Ever since the disaster at the Rana Plaza textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, some commentators have been trying to guilt-trip cash-strapped western consumers for the terrible conditions of workers in Bangladesh’s Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector, where wages are as low as £27 a month. We’ve been told that our insatiable desire for cheap clothing is what keeps wages down, and working conditions so poor that factory fires are endemic and corners cut so badly that buildings collapse, as Rana Plaza did. But we think cash-strapped consumers aren’t the problem, and we’ve researched and published a quick graphic to explain:
The suggestion that consumers are to blame struck us as a bit too convenient. So we asked the textile unions in Bangladesh how much their members were paid to make a t-shirt. Believe it or not, there’s actually a term for how long it takes a textile worker to run up a basic t-shirt: the ‘Standard Minute Value’ or SMV. And the time it takes is 10.565 minutes. That’s a rough estimate, presumably!
Textile workers usually work over 200 hours a month, producing nearly six t-shirts every hour. So the princely wage they receive for each t-shirt is roughly 2p. We’ve found costs in high street shops ranging from £2 to £10, with the archetypal t-shirt mentioned in several reports costing £6 - but the price you’re charged for a t-shirt has nothing to do with the wages of the textile workers who made it. To double their wages would increase the production cost of a basic high-street t-shirt by 2p.
That all suggests that someone’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes about who’s really responsible for the low wages and poor health and safety standards in Dhaka’s RMG sector, and it’s the global brands and manufacturers who set the prices. Bizarrely, some of them have insisted that they have no control over wages, hours of work, factory safety and the like. But they can determine the time it takes to manufacture a t-shirt down to three decimal places and determine what the stitching on the hems looks like! Pull the other one!
We’re supporting the global union for textile workers, IndustriALL, who are demanding that global brands, retailers and manufacturers sign up to an agreement on health and safety and wages. You can support them by by taking this e-action. Crucially, workers in Bangladesh need the right to join a union and the right to negotiate terms and conditions with their employers. But they also need to work in safety, as the International Labour Organisation has insisted.
The people who should be feeling guilty are the people who run those global multinationals and the Government of Bangladesh. Not shoppers like you, struggling to get by on wages that are also not increasing, while the costs of food, fuel and accommodation continue to rise. Workers everywhere need dignity at work, based on decent wages and decent jobs.