In many parts of the world supervisors and employers, the police, and state security forces frequently use violence to harass workers. One would think that governments would protect worker who are not in a position to defend themselves, but instead governments themselves set minimum wages that are lower than living wages.
They don’t offer unemployment programs to compensate workers laid off, but expect workers to fend for themselves. Some, like Mexico, make it illegal for workers to join a union, unless it’s sponsored by the government, known to favour the employer.
Until recently, Bangladesh allowed owners to forbid factory worker participation in a union. Why would this be so? What is it that causes governments to favour the business owner instead of the worker?
A good illustration of the dynamics involved in worker rights verses Government interests is the situation in Ethiopia. The government is trying to attract foreign investment in the local garment industry. Dr. Dori, a research professor in Addis Ababa, observes that the reason minimum wages are not raised is because the government “doesn’t want to scare or chase investors away by putting too many conditions,” but he believes that this will change in a couple of years.
Ibrahim, an Ethiopian leather cutter in a Chinese subsidiary supplying shoes to Calvin Klein, says that working conditions are getting worse, not better. In the beginning their overlords gave them two breaks a day, but now they only get one for a 10 hour day. He believes that politicians “will always choose to side with the foreign companies.”
In some countries governments may not necessarily know that their workers are being treated badly. Persuasive business protectionist lobbies spin business practices in altruistic terms, claiming that any changes in worker conditions would drive companies away and the people would have no jobs. They promise preferential treatment to help the country grow out of poverty.
In Croatia a bill was introduced to parliament in 2014 aiming to make the Croatian labour market more “flexible” to attract business investors. In business-speak, this means letting employers do whatever they need to do to keep workers at their posts. Sanja Sarnavka, chair of the Croatian NGO “House of Human Rights”, expects the bill to allow for dismissal of pregnant women without cause, which is already a practice in other countries.
Lobbyists also call for the removal of protective tariffs, which governments have given in to. This has destroyed local industries by allowing foreign companies to swamp the country with cheaper goods. Tanzania lost its once-strong cotton production and textiles mills sectors this way, and also lost government tax revenue.
With these experiences, and the disastrous fires and factory collapses in Bangladesh in 2013, some governments are starting to listen to wiser voices. The International Labour Organization is one, which states that the main responsibility for the implementation of wages and working-time legislation lies with governments.
Bangladesh and Pakistan are both working with the ILO now, and changes are occurring there, starting with the restructuring of their government offices. Europe and the United States are starting to enact legislation to make the minimum wage be a living wage.
Hopefully the next few years will reveal an increase in this kind of legislation and reorganisation that finally gives workers all across the apparel industry the standard of living they deserve.