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March, 28 2004 |  Download PDF |  Share

Disney Sweatshop in Bangladesh: The Niagra Factory

 
Niagra Textiles Ltd.
Chandra Circle, Union-Atabah
Kaliakair, Gazipur
Bangladesh

Workers Badly Beaten, Fired, and Imprisoned for Asking to be Paid on Time

  • Workers routinely slapped and punched for not working fast enough;  
  • Forced to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, with at most one day off a month;  
  • Mandatory 19-hour all-night shifts once a week, from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. the following morning, after which workers sleep on factory floor;  
  • Forced to work 35 to 42 hours of overtime a week. Workers at the factory up to 100 hours a week. At most workers get four to five hours of sleep a night; 
  • Sewers paid just 11 to 20 cents an hour, as little as $5.28 a week; 
  • Helpers earn just seven to eight cents an hour, and $3.16 a week; 
  • Workers trapped in misery: four workers sharing one small hut exist on rice and must borrow money to survive; 
  • Workers paid just five cents for each Disney garment they sew; 
  • Workers routinely paid two weeks late and are cheated of one-half of legal overtime pay; 
  • Women denied their legal maternity benefits; 
  • Speaking prohibited—if caught may be docked one day's wages; 
  • No health insurance, no doctor in the plant, no sick days; 
  • No daycare center and no place to eat; 
  • Drinking water is filthy; 
  • If late three times docked one day's wages; 
  • Docked two days' wages if they talk back to supervisors or managers. Any attempt to exercise their legal right to Freedom of Association would be met with beatings, mass firings and blacklisting; 
  • No one has ever heard of Disney's so-called Code of Conduct, and have no idea what it might be; 
  • Corporate monitoring a joke: visits announced in advance, factory is cleaned, workers are threatened to lie about working conditions, "monitors" interview the workers inside the plant in front of supervisors and mangers. Every worker knows that she would be immediately fired if she ever spoke the truth; 
  • Workers report that they have no hope, no life, and that they live only to work.

  

Disney Contractor Calls in Gang Members to Terrorize and Beat Workers

On January 18, 2004, 22 workers were badly beaten, and eight imprisoned for asking to be paid on time. All 22 workers have been fired.

In Bangladesh, garment workers are paid on a monthly basis, and by law, are to be paid no later than the first week of the following month. However, at the Disney contractor's Niagra plant, the owner routinely holds back paying wages by an additional week or two. So, for example, the workers did not receive their October wages until November 18; their November wages until December 23; their December wages until January 20; and their January wages were only paid on February 20. No doubt the owner is keeping his money in the bank to gain the seven to eight percent interest, which over the course of a year will significantly lower his overall payroll costs. But it is illegal. For the workers, who are already forced to exist on below-subsistence wages, living day to day from hand to mouth and borrowing money just to survive, being paid late is a matter of life or death.

When questioned, the manager had told the workers that they would definitely be paid their December wages on January 15, but January 15 came and went and still no one was paid.

It was decided that on Sunday, January 18, at lunchtime, a group of a dozen or so workers would go in to see the manager, which they did at 1:15 p.m. to inquire when they would be paid. Another 10 workers waited outside. When the workers entered the production manager's office he flew into a rage, grabbing a young man by the collar violently trying to choke him as he screamed "How dare you come into my office?" The production manager and his assistant started hitting the workers. The production manager grabbed his cell phone and made a call. A few of the workers were locked in a room. Within 30 or 40 minutes five gang members armed with pistols arrived and started beating the workers, punching them, hitting them with sticks, knocking them to the ground and kicking and stomping on them. Several of the workers were badly injured. The gang members then broke some panes of glass which separated the shop floor from the sample room, which was close to the manager's office. At some point another call must have been made, since a dozen police showed up at about 2:15 p.m. The gang members actually picked out the workers to be handed over to the police, who put eight workers in their van and took them to jail. The eight remained imprisoned for up to two weeks before they were finally released on bail.

