Inequality

  • The widening gap between the world’s richest and poorest people is tearing societies apart. Too many still toil in extreme poverty. In contrast, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, who can use it to capture disproportionate power to shape the future. The widening gap between the richest and poorest is damaging economies and pushing more people into poverty. There are practical ways to close the gap.

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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International Youth Day 2020

Youth and COVID-19 in the Sahel – when mutual aid goes viral

West Africa has been struck by COVID-19 lockdown measures, as much as the virus itself. Restrictions on movement and the closing of borders and markets came at the worst time, during the harvest period, which mobilises the workforce, especially women and young people. Many people now find themselves without work and income in a context where 66 percent of the working population is in precarious employment and do not have sufficient resources to survive without daily work. To make matters worse, this is happening while food prices rise and the spaces to sell products become increasingly inaccessible.

With nearly 150,000 confirmed cases and over 2,000 deaths so far, the measures put in place by governments are essential to slowing the spread of the virus among the most vulnerable communities.

But to cope with the pandemic, West Africa has a major asset: its youth.

Seventy-six percent of West Africans are under 25, making it the youngest population in the world. Several young people have stood in solidarity and mobilised by moving the lines in their own way and embodying the hope of a better tomorrow. We went to meet them in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Nigeria and Chad. They are all young people with very real power who, in times of crisis, have chosen to be part of the solution.

Photo: Cissé Amadou/Oxfam

Malika, Burkina Faso

“It’s hard to get someone to understand COVID-19 when they’re hungry.”

Malika Ouattara, better known as “Malika la Slameuse”, is a slam music artist in Burkina Faso. She puts her talent and energy at the service of social causes, not only through her music, but as president of the Slamazone Foundation, which she created in March 2019 to put her art to the benefit of the poor.

Faced with the coronavirus crisis, Malika wasted no time in readjusting her activities: “We are raising awareness on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 with hygienic measures and we made a call to buy 10 ventilators for the country.”

But the challenges are enormous in the face of this crisis, which is now adding to a worsening security situation that has internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people with disastrous humanitarian consequences. “We are talking about the disease, the virus, but we must not forget that hunger is a disease itself which perhaps kills much more… There is a crisis in the crisis. We have to broaden our goals and it's really a big job to focus on several issues at once.”

Photo: Xavier Thera/Oxfam

Adam, Mali

“The virus knows neither rich, poor, young, nor old. It attacks everyone. So let's join hands and let's fight together so that this virus cannot spread."

Adam is a young Malian activist who fights so that the demands of young people are heard. She fights for democracy and the promotion of citizenship.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Adam comes to the aid of displaced persons and destitute children through the organisation she created, the Association of Youth for Active Citizenship and Democracy (AJCAD). She distributes hygiene kits, including soap, hand gel and gloves, and then uses web TV and social networks to raise awareness about the disease and hygiene measures to prevent it: “There are still people in Mali who don't believe in the existence of this virus,” she explains.

On her web TV, Adam challenges and warns of the negative impact of lockdown restrictions on small traders as well as the absence of accompanying measures to help them cop

Photo: Jide Ojediran

Hamzat, Nigeria

“COVID-19 has widened the inequality gap in our society.”

Hamzat is an activist who makes it a point to ensure transparency in the use of public funds in Nigeria, which has the least-engaged government in the world in the fight against inequalities, according to a 2019 Oxfam report. The impacts of COVID- 19 only amplify inequalities: “To date, almost 100 million people are poor [in Nigeria] and many of them have been locked down.”

With millions of euro donated by individuals and organisations – including the European Union – to Nigeria to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, Hamzat’s action is all the more necessary. He uses digital tools and social networks to monitor public financial resources while respecting confinement and social distancing measures: “It is important to document these expenses so that, after COVID-19, citizens have access to audits and can hold the government to account.”

Hamzat’s influence extends beyond his country’s borders. The group he had already created before the pandemic, Follow the Money, brings together 6,000 young people who monitor the use of public financial resources in education, water and sanitation in seven African countries.

Photo: Awal Issa Rachid

Awal Issa Rachid, Niger

“It is not loyal for a health worker to hide in such moments when his expertise is sought after more than ever.”

