poverty, earning an average salary of €24 a week or €4 a day, with some earning as little as €3 a day.

Much like other capital cities across the world, rents are high. Workers tend to share their living space – often a single room – with up to five other people. As COVID-19 infiltrates our towns and cities, this type of cohabitation now poses news challenges in containing spread and maintaining physical distance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the global garment supply chains, resulting in over one million workers being fired or furloughed. All parties are feeling the impact of COVID-19; however, not all parties are equal. Factories operate on paper-thin margins and have far less access to capital than their customers, and workers very rarely earn enough to accumulate any savings. Due to order cancellation or postponement by big brands, workers were told to go home with no money. One woman Oxfam spoke with said that:

 “Death from coronavirus is a maybe, but death from not earning is certain.”

Labonie shops for her food at the local market

A living wage is a basic human right.

Labonie Akter lives in a Dhaka slum with her sister. Her husband is a rickshaw puller and lives back in their home village with her son.

Her son was four when she left. He is now 10 years old. She told us:

“Brands and buyers are getting richer while we live in a cycle of poverty and our lives are stagnant. I hope things get better in the future…”

Three of the richest men in the fashion industry are worth over $100 billion while the women at the bottom of the supply chain are paid a pittance.

Garment workers face poor housing, high living costs, and no medical care, and are often forced to do overtime at the same rate. Women do not get proper maternity leave and they are forced to work long hours to meet order demands.

People tend to run out of money by the end of the month, take loans out, and run into debt to survive. They also experience family separation, and in some cases, children are taken out of school to work in factories to pay the bills. This keeps the cycle of poverty going.

International pressure is helping and the government has set up a special task force on wages. However, big brands should be using their influence to ensure collective bargaining is respected and should invest a portion of their profits in improving the industry.

Currently, two percent of the retail price of a typical garment goes to the women who make them. Less than one percent of the production cost would be a huge benefit to workers if brands absorbed it.

We want brands to commit to a living wage and publish a timetable for a transparent supply chain. And we are seeing a shift at a policy level and credible commitments from some brands, with some already 80 percent of the way there.

Garmet workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Basic Shirts is one Bangladeshi factory working with Oxfam and the UK’s John Lewis Foundation to help the safety and security of their workers.

Basic Shirts Chairperson Mohammad Nurul Islam said: “Profits can be six times more than our unit price. I understand there are shipping and transport costs – but every little more they pay means we can pay the women more.

“If we are paid five cent more per shirt, that’s five cent I can pay to the worker – lives will improve and workers can enjoy their life.”


The situation for garment workers in Dhaka is just one part of the story - it tells of the human cost of throwaway fashion. But there is also a vast environmental cost to our fashion choices.

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Pandemic profits soar by billions for big companies as poorest pay price

Now is the time to build an economy that puts people first, protects the most vulnerable and shares profits equitably

Thirty-two of the world’s largest companies stand to see their profits jump by US$109 billion more in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic further exposes an unequal economic model that delivers profits for the wealthiest at the expense of the poorest, according to a new Oxfam report today.  

Power, Profits and the Pandemic, published ahead of tomorrow’s six-month anniversary of the declaration of the pandemic, outlines how COVID-19 has made things even worse by encouraging corporations around the globe to put profits before their workers, focusing on short-term returns and maximising efficiencies all while limiting worker and stakeholder power and using their political influence to shape policy responses. Corporations have exacerbated the economic impacts of the pandemic by funnelling profits to shareholders instead of investing in better jobs, paying their fair share of taxes and prioritising their workers.   

Globally, half a billion more people are expected to be pushed into poverty by the economic fallout from the pandemic – and by the end of the year more people could die from hunger linked to COVID-19 than from the disease itself. 400 million jobs have already been lost and the International Labour Organisation estimates that more than 430 million small enterprises are at risk – while the 25 wealthiest billionaires increased their wealth by a staggering US$255 billion between mid-March and late-May alone. 

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland, said: “We are at a critical juncture. We have a choice between returning to ‘business as usual’ or learning from this moment and transforming a global economic system that doesn’t work for all, especially those most vulnerable.   

“While workers, their families, and businesses the world over are struggling to survive, some large corporations have either managed to shield themselves from the economic fallout of the pandemic, or even cashed in on the disaster. The excessive profits of these companies would not be a problem if they were widely shared and benefited the rest of society. Instead, we’re seeing low-wage and informal workers across the world struggling to cope with the impact of COVID-19, saying the virus will starve them before it makes them sick. 

“The pandemic must be the catalyst for reining in corporate power, restructuring business models with purpose and creating an economy for all. Our report proposes a blueprint. It all starts and ends with an economic model that puts people at the centre, protects the most vulnerable, shares profits equitably and is grounded in democracy.” 

