From the TUC

Consumers aren’t to blame for poverty in Bangladesh – it’s the multinationals

09 May 2013, by in International

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:

T-shirt graphic

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.

6 Responses to Consumers aren’t to blame for poverty in Bangladesh – it’s the multinationals

  1. Jon
    May 9th 2013, 12:36 pm


    I don’t think many of us would argue that the multi-nationals need to take their share of responsibility for this disaster and I have clicked on your e-action request.

    However I do think that all of us have a responsibility to have a social conscience. If I knew a product was made as a result of the death of an endangered animal then I would boycott that product. We all know that palm oil used by some UK brands is causing pain for the Orang-Utan.

    So why should we not be taking responsibility (and applying pressure) to the multi-national clothing retailers that we happily hand our money over to, when over 800 people die.

    Do carry on your actions but please don’t let us all off the hook.

  2. Owen Tudor

    Owen Tudor
    May 9th 2013, 12:53 pm

    Jon, we’re certainly not discouraging people from taking action – and thanks for doing so! And we’re certainly not against boycotts where we think they would be effective and the workers at the sharp end approve.

    But it isn’t the actions of western consumers that have driven wages down. It’s the actions of the people who actually control the purchasing decisions in Bangladesh: multinational brands, retailers and manufacturers. (And the Bangladeshi politicians who prefer to repress trade unions rather than protect the textile workers who belong to them.)

  3. joe fd
    May 9th 2013, 4:28 pm

    Agree it is multinational brands, retailers and manufacturers. Also it is Western Governments and institutions like IMF who require developing countries to deregulate, set up union-free enterprise zones etc.

    But this campaign action here only targets the Bangladesh government. Why should they listen to emails from relatively rich Westerners? Shouldn’t we be targeting our own institutions and corporations with e-actions and demonstrations (as well)?

  4. フェラガモ 通販
    Jun 25th 2013, 11:35 am


  5. Eleanor Tighe
    Jun 30th 2013, 1:47 pm

    Sometimes I think that people are too quick to point the finger at the Bangladeshi government and the multinationals. The government are to blame, but are not all to blame. It is more complex than this. What keeps wages and working conditions down is the existence of local and international competition. This means that businesses compete to offer the lowest prices. This drive for the cheapest price is the nature of business itself. And for this the consumer has to take some responsibility. I think to assume that all consumers of cheap fashion goods are the cash-strapped victim of austerity is naive. The opportunism of profit is what fuels the multinationals to keep looking for the next cheapest location.

    If retailers do not source from Bangladesh they will find next cheapest places to source from. What often keeps Indian production out of the public eye is the highly fragmented nature of Indian workshops which means that the products are harder to trace. And currently the speculation is on the opportunities of Myanmar. Yes multinationals (all multinationals – not just the big names) need to demonstrate more responsible leadership but consumers need to educated against fast-fashion demands

  6. Owen Tudor

    Owen Tudor
    Jun 30th 2013, 1:51 pm

    Eleanor, the point you make is precisely the one our infographic was designed to rebut. We demonstrated that *doubling* the wages of Bangladeshi workers would add only 2p to the cost of a t-shirt. It isn’t consumer pressure that has led to companies shaving 2p off the cost of a £6 t-shirt.