October, 01 2001 |  Download PDF |  Share

Bangladesh: The Role of U.S. Universities and Student Solidarity


An Appeal for Help
From the Workers in Bangladesh

In the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, and with the growing recession in the United States, 700 to 1,000 garment factories in Bangladesh have been shut down, throwing hundreds of thousands of young women workers into the streets without severance pay, without savings, without unemployment insurance and with no safety net whatsoever. These women and their families now face desperate conditions.

Many of these young workers sewed garments for universities across America. For years--as the orders from the U.S. rolled in--they were forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day (and sometimes even 20 hours), seven days a week, for below-subsistence wages of 13 to 18 cents an hour. When these workers tried to defend their most basic rights, they were attacked, fired and blacklisted.

But now that orders from the U.S. have slowed, these women are suddenly expendable. Multinational corporations want to turn the people in Bangladesh and across the developing world into the ultimate contingency workforce, which can be shed at a moment's notice. And, unlike even slavery or indentured servitude, the multinationals do not have to worry about maintaining these people or keeping them alive.

We owe the people of Bangladesh more than this. We cannot allow our companies and universities to just walk away.

The workers of Bangladesh are now appealing for our solidarity. Imagine if university students on campuses across the United States and Canada stood up in solidarity with these workers and launched a national campaign to keep their universities' production in Bangladesh. Now is not the time for universities to cut and run. Rather than pulling their production from Bangladesh, they should stay in Bangladesh and work with their licensees and contractors to clean up these factories, improve conditions and guarantee that the human and worker rights of these women are finally respected.

This would send a message of enormous hope throughout Bangladesh. And the students would be establishing an entirely new paradigm for the anti-sweatshop movement--fighting to keep jobs in the developing world.

The very thought that a solidarity campaign like this could happen has already excited labor rights NGOs in the United Kingdom, such as War on Want, and the student movement there. They have already begun their own discussions on launching a similar campaign.

Especially at this moment, when as a nation we are affirming our commitment to social and economic justice and genuine development in the Muslim world, we must not lose this campaign to keep jobs with justice in Bangladesh.

The people of Bangladesh are not alone, nor will the student movement be left alone to carry the entire burden of this campaign. They will receive the full support of the growing anti-sweatshop coalition of labor, religious and solidarity organizations across America. After September 11, the struggle to protect human and worker rights in the global economy is more important than ever before.  




The Struggle to End the Race to the Bottom

by Charles Kernaghan, Director, National Labor Committee 

Creating a new anti-sweatshop movement that gives the developing world an equal voice

Before a National Labor Committee delegation left for Bangladesh in May 2001, almost everyone we spoke with tried to discourage us from going. Some said Bangladesh was a basket case; others that the unions there were not real unions; while still others warned us that the factory workers-85 percent of whom are very young women-would never speak with us. This was a Muslim country, we were told, and the women would be too timid to even meet.

However, when we arrived in Bangladesh, we found very real unions and labor rights NGOs, and we found that the women workers were not only anxious to speak, but they were angry over factory conditions and ready to struggle for their rights. The women may not have known a lot about the global economy, but they knew very well that they were being exploited and mistreated. When we discussed the possibility of international solidarity from the United States and Canada to support their struggle, they got it right away, and their faces immediately lit up with excitement and hope. You could feel the electricity in the air. This happened many times, at almost every meeting. But the women also all said, "Please don't take our jobs away."

In the desperate poverty of the developing world, staggering under 50 percent un- and under-employment, almost every worker will tell you the same thing: "It is better to be exploited than to have no job at all." For these workers, misery is not an abstraction studied by economists in the United States. It is a daily reality. Of course, this does not mean "we need more sweatshops." No worker would ever say this. What this means is that the solidarity movement needs a new international approach that gives unions, workers and NGOs in the developing world an equal place at the table, and an equal voice in setting campaign strategy, targets and demands.

We listened, learned and agreed with the workers, and gave them our word that there would be no boycott. After all, we have no desire to take jobs out of Bangladesh, rather, quite the opposite, we want to keep jobs there. Together we agreed that the first demand in any corporate campaign would be that the North American multinational not pull out of Bangladesh. To cut and run is no answer. Rather, the retailer should stay in Bangladesh and work with its contractors to clean up their factories, improve conditions and guarantee respect for human and worker rights and that all Bangladesh's labor laws will be implemented-including the right to organize. Under this framework, everyone wanted to go forward. No one wanted "more sweatshops." They wanted jobs with dignity and justice.