Oxfam finds that many companies’ ability to cope with the economic damage wreaked by the pandemic and take care of their employees has been severely undermined by years of increased payments to shareholders; some companies having handed over amounts significantly greater than their profits.  

From 2016 to 2019, 59 of the world’s most profitable companies distributed almost $2 trillion to their shareholders, with pay-outs averaging 83 percent of earnings.   

Oxfam is calling for a global response to the crisis that prioritises support for workers and small businesses. It includes establishing a COVID-19 Pandemic Profits Tax to ensure shared sacrifice, and the redeployment of resources away from those cashing in on the pandemic and toward those bearing the burden. One concrete policy that the Irish Government could implement is to require that companies adopt a human rights due diligence approach and identify, prevent, mitigate and account for human rights risks associated with business models in operations and supply chains. The EU is currently considering legislation in this area. 

Long term, Oxfam is asking policymakers and corporations worldwide to re-balance corporate purpose, profits and power away from exclusively benefiting executives and shareholders towards workers, suppliers, consumers and communities. A corporate reform agenda should ensure every worker is paid a living wage, has a safe place to work and a voice in the workplace before a single dividend is paid to shareholders. Corporations must pay their fair share of tax and policy makers must rein in corporate power to stop them from rigging the rules. 

ENDS

CONTACT  

Caroline Reid | caroline.reid@oxfam.org | +353 (0) 87 912 3165

Alice Dawson-Lyons | alice.dawsonlyons@oxfam.org | +353 (0) 83 198 1869

Notes to editor

Power, Profits and the Pandemic is available here.

The report sets out examples including:   

  • In the US, an estimated 27,000 meat packing workers have tested positive – one in nine employees - and more than 90 have died from COVID-19. The country’s largest meat processing company, Tyson Foods, published a letter advocating against closing its factories, despite 8,500 of its employees testing positive for the virus. 
  • Ten of the world’s largest apparel brands paid 74 percent of their profits (a total of $21 billion) to their shareholders in dividends and stock buybacks in 2019. This year 2.2 million workers in Bangladesh alone were affected when textile orders were cancelled. Factory shutdowns have lowered revenues in the country by an estimated $3 billion. 
  • In India, hundreds of tea plantation workers, many of them women, have gone unpaid as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. At the same time, some of the largest Indian tea companies have boosted their profits or have been able to maintain profit margins by cutting costs.   
  • Mining operations in Peru have been kept open despite high risks of infection among their employees.  
  • Chevron announced cuts of 10-15 percent of its 45,000 global work force despite spending more cash on dividends and share buybacks during the first quarter of the year than they generated from core business.  
  • Nigeria's largest cement company, Dangote Cement, allegedly fired more than 3,000 staff without prior notice or due process while the company is still expected to pay 136 percent of its profits to shareholders in 2020.  
  • Jeff Bezos is the founder and owner of Amazon. Amazon’s market capitalisation is over $1.5 trillion[1] and Jeff Bezos is now the richest man on earth worth around $200 billion[2].  His wealth has increased with $92 billion in only five months, between 18 March and 20 August 2020. Bezos could have paid each of Amazon’s 876,000 employees a $105,000 bonus and would still be as wealthy as he was at the onset of the pandemic.[3] Invested over 25 years at 6 percent interest rate this bonus would increase to $450,000 in retirement savings for each employee.  

Solutions: 

  • RESPOND: TAX COVID-19 SUPER PROFITS FOR THE GREATER GOOD: With millions out of work and governments’ struggling to effectively respond to the pandemic, companies earning exorbitant profits for the already wealthy and well-connected will no longer suffice. These outsized gains should be taxed to level the playing field between companies and raise much needed funding for COVID-19 relief and recovery. 
  • REFORM: PURPOSE, PEOPLE, PROFITS AND POWER: This is the time for governments to create incentives and limitations to radically rein in corporate power and create an economy for everyone that will withstand a transition into a world permanently altered by climate change. We need an economic model that puts people at the centre, protects the most vulnerable, shares profits equitably, and is grounded in democracy. Both governments and the private sector have a role to play in this reform. Purpose: redefining the ‘why’ of business; People: putting people at the centre of business; Profits: ensuring a fair share for all stakeholders; Power: transforming how corporations are governed. 
  • REBUILD: PROMOTING VIABLE ALTERNATIVES: A fundamental change in business models is not utopian. Viable alternatives exist and continue to gain traction. Social enterprises, cooperatives, mission-led businesses and fair trade enterprises are just a few examples of the diverse range of organisations that prioritise the interests of workers, farmers, communities and the environment over returns to investors.  