 Awal Issa Rachid is a young doctor who has just graduated and does not run away from being on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis in Niger. He and his young colleagues from the Association of Young Doctors of Niger are still awaiting integration into the Niger public service. However, there is no question of waiting in the face of the rapidly spreading pandemic in the country.

“It is our responsibility to fulfill our duty as citizens and to assist people in distress.”

Dr. Rachid takes care of people infected with the coronavirus, including those who are rejected or marginalised within their community because of the contagious and virulent nature of the disease. He does this without a salary, and despite having minimal protective equipment to protect him from exposure: “We need protection kits to minimise the risks of contamination.”

Dr. Rachid believes that Niger’s coronavirus response requires the collective efforts of all: “We must all lead the fight against coronavirus disease. It is our responsibility to fulfill our duty as citizens to help sick people. Everyone can take actions to reduce the spread of the disease.”

Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Oxfam

Salim, Chad

"Misinformation is worse than a pandemic.”

Salim is a young Chadian activist who fights for digital access for all. A computer scientist by profession, he is the co-founder of WenakLabs, a youth association that promotes active citizenship and participative democracy through technological innovation and the opening up of public data.

Salim was quick to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. From the start of the pandemic in Chad, he created the “1313” mobile application to raise awareness, inform and combat false information related to COVID-19. The term “1313” refers to the information line set up by the Ministry of Posts and New Technologies of Chad and with which Salim has established a partnership. This has enabled him to integrate the national cell in charge of monitoring and health security. “All of these actions have been selfless because we are aware of what this pandemic is causing to our generation. And it is only together, by mobilising all of us that we can take action against this pandemic.”

Contagious passion

These initiatives are just a sample. The dynamism and mutual aid among young people in West Africa are contagious (in a really good way!) and have spread quickly during the COVID-19 crisis. To find out more, just take a look at the COVID-19 community engagement dashboard in the region.

A special mention to Africtivistes who continue to defend democratic values, human rights and good governance through digital technology by adapting to the context of COVID-19.

In partnership with Oxfam, they are preparing to map youth initiatives linked to COVID-19 in West Africa to promote them among communities and with local and regional authorities. This will also help create a network of exchange and inspiration, stimulating the civic engagement of young people across West Africa.

On this International Youth Day 2020, we salute young activists and leaders across the world for their contribution and role in finding solutions, creating innovations and providing support to those who need it most during a global pandemic that has inevitably impacted young people everywhere.

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This Father’s Day, we celebrate dads who put family first – no matter what

On Father's Day, we celebrate and remember dads around the world. And on this Father's Day, we wanted to share the stories of Ali and Tawab – two dads who battled conflict and climate change to take care of their families.

Ali and his son Muhamed* in their container home on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo: Andy Aitchison/Oxfam

Ali, his wife Ikhlas and their 14-month-old son Muhamed* were brought to the Greek island of Lesvos after being saved by the coast guard. The bombings and violence they witnessed in Syria forced them to flee their home, leaving everything behind. They had hoped to reach Italy but their journey across the Mediterranean almost ended in tragedy.

“We were at sea on a boat with another 47 people,” said Ali. “The sea got very rough. It was terrifying. My wife and my little boy were with me, and I cannot swim. Thankfully the Greek navy came and helped us.”

Only one of Ali’s seven brothers is still in Syria – the rest are now living in Germany.

“We would like to join them and start a new life away from bombs and violence,” he said.

After Mozambique was devastated by Cyclone Kenneth last year, fathers like Tawab rushed to protect their families. When his two-year-old son Calado* developed an eye condition and breathing difficulties in the aftermath of the cyclone, Tawab carried his little boy through the floodwaters to their local hospital.

With climate change hitting the world’s poorest people the hardest, Tawab said he fears for the future: “Two walls of our house have gone, and half of the roof. I was very afraid. The wind was so strong. Trees were falling through the electricity lines, and one even hit the wall of our house. Most of the crops in my village have been taken by the water.

“And we are an agricultural community so we depended on those crops. Every year there is some flooding here but not like this. This is so much worse. These rains are like nothing we've ever seen before. There is so much damage. It will not be easy to rebuild our house like it was before. Life is not easy for us now.”

