by Michael Lerner
Tuesday marked International Women’s Day, and demonstrations of solidarity or activism were held around the world. In Bangladesh, garment workers demanded equal pay, an end to violence against women, and safe working conditions. Women make up 85% of garment workers in the country, often taking home the pitifully small minimum monthly wage of $68. That is a far cry from the $113 per month that the E.U. states is needed to cover a worker’s basic needs, and well below a real living wage.
Exacerbating that dismal state of affairs is the fact that many garment workers put in 60-140 hours of overtime per week, but are often cheated of the overtime pay. Many are denied breaks, and their health and safety are often neglected, opening the door to widespread exploitation and abuse. Devastating fires and building collapses have killed well over a thousand workers in the last few years, spurring international and domestic outrage but not making much difference on the ground.
With few other industries or employment options are open to women in Bangladesh, most don’t raise trouble or go on strike to protest these abysmal conditions. However, they are slowly making a difference in their garment factories from the inside out. While Bangladeshi garment unions have historically been male-dominated, now two-thirds of factory-level leaders are women, according to the international labor group AFL-CIO. The unions will fight to double the minimum wage again in the next five years. And a new labor law guarantees longer maternity leaves and profit sharing for garment workers, although it falls to the unions to actually make these promises happen.
The necessary changes won’t happen overnight, or even within a year. But a few years from now, hopefully International Women’s Day in Bangladesh will be a celebration of achievements earned through activism.