 

 

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BEIRUT: One month since the blast and thousands are unable to rebuild their homes, warn Oxfam

One month since the blast and thousands can’t afford a front door

One month since the massive blast in Beirut, tens of thousands of vulnerable people are unable to rebuild their homes, with a single front door costing two months’ worth of a minimum-wage salary, warned Oxfam today.   

Longstanding inequality, massive inflation and COVID-19 have compounded this humanitarian disaster for tens of thousands of people, making it almost impossible for them to recover.  

Bachir Ayoub, Oxfam’s Policy Lead in Lebanon said: “Huge inflation has meant the cost of basic materials needed to rebuild homes and businesses is out of reach for thousands of people who were already struggling to get by before the blast. With a minimum wage of just under $450 a month, the cost of replacing one window is now nearly $500 and a door up to $1000. These families need urgent assistance to recover from this disaster and rebuild their lives.” 

The blast came at time when thousands of people where already on the brink. An estimated 50 percent of the population was living under the poverty line, the Lira’s value had dropped 80 percent since October, migrant workers were being abandoned and forced out on the streets, cash was almost impossible to access, and restrictive measures to contain the pandemic prevented casual workers from getting to their jobs.  

Ayoub continued: “Following the blast, an estimated 70,000 additional workers are now jobless and half of all wholesale, retail and hospitality establishments near the blast site have been destroyed.  

“In the most affected areas, the majority of people are low and middle- income workers who earn the minimum wage or less. Most of them have lost their jobs in the port or the businesses in the devastated areas. Many people are struggling to put food on the table, let alone repair their houses.” 

Oxfam is working with Lebanese organisations to ensure that Beirut’s most marginalised people are not left behind and instead have the support they need to recover from the blast - but there is still so much that needs to be done for Beirut to begin to recover.  

Celine El Kik, a social worker from Oxfam partner KAFA says the mental scars of the blast will linger long after the physical damage has been repaired: “The port explosion affected all of us, but especially women who were already vulnerable. We're providing social and legal support, as well as cash assistance for people who lost their jobs or their houses.”  

Oxfam calls for fair and just distribution of aid to provide critical support to vulnerable communities and people who will be unable to rebuild their lives without targeted and transparent aid 

Ayoub concluded: “We are worried that the growing inequality and suffering we were already seeing in some of Lebanon’s most vulnerable communities – like refugees and migrant workers, the elderly and LGBTQ+ community – will only get worse in the coming months as winter sets in.” 

END

Contact

Caroline Reid | caroline.reid@oxfam.org | +353 (0) 87 912 3165

Alice Dawson-Lyons | alice.dawsonlyons@oxfam.org | +353 (0) 83 198 1869

Notes to the editor:

  • The Minimum wage in Lebanon is set by the Government at 675,000 LBP which was equivalent to $450 this time last year 
  • One-meter square of average quality (6mm) glass cost 16$ before the explosion. After August 4th, and with the increasing prices in the market, the Ministry of Economy specified the prices of one-meter square of glass with an aluminum frame at $500 
  • The average market price of a door with quality locks is currently 700-1000 USD 
  • To respond to the impact of the blast Oxfam is working with 11 partners to deliver emergency support including distribution of food parcels and the provision of emergency and temporary cash assistance, household rehabilitation, legal assistance and consultation, psycho-social support and medication. The services are provided to families and individuals in the affected areas including women, girls, LGBTQ+ community members, people with disabilities and migrant workers. 
  • Oxfams partners under the Beirut Response are Lebanese Centre for Human Rights (CLDH), KAFA, Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), Basmeh and Zeitooneh (B&Z), Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union (LPHU), Lebanese observatory for workers and employees rights (LOWER), HELEM, Legal Agenda (LA), Mada Association, Arc En Ciel and People’s Solidarity, hosted by a partner organization called Social Media Exchange (SMEXs) 
  • Since March 2020, Oxfam in Lebanon has been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to address the needs of vulnerable communities in the Bekaa Valley. Along with local partners, Oxfam continues to distribute water, soap and disinfection kits to refugees in the informal tented settlements. 
  • Oxfam in Lebanon works on active citizenship and good governance, economic justice and humanitarian programmes. 
  • Oxfam has been working in Lebanon since 1993 providing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people affected by conflict, and promoting economic development, good governance at a local and national level, and women’s rights through work with local partners. Oxfam also works with local partners to contribute to the protection and empowerment of marginalized women and men.  
  • Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world: 1 out of every 4 people. In response to the Syria crisis, Oxfam has been providing water and sanitation, and emergency cash assistance for refugees and poor Lebanese, helping refugees with legal protection issues, and supporting small businesses and private-sector job creation. Oxfam is currently working in North Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, South Lebanon, and in Palestinian camps and gatherings.
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BEIRUT: One month since the blast and thousands can’t afford a front door

On August 6, 2020 communities, young and old, started sweeping the streets, and cleaning up the wreckage caused by the explosion in Beirut.

