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Primark ‘cry for help’ labels have painted Bangladeshi women as helpless

 
'Cry for Help' Label

What is to be made of the labels which Primark assert were sewn onto their clothes in the UK? Photograph: Darren Britton/Wales News Service

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Primark ‘cry for help’ labels have painted Bangladeshi women as helpless” was written by Tansy Hoskins, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 2nd July 2014 12.29 UTC

Several weeks ago a story appeared in the South Wales Evening Post about a shopper who found a label stitched into her Primark dress: “Forced to work exhausting hours”. While it may have been a hoax, the horror felt by the shopper spread, more labels were found, and the story became a national concern that has tied the Primark PR department up in knots.

So what is to be made of these labels that Primark assert were sewn onto its clothes in the UK? Why have they been interpreted as the long lost voice of Bangladeshi garment workers? And what is wrong with seeing them as a cry for help to which we must urgently respond?

The National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) is the largest trade union federation in Bangladesh’s garment sector. It is currently campaigning to end inhumanely long hours and overtime. The label correctly states that workers in garment factories in Bangladesh work exhaustingly long hours. While by law there is a limit of eight hours plus two hours of overtime, workers routinely work 14 hours a day. Other campaigns being fought are for safe working conditions, maternity leave, child care centres in factories, adequate housing and for a living wage (workers currently get €53 a month, or €68 for more skilled workers).

The overarching priority for the NGWF is, however, the organisation and unionisation of workers. President of the NGWF, Amir-ul-Haque Amin says: “We believe that trade unions in factories are the main tool for workers to bargain with management for better working conditions, better wages and to ensure safe workplaces.”

Unionising the Bangladeshi garment industry is a tough job. Out of four million garment workers only about 7% are currently unionised. It is also particularly tough to unionise an 85% female workforce in a heavily male dominated society where women remain marginalised and often uneducated and where intimidation techniques by factory bosses include sexual harassment, violence and sackings.

Because of this the NGWF is running special leadership development programmes for women so that they can lead the organising process themselves. “Day by day the participation of young women inside trade unions is growing,” says Amirul Haque Amin. “At present many young women are in leadership roles – at the factory level and at the federation level.”

But where is this narrative in the furore sparked by Labelgate? Why instead have there just been numerous hand-wringing articles focusing on consumerism, blaming low income shoppers for the evils of multinational corporations, and the victimhood of garment workers?

The mystery Primark labels are a far more acceptable narrative than trade unionism because they fit the tedious stereotype of Asian women – helpless, passive and in need of saving by western people. A label sewn into a dress is like a message in a bottle – it has the prerequisite eastern mysticism, voices from a distant land and a quest to save mysterious, helpless women.

Bangladeshi garment workers are neither mysterious nor in need of saving. Journalists and consumer organisations should call up the NGWF offices in Dhaka and get the organisation’s opinion on the Bangladeshi garment industry. On Tuesday no one other than I had contacted the NGWF about the Primark labels. Their opinion is that poor pay and conditions are not unique to one brand (Primark) but rather “applicable to almost all the brands that are sourcing from Bangladesh.”

The NGWF is also clear that it does not want to see the destruction of the industry through consumer boycotts as there are no other job opportunities for the four million women working in those factories.

They do however want people to work with them to pressure corporations into raising pay and conditions. “People in the UK should ask brands like Primark, Marks & Spencer, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, or New Look – about the reality of their supply chain,” says Amin. “They should pressure brands to disclose their suppliers and to sign the Bangladesh accord, and to ensure a fair price of Bangladeshi garments and pay a living wage to garment workers.”

Pressure groups like War on Want and Labour Behind the Label are helping workers. But other consumer groups should also contact NGWF to discuss how they could help.

 

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