The workers still face very serious trumped up charges that could result in long term prison sentences. Niagra management is claiming that the workers caused five million taka in property damage, and that they looted another 1.2 million taka, which combined is over $100,000. As ridiculous as the charge is, when you are a worker earning just $5.28 to $9.60 a week sewing Disney garments, you are not in the position to hire attorneys and fight the large Niagra factory. At some point the workers will have to flee into hiding rather than go to prison for years. All for the "crime" of asking to be paid their below-subsistence wages on time.

All 22 were fired.

(Note: In Bangladesh, it is not uncommon for factory managers to have nearby gang members on retainer to terrorize the young workers whenever they ask for their basic legal rights to be respected.)

  

Disney Workers Trapped in Misery

They work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, yet the Disney workers from the Niagra plant can only afford to rent a tiny one-room hut, which four workers must share. They share an outhouse and an outdoor water pump with about 60 other people. They cannot even afford a small TV. They exist on rice, three times a day, and sometimes a little dahl (lentils) and mashed potatoes. And even living under these conditions they must borrow money each week in order to survive. After leaving work at 10:00 p.m., they arrive home at around 11:00 p.m. The four workers share the cooking, which takes about an hour. Then they eat. It is 12:30 or 1:00 a.m. before they can get to sleep and they have to be up again at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. to wash, prepare their rice and get to work on time. They have to get by on four to five hours of sleep a night.

When we asked the Disney workers how they felt about their lives, they responded: "We have no hope. There are no rays of hope for us." Several of the young men told us: "We have no life. We can't afford to marry, we have no wife, no social life. We live just to work."

We asked if they thought that the people in the U.S. and Europe ever stopped to think about them, or cared about them, when they bought the clothing they sewed. They responded: "No, no one ever thinks about us." When asked if they knew what the garments they make sell for in the U.S., they simply responded "no."

None of the workers we spoke with went home to their villages during the important national religious holiday Eid in February, explaining that: "We can't go home. There is no reason to. We have no money, and it would be a great humiliation for us to go home with nothing for our families."

Workers Asking For Help to Win Their Modest Demands

  • Management must drop the trumped up charges against the fired workers and immediately reinstate them to their former positions, with no further retaliation and payment of back wages.
  • Management must:
    • Provide one day off a week on Friday, the Muslim holiday.
    • Immediately end all physical abuse and threats.
    • Pay overtime and wages correctly and on time.
    • Pay the legal maternity benefits.
    • Provide proper place set aside to eat. 

 

This is NOT a Boycott: Please Do Not Let Disney Cut and Run

The Disney Niagra workers are not asking for a boycott. In fact, the worst thing Disney and the other companies could do would be to pull their work from the factory. The workers desperately need these jobs, but they also want to be treated with a minimal amount of respect and not as slaves. They want Disney to keep its production in the factory while at the same time working with their contractor to clean up the Niagra plant and to guarantee that the basic legal rights of the workers are finally respected. If the Disney Company has any commitment whatsoever to human rights—as Disney's Code of Conduct clearly claims it does—then the workers are asking Disney to act on that commitment.

However, it is important to be aware that the Disney Company has a long history of punishing workers in the developing world who dare ask for their basic rights. In the face of such modest demands, Disney has pulled its work from factories in Bangladesh, Haiti and China, leaving thousands of workers in the street.

The real message Disney leaves behind—we believe intentionally—for workers across these developing countries is that if you also dare raise your voice to claim any of your legal rights, you too will be fired, and put out onto the streets with nothing, penniless. This is a frightening message anywhere in the world, but even more so in these poor countries.

In 2002, Disney did just this. Disney pulled its work from the Shah Makhdum plant in Bangladesh when young women who had been sewing Disney garments for seven years asked for one day off a week, that the beatings stop, and that they no longer be cheated of their proper overtime pay and maternity benefits. What makes this even worse is that in response to pressure from the workers and an international campaign, the owners of Shah Makhdum had instituted many significant reforms. Today, Shah Makhdum is a better than average factory. The workers report that conditions are better than they have ever been and their rights are now respected. Conditions at Shah Makhdum are now very likely far better than in the tens of thousands of other factories Disney uses around the world. Yet, to date, Disney has not returned its production to the Shah Makhdum factory. Why?