By Sahar Elbachir, Senior Media and Communications Officer, and Bachir Ayoub, Policy Lead - Oxfam in Lebanon

One month since the massive explosion in Beirut, tens of thousands of vulnerable people are unable to rebuild their homes — with a front door costing two months’ minimum-wage salary.

Longstanding inequality, massive inflation and COVID-19 have compounded this humanitarian disaster for tens of thousands, making it almost impossible for them to recover.

Huge inflation has meant the cost of basic materials needed to rebuild homes and businesses is out of reach for thousands of people who were already struggling to get by before the explosion sent shockwaves through the city. While the minimum wage is just under €380 a month, the cost of replacing one window is now nearly €420 and a door is up to €845.

The blast came at a time when thousands of people were already on the brink. An estimated 50 percent of the population was living under the poverty line, the Lira’s value had dropped 80 percent since October, migrant workers were being abandoned and forced out on the streets, cash was almost impossible to access, and restrictive measures to contain the pandemic prevented casual workers from getting to their jobs.

Following the blast, approximately 70,000 additional workers are now jobless and half of all wholesale, retail and hospitality establishments near the blast site have been destroyed.

In the most affected areas, the majority of people are low- and middle-income workers who earn the minimum wage or less. Most of them have lost their jobs in the port or businesses in the devastated areas and many people are struggling to put food on the table.

A team of volunteers with Oxfam partner, Lebanese Centre for Human Rights (CLDH), visit the neighbourhood of Geitawi to assess the psychosocial support needed for people affected by the explosion.

Oxfam’s Response

Oxfam is working with Lebanese organisations to ensure that Beirut’s most marginalised people are not left behind and instead have the support they need to recover from the explosion.

Oxfam’s joint response with partners will focus on supporting local leadership, and will prioritise reaching people with disabilities, the elderly, women and girls, migrant workers, refugees (Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world – one out of every four people) and the LGBTQ+ community.

Oxfam’s partner-led response is providing over 9,000 people with support including distribution of food parcels and the provision of emergency and temporary cash assistance, legal assistance and consultation, psycho-social support and medication, and help to repair and rebuild their homes and businesses.

Celine, 37, a social worker & support centre supervisor working with Oxfam Partner Kafa KAFA, is photographed by boxes of food packed by staff and volunteers, that will be distributed to help vulnerable families.

Trauma

But there is still so much that needs to be done for Beirut to begin to recover. Celine El Kik, a social worker from Oxfam partner KAFA, says the mental scars of the blast will linger long after the physical damage has been repaired.

“The port explosion affected all of us, but especially women who were already vulnerable. We're providing social and legal support, as well as cash assistance for people who lost their jobs or their houses.”

Hanaa uses plastic to cover her windows which were shattered in the explosion.

Hanaa, her two daughters and her son, have been living in her small house in Karantina – one of the neighborhoods closest to the port – for decades. The family was inside their house when the blast went off.

“We were standing in the house,” Hanaa explains from her home. “At first they said it was fireworks. The first explosion went off, and the kids started screaming. I told them it was only the fireworks factory. And then the huge blast went off, it threw my kids and me across the room.”

Hanaa’s house was cracked, pieces of actual concrete fell off, and the windows exploded, sending glass raining across the room.

“Everything was full of smoke, it was indescribable,” Hanaa recounts.

Dina, Hanaa’s second daughter, was mildly injured during the explosion. Although she has almost completely recovered, the invisible scars the blast left aren’t about to disappear. For Hanaa’s youngest son, every loud noise is a reminder of the blast.

“Until now, he doesn’t sleep at night, he asks me to talk to him all throughout the night,” says Hanaa.

Although her family is safe and suffered only minor injuries, Hanaa still fears that her home is unsafe – that it now barely stands on its own.

“We still are afraid that the wall might collapse on us.”

For now, the family uses plastic to cover the windows or pieces of wood to create a makeshift door, but they fear that once winter, with its cold weather and harsh rains sets in, they might not even have a house anymore.

Staff and volunteers at Oxfam partner KAFA pack boxes of food that will be distributed to help vulnerable families affected by the explosion, which killed over 180 people, injured more than 6,500 and displaced some 300,000 residents.

Oxfam is calling for fair and just distribution of aid to provide critical support to vulnerable communities and people who will be unable to rebuild their lives without targeted and transparent aid.

Our worry is that the growing inequality and suffering we were already seeing in some of Lebanon’s most vulnerable communities – like refugees and migrant workers, the elderly and LGBTQ+ community – will only get worse, and they will fall even farther behind.

These communities need urgent assistance to recover from this disaster and rebuild their lives.

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