*Names changed to protect identities

Dear Silent Ally

Written by Sagal Ali, Oxfam. Sagal Ali grew up in the UK and now works for Oxfam Novib in the Netherlands on the Work in Progress Project. These are her words.

As a typical millennial, the first I heard about the news of George Floyd’s death was on Instagram.

As I was scrolling, I saw a picture of a black man and a police officer and before even clicking play, I knew what was happening. Again.

For a few days, I tried to run away from the matter, and I am sure others were doing the same, trying to mentally protect myself during lockdown from further heartache. But my thoughts would not let me escape it, and as deep as my African roots lie, so do the wounds of racism. Every time the image came to my mind, I had an automatic physical reaction, I wanted to vomit and cry at the same time. I wanted to be in a place of readiness before entering the conversation, but you can never run away from reality.

I could, as many could, predict what would happen next after that video circulated. Because sadly this isn’t the first time, and sadly it will not be the last time.

The old tape started to play: the public outcry, the protests, the famous black American stars speaking out and the woke millennials and liberals showing their solidarity — and of course, let’s not forget the social media trolls. Everything went according to script.

But what I wasn’t ready for was the level of outrage and anger — the days of protests in the US and around the world, which still continue until today.

Like every black person living in a white majority country, I know there are many white friends, colleagues, neighbours that want to help, but just do not know what to do or even say. I know silent ally, you felt the rush of human emotions and pain when you saw another human unjustly killed but do not know how you can help, support or speak about it.

And dear silent ally, I know you have questions about what is happening today that you are too fearful to ask because you’re too fearful to enter the conversation about racism and too scared to be labelled ignorant for a misstep. But this isn’t the time to remain silent, silent ally, this is the time you should reach out to your neighbours, friends, colleagues of color and learn and educate yourself on their lived experiences in your country, because the truth of the matter is that racism is everywhere.

So silent ally, let me give you a glimpse into my experience as a black woman in the UK.

I wasn’t introduced to being different until I was 6 years of age, when a girl I attended primary school with took my best friend and said to me:

“My Dad said that we shouldn’t play with people like you.”

I was sad because a best friend to a six-year-old is your entire life. I didn’t understand what this blonde young girl meant when she said, “people like me.” I wondered what made me different to her and why I couldn’t be their friend, and who I was meant to play with at school. That day I went home, and my mother introduced me to the concept of racism.

And of course, I cannot say that I have experienced the level of racism that many others face in the UK or the US. As a black woman, racism targets you in a different way to your black brothers. You don’t have the same fear because you are not as often the target of police or law enforcement. You are not stopped and searched for no reason. You are not the person who makes women hold their purses that much tighter. You are not that person who makes people walk faster or cross the street if they see you.

As a black woman, however, you are as invisible.

But let’s talk about the black man growing up in white Britain because George Floyd was a black man and cannot be forgotten. Growing up with male black cousins in the UK, I have seen how they were conditioned to assimilate and never stand out, to never talk loudly or walk loud. How my aunts and uncles policed their haircuts and clothes, making sure that there was no reason for them to stand out and no reason for them to miss out on opportunities for being just too different. They all worked hard, got educated and climbed the social ladder in Britain.

And isn’t this the story you want to hear about white Europe or Britain? That if you work hard and get educated that you will escape “poverty” and you will succeed. The capitalist dreams. The Britain we were all led to believe in. But that is not the reality that millions of Black British people live and breathe every day.

So dear silent ally, let’s step away from looking at the US as if it is an anomaly and Europe is any better. We all need to accept the truth — that many black communities in Europe face systems of racism and oppression. That ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected and dying from the Coronavirus in the UK and the US. In moments of crisis, black communities and minorities are ever more so invisible. So dear silent ally, do not forget us, do not ignore us and do not ignore racism.

The protests in the US are not just about police violence but reflect the anger and frustrations that many black people feel in white Europe.

So dear silent ally, feel uncomfortable, educate yourself on the black experience and reach out to the communities of colour. Because, as Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

To find out more about anti-racism work, how to report incidents of racism, and resources about racism in Ireland visit the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR).

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