The owners of Shah Makhdum have even committed to open their plant to independent inspection by widely respected local human and labor rights organizations—if Disney returns its work—to guarantee continued compliance and respect for the rights of the workers.

This has never happened before and could set a new human rights precedent for the entire garment industry in Bangladesh. It is a win-win situation waiting to happen, which could improve the lives of tens of thousands of workers.

Yet Disney refuses to do the right thing. We should not let them get away with it.

 
Niagra Textiles Ltd.
Chandra Circle, Union-Atabah
Kaliakair, Gazipur
Bangladesh

This is a large factory, with seven floors, and is relatively new, since it's been in operation for just the last two years. It's located 55 km from Dhaka City.

Number of workers: approximately 1,500 / sixty percent women / eighty-five percent of the workers are 16 to 25 years old.

Production: Infants', childrens' and adult t-shirts, sportswear and short and long pants.

Labels: Disney is the major label being sewn in the factory, accounting for 40 to 50 percent of total production. Disney's work has been in the factory for at least a last year and a half. One Disney line currently being sewn is 100 percent cotton t-shirts with images of animals on them. Two other labels produced at the factory include George (Wal-Mart / Asada) and Sorbino.

According to the workers, one of the buyers appears to be Boston Sportswear.

Hours

  • Forced overtime.
  • Daily 14-hour shifts.
  • Mandatory 19-hour shifts at least once a week.
  • Seven day workweek with, at most, one day off per month.
  • Workers at the factory up to 100 hours a week.

The typical shift at the Niagra factory is 14 hours, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week.

Typical Shift

 8.00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

 (work, 5 hours)

 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.

 (lunch, 1 hour)

 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

 (work, 3 hours)

 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

 (overtime, 5 hours)

 

The sewers also report being forced to work grueling all-night 19-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. straight through to 3:00 a.m., on average five or six times each month. Typically such shifts are required before shipments must go out. After such all-night shifts the workers sleep on the factory floor, curled up next to their sewing machines.

The Niagra factory operates on a seven-day-a-week-schedule, with no regular weekly holiday. In fact, in the last four months, from October through January, the workers received just one Friday off, January 2. (Friday is the Muslim holiday) The last time we spoke with the workers was on Friday, February 20, and they were kept until 8:00 p.m. that night as well.

Some months when the work is "slow," as in January, the sewing operators will still work seven days a week, but will be let out at 8:00 p.m. rather than 10:00 p.m.- approximately 13 nights during the month. All other nights they work until 10:00 p.m.

The sewing operators report being forced to work on average 35 to 42 hours of overtime each week. This means that the workers are often at the factory for up to 100 hours a week. (At the extreme, the workers would be at the factory 101 hours while working approximately 90 hours—48 regular hours and 42 hours of overtime.)

Wages

  • Below-subsistence wages;
  • Sewers earn 11 cents to 20 cents an hour, as little as $5.28 a week;
  • Helpers earn just seven to eight cents an hour, and $3.16 a week;
  • Workers cheated of one half of their overtime pay and routinely paid late.

At the Niagra factory, sewers earn between 11 and 20 cents an hour. Junior sewing operators, with less than five years of experience, earn as little as 11 cents an hour, 88 cents a day, and $5.28 a week. The average wage for junior operators is just 12 cents an hour.

Junior Operator's Wage
(1,300 taka a month)

11 cents an hour
88 cents a day (8 hours)
$5.28 a week (6 days / 48 hours)
$22.26 a month
$267.12 a year 

 

Senior operators earn between 1,800 to 2,375 taka per month, or 15 cents to 20 cents an hour, with an average wage of 17 cents.

Senior Operator's Wage
(2,375 taka — this is the highest sewer's wage we encountered in the factory.)

20 cents an hour
$1.60 a day (8 hours)
$9.60 a week (6 days / 48 hours)
$40.67 a month
$488.01 a year 

 

Helpers, who are the youngest workers supplying the assembly line with the cut fabric and cleaning the finished garment by cutting off the loose threads, are paid just seven to eight cents an hour, and $3.16 to $3.68 a week.