Trapped in Misery

What we found in Bangladesh was 1.6 million apparel workers in 3,500 factories sewing 924 million garments a year for export to the U.S. The vast majority of those workers-85 percent-are young women, 16 to 25 years old. Many are from rural areas and come to the factories with little formal education. They find themselves working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, with just one-or at most two-days off a month. When shipments to the U.S. have to go out, there are mandatory 20-hour all-night shifts stretching from 8:00 a.m. straight through until 4:00 a.m. the next day, after which the workers sleep on the floor for a few hours before beginning their next shift at 8:00 a.m. Sewers are paid just 13 to 18 cents an hour, wages which do not meet even half of basic survival needs. The young teenage helpers earn even less, just eight cents an hour, a little over 60 cents an day. The workers are trapped in abject misery. Many workers report being routinely cheated on their overtime pay, with some forced to work up to 18 hours a week of grueling overtime without receiving a single cent in return.



Many women report being slapped, punched and even hit with sticks and shoes. One worker told us she was punched by her supervisor because he overheard her whispering to her friend that she did not think they were receiving enough money for all the hours they were forced to work. Workers need permission to use the toilet, and their visits are monitored and timed. It is common for there to be just one toilet for more than 100 women. The drinking water in the factories is often contaminated and filthy. Workers are not allowed to speak during working hours. Most factories are overcrowded, hot and lack adequate ventilation. Due to the long hours, exhaustion, the relentless pace and constant pressure, women report suffering near constant headaches, vomiting, fainting, diarrhea and other illnesses. Women are cheated of their maternity benefits. There are no sick days. Factories lack daycare and healthcare facilities. Workers are systematically cheated of their severance pay.

Under these conditions, no one can last longer than 10 years, at most 15, working in these factories. One woman told us she was "fired for having a gray hair." By the time they reach 30, most workers leave of their own accord, worn out, exhausted, sick and penniless-or management forces them out so they can be replaced with another new crop of young teenage girls.

There is not one single union with a contact in any of the 3,500 export garment factories-not one! Every attempt to organize is met with illegal mass firings and blacklisting. The company owners hire spies and thugs to threaten the workers. One worker we spoke with was in hiding, unable to sleep in his own home, daring to go out only late at night. He and a group of workers had decided to hold a press conference to denounce the 18-hour shifts, the starvation wages and physical abuse in the factory. The owner responded by picking up the phone and calling the police. He claimed that the workers had destroyed company property. They hadn't. But it did not matter, since if they were found by the police they would rot in jail for months on end before they would ever get to court. So they had to hide.

It gets even worse. The workers are paid just 1.6 cents for each U.S. university cap they sew. The university caps retail for an average price of $17.43. This means that the workers' wages in Bangladesh amount to less than 1/10th of one percent of the cap's retail price! This is the greatest exploitation the NLC has ever seen. We also know that these same caps enter the U.S. with a total Customs value of $1.23-which accounts for all materials, labor, shipping costs and the factory owner's profit in Bangladesh. This means that the universities and their licensees are marking up the price of the caps by over 1,300 percent! This while the workers' wages amount to less than 1/10th of one percent. There is no economic law on earth that can justify such exploitation and misery.

The workers are trapped in abject poverty. It is common for four or five workers to be forced to share one tiny, bare room in a dangerous slum area, without running water or plumbing. Many workers get up early to walk miles to work since they cannot afford the 12 cents it costs to share a bicycle rickshaw. Even living under these conditions, workers cannot afford to purchase the most basic food necessities. Workers tell you that their lives lack dignity and decency. They live from hand to mouth, from day to day. No one has any savings. One garment worker put it this way: "It is a great sin to be born into this world a garment worker."

The women's families are also collapsing. Working seven days a week, the women are exhausted. They are rarely home. Their children are left alone and sick.

When you ask the women what they would need to earn to restore a modicum of dignity to their lives, they respond that they could climb out of misery and into poverty if they earned 34 cents an hour.

What would happen if the universities insisted that their licensees in Bangladesh pay at least a subsistence-level wage of 34 cents an hour? Would the sky fall in on corporate profits? Hardly. If the women of Bangladesh were paid 34 cents an hour, there would then be three cents of labor involved in sewing each cap, which would still be less than 2/10ths of one percent of the $17.43 retail price! Surely, Nike and the universities could afford that.


The workers are asking that we urge our corporations and universities to keep production in Bangladesh and not to cut and run. The companies should stay in Bangladesh, and work with their licensees and contractors to improve factory conditions and guarantee respect for human and worker rights.

Specific demands:

  1. One rest day off per week with no reduction in pay;
  2. An end to all forced overtime, especially the grueling mandatory 20-hour all-night shifts;
  3. An immediate end to all physical punishment and intimidation;
  4. A guarantee that all legal maternity leave and benefits will be paid; and,
  5. Respect for the workers' right to organize-not just on paper but in reality, and that the practice of blacklisting be outlawed.


The photographs of workers appearing in this report were taken at several different locations in Bangladesh. They are not necessarily related to any specific factories and conditions described in the report.


Download the full report