SEATTLE — Nafisa Halim is an applied sociologist and assistant professor in the Department of International Health at Boston University. Currently spread across research in Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Peru and Ethiopia, Halim is examining women’s political empowerment and education outcomes, parental access to the credit market, and cash transfer programs. The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Halim about her year of fieldwork with Bangladeshi garment workers and the ongoing challenges faced by this community.
“In September 2013, I started working with labor rights groups and garment workers. At the beginning it was a bit difficult for me to earn their trust; although I am a Bangladeshi citizen, I speak the language, I am very much familiar with the culture, there were differences as well. I was an insider because I grew up in that country but I was also an outsider because I was not a garment worker or a labor activist.”
It was difficult to say whether garment workers were empowered, Halim said. Most are aged between 15 to 25, and most moved from small villages to find work at different garment factories. Ten or 12-hour workdays are common, and it can get more demanding as shipping deadlines approach.
“For a Muslim-majority country which claims to be moderate, visibility of a large number of young single women walking in groups in urban streets is an important indicator of women’s emancipation. But on the other hand, if we stay in self-congratulatory mode and think there is nothing more we could do, that would just be a mistake too.”
In conducting her interviews, Halim said she could only speak to workers on Fridays, their only day off. “In subcontracting factories, the workload is much higher, enforcement of labor laws is much less, and conditions of workers are much worse. But again, even the factories that directly source to companies are not always in ideal conditions either.”
Changes to the conditions for garment workers requires that advocates “address all the different actors and institutions that are located at different nodes of the apparel supply chain,” Halim said. There is a need for a coordinated effort between multinational corporations, labor rights groups, garment factory owners, and workers to ensure workers’ safety and rights in the long run.
“Organizing is very important for workers. Also if you think about the labor rights groups in Bangladesh, for them it’s important to know what’s in national and international labor laws and in what ways they can actually navigate the local and global legal systems so that all these garment factory owners are held accountable,” she said.
“If you think about garment factory owners, obviously they need to focus less on profit-making and more on workers’ welfare. If you just speak with factory owners, many of them will just keep telling about how corporations are forcing them to supply products at cheap price. While this is true to certain extent, the factory owners need to be held liable for ensuring workers’ welfare, safety, and security.”
For consumers in the West, Halim said the right product choices were not always going to be clear-cut, and there would always be people needing cheap clothing due to their own economic circumstances. “It’s much more about the broader income inequality in this country and also in other parts of the world.”
On top of all these issues, there remained significant deficiencies in Bangladeshi infrastructure like electricity, reliable transportation and sound political institutions, Halim said. “It’s like a chain. When one actor falls part, it affects the entire chain. If factory owners say increasing wages is making them less competitive, that’s a partial story… It’s easy to blame workers and wage increases but not so easy to emphasize the need for bringing in large-scale and infrastructural changes.”
“It needs a holistic approach…If we want to bring long-term changes it’s really important to talk about and address all these local and global issues as well.”
– Marcelo Guidiana