For the first six months the helpers are paid:

7 cents an hour ($.065)
56 cents a day (8 hours)
$3.16 a week (6 days, 48 hours)
$13.70 a month
$164.38 a year

After six months, the helpers get a one-cent-an-hour raise.

The workers report that it is standard practice at the Niagra factory to be cheated of at least 50 percent of legally due overtime pay. Management shortchanges the workers in two ways, by forcing the sewers to work for free until they reach their excessively high production target, and also by paying straight time rather than the 50 to 100 percent legal overtime premium. Given that the operators are forced to work an average of 35 to 42 hours of overtime a week, this means they are being shortchanged of approximately $7.50 a week which is due them. While this might not seem like a lot of money to us, when you are earning — at the most — a regular wage of just $9.60 a week, this means the workers are being cheated of nearly five and a half days' regular pay. This is an enormous amount of money for people living in absolute misery.

Niagra also illegally routinely pays the workers late. Rather than pay the workers in the first week of the following month, Niagra pays the workers one to two weeks late. For example, the workers were not paid their October wages until November 18; their November wages until December 23; their December wages until January 20; and their January wages until February 20. Again, it is clear what an enormous hardship this practice is to workers already paid below-subsistence wages, who are trapped in utter poverty, and who must borrow money each month in order to survive. The owner no doubt holds back the pay so as to gain the seven to eight percent bank interest, which over the course of a year could considerably lower his overall payroll costs—of course, at the workers' expense.

Nor do the Niagra workers receive any legal annual wage increase, despite a compounded inflation rate of 26.5 percent over the last three years. This means the real purchasing power of the Niagra workers' wages is actually going backwards.

Nor are there pay stubs or any breakdown of the workers' wages. They receive only a lump sum cash payment.

Also, for the very important national Eid religious festival in February, the workers received a bonus of just one-half their base wage, rather than a full month's wage as is honored by tradition across Bangladesh.

Abusive Working Conditions

It is important to clarify that the Niagra factory does not on the surface strike one as a sweatshop. It is a new clean factory, with adequate space, lighting, fans and ventilation, and with 10 bathrooms on each floor. However, it is very much a sweatshop with respect to the workers are treated and the below-subsistence wages they are paid.

  • Physical punishment: workers report being beaten, slapped and punched for not reaching their quotas, or for making the slightest mistake. 
  • Constant pressure- Workers paid 5 cents for each Disney garment they sew: Supervisors stand over the workers, sometimes violently grabbing them and shouting "why are you going so slow, why can't you make the target you bitch?" As mentioned earlier, workers failing to meet their daily production goal must remain working for free until they do so. The workers are given excessively high production goals. An assembly line of 25 sewing operators must complete 110 to 200 garments per hour, depending upon their complexity and size. This means that even under the best circumstances the workers are paid just five cents for every Disney garment they sew.
  • In the ironing section, a worker ironing the pant legs on a children's garment must complete 100 pieces per hour. (Another worker irons the waist area.) This means a worker must iron one pair of children's pants every 36 seconds, and 1,300 pairs in the typical 13-hour workday. 
  • Docking the workers' pay: If anyone dares to question or talk back to a supervisor or manager, as punishment they will be marked absent and docked two full days' pay. Arriving at work late three times in a month will result in one day's wages being docked. 
  • Denied maternity benefits: Women are routinFely denied their maternity leave with benefits, or full pay. 
  • There is no health insurance, no sick days, no day care center, and no doctor in the plant, though there are some minimal first aid kits. 
  • There is no annual vacation and the workers are frequently forced to work on national holidays.
  • Speaking during working hours is prohibited. If caught, the workers could be docked a full day's wages. 
  • The workers drink unfiltered tap water, which is filthy and unsafe.
  • There is no canteen or sheltered place to eat, so the workers must take their lunch on the roof, exposed to the glaring sun or rain. 
  • Absolutely no Freedom of Association: Every worker we spoke with stated with absolute certainty that the Niagra factory would never allow a union, and any attempt to exercise their legal right to organize would immediately be met with beatings and mass firings. 
  • Disney Code of Conduct unknown: No worker we had spoken with had ever heard of Disney's Code of Conduct, let alone seen it. No worker had any idea of what we were even speaking about. 
  • Corporate monitoring farce: Some "monitors" had actually visited the plant on January 29 and 30th. The workers said, pointing to us, "they looked just like you, white people." The visits are known in advance, and the factory is cleaned with the help of the workers. Sometimes the buyers speak with the workers, but it is always inside the plant, if not actually in the manager's office, than within hearing range of supervisors on the shop floor. Every worker explains that if they ever dared speak the truth in the factory, they would befired the minute the so-called monitors left the plant. The workers are unanimous on this.

