texfash.com: There are many points that we can start from, but let's begin with a study that Motoko Aizawa and you had done long ago. There was this quote, almost a word of caution: "Bangladesh will need many more better-trained incorruptible inspectors and independent unions that can negotiate without fear." But, that study was from 2016. Do you think that has happened? If so, to what extent?
Salil Tripathi and Sanchita Banerjee Saxena: We have to acknowledge that Bangladesh has not suffered an accident on Rana Plaza's scale in the past decade. That is of course a good thing. There is no one reason why that happened; it is a combination of factors which includes consumer activism, brand attention, investor and civil society scrutiny, as well as Bangladesh's own efforts to improve the infrastructure. The buildings are maintained better and wages have improved to some extent. But we are still some way away from having truly independent unions, in fact there are often severe crackdowns on workers organising) and despite reforms over the last decade, union density remains extremely low in Bangladesh, at about three percent. And the test of governmental supervision will be when brand attention wavers. So, it is too early to declare victory by any side.
But in the briefing paper we have just published, we find that while much progress has been made, and the buildings are safer, workers aren't safe, due to the lack of social safety net and other forms of insecurity. Second, the problem is not unique to garment exports sector in Bangladesh—other factories that do not export have serious problems too; other sectors are hazardous; and other countries, too, are vulnerable. Finally, there is need to reimagine how supply chains are created and linked, and how we need to enhance protection for the most vulnerable.
Ultimately, there is need to improve national policies, but more work is also needed to set international frameworks and standards.
There is no doubt that the Bangladesh RMG industry has cleaned up considerably. What do you make of the progress? The country leads in the number of green/LEED factories in the apparel sector. And yet, workers are still having to demand higher wages. Do you think Bangladesh's strides in one area has shifted focus from the other (i.e. wages)?
Salil Tripathi and Sanchita Banerjee Saxena: Wages in Bangladesh have been historically low, and while there has been some increase, there is a significant gap between what unions call a living wage and the minimum wage the government wishes to legislate. That pressure will continue. You are right, Bangladesh has cleaned up its act significantly, and its focus on environmental factors is noteworthy and commendable. The focus after Rana Plaza was primarily on the improving the infrastructure itself (building safety, fire safety, electrical safety). Though these are critical, it did take away from issues like inadequate wages, lack of savings, and the lack of a safety net that workers must face constantly. We showed in an earlier study how devastating the pandemic was for workers and their livelihoods, because the wages have remained inadequate. Millions of garment workers found themselves out of work, furloughed without pay, and their savings depleted (for example, the study finds that 65% of female workers said they didn't save or used their savings to buy food)—all of this occurred without a safety net to fall back on.
We should also not forget that Bangladesh has a long history of vibrant and vocal labour movements, especially with female-led organisations and with female organisers who have been workers in the garment industry themselves. Much of the progress in the industry can be attributed to these organisers who have made a big difference in the industry over time. Local activists have sought to secure higher wages, maternity leave, education for children, and better housing, as well as combatting sexual harassment. Through local activism, the situation is better than it was before, but it needs to continue in this direction as many issues remain. Often times, when international organisations or international multi-stakeholder initiatives say they are taking into account the views of workers or the views of labour unions, it usually means they are taking those people into account who are based in the Global North. These bodies are doing great work, but it takes away from the real grassroots kind of organising, composed of those who do not have access to the same media outlets or resources. Their voices tend to get pushed out and that is something we need to be aware of.