Disney and Disney Licensee Contact Information:

Arnetta SRL
Via Pompei 20052
Monza (MI) ITALY
Tel: +39 039 834 101
Fax +39 039 833 684
 
Michael Eisner, Chairman and CEO
The Walt Disney Company
500 South Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521
Phone: (818) 560-1000
Fax: (818) 560-1930
 

NLC letter to Disney

March 2, 2004

Mr. Michael Eisner
Chief Executive Officer
Walt Disney Company
500 South Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521

Dear Mr. Eisner:
A year ago, at Disney's annual shareholders' meeting in Denver, you stated in response to a question regarding one of your contractors in Bangladesh that, ""those women did a fantastic job in cleaning up the act and making themselves up to the standards that they have to be, and we support that." You were referring to the Shah Makhdum factory, where young women had sewn Disney garments for seven years, up until February 2002, when Disney's work was pulled from the factory after the women asked for one day off a week, an end to physical beatings, and that they be paid their proper wages and maternity benefits.

Yet, despite the many significant improvements made at the Shah Makhdum factory, which you refer to, no Disney work has been returned there to date. The workers report that Shah Makhdum is now a far better than average factory, that conditions are better than they have ever been and that their rights are respected. We should be rewarding factories like Shah Makhdum, not punishing them. What makes the situation even more tragic is that Shah Makhdum's owner has agreed—when Disney's work is returned—to open his factory to independent investigation by highly respected local women's and human rights organizations to guarantee continued compliance with all human and worker rights standards. This is a win-win situation waiting to happen, which could set a new human rights precedent for the entire garment industry in Bangladesh, thereby improving the lives of tens of thousands of workers and their families.

It is very likely that conditions at the Shah Makhdum factory are actually better than prevailing conditions in most of the over 10,000 factories Disney uses around the world. I can give two concrete examples. Disney garments are currently being sewn at the Niagra Textiles factory in Bangladesh, where the women are forced to work 14 to 19 hours a day, seven days a week for wages as low as 11 cents an hour and $5.28 a week. Physical punishment is common. In fact, on January 19, when a group of Disney workers asked that their wages be paid on time, management responded by calling in gang members who beat the workers, punching them, hitting them with sticks, knocking them down, kicking and stomping on them. Twenty-two workers were badly beaten and eight were imprisoned. All 22 were fired.

At the Foreway factory in China, Disney toys are being produced by workers forced to toil 18 to 20 ½ hours a day, seven days a week, with just 15 days off a year, for wages of 16 ½ cents an hour. At the extreme, workers can be at the factory up to 130 hours a week. Similar to the Niagra factory, when the workers in China asked to be paid their wages on time, Foreway management responded by firing 50 workers and withholding one month's back wages as an additional
punishment.

Mr. Eisner, the worst thing Disney could do would be to now also pull your work from the Niagra factory in Bangladesh or from Foreway in China. The workers desperately need these jobs. What they are asking is for Disney's help, that you keep your work in the factory, while at the same time working with your contractors to clean up the plant and to guarantee that the rights of the workers will finally be respected. On the other hand, when you cut and run, the real message you leave behind with the young workers across the developing world making Disney products is: You too will be fired and thrown out on the street with nothing if you dare ask for respect for your most basic rights.

Once again, I must strongly urge you to return Disney's work to the much-improved Shah Makhdum factory. Surely, there must be at least several out of the 10,000 Disney licensees, who share a commitment to respect human rights and would be anxious to seize this win-win opportunity to put Disney's work back into Shah Makhdum. Perhaps all they are waiting for is a strong message from you.

Please do not miss this chance to do the right thing.

Sincerely,
Charles Kernaghan
Director