May 26, 2013 | 05:17 AM (BD Time)
26 May, 2013 Sunday
Malnutrition hits RMG workers
Rationing system demanded
. Kazi Zahidul Hasan
Thousands of garments workers, who are mostly women, are facing an acute malnutrition due to poor calorie intake as a result of less payment coupled with high inflation, sources said.
The country's garments industries employ around 40 lakh workers, nearly 40 per cent of the total industrial workforce. The sector also accounts for nearly 80 per cent of export earnings and in the last fiscal year it stood $17.91 billion, according to official statistics.
Of the total workforce, around two million workers, mostly young women, are forced to leave rural livelihoods because of absolute poverty, according to a recent study. The RMG workers are now getting Tk 3,000 a month, the legal minimum wage paid out by the factory owners, which the study said is far below for their survival in the present day context of soaring prices of food and non-food items.
The poor payment has heavily exposed the garment workers and it is causing physiological problems such as low blood sugar, malnutrition, dehydration, food poisoning and over-exertion, said a number of labour leaders.
They said Bangladesh's textile and cotton industries supply major Western clothing brands, including Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Gap and Wal-Mart, while they are paying the lowest wages to their workers in the world.
"The industries grew rapidly from the early nineties and their exports expanded across the global market sharply, but, unfortunately the workers remained neglected," said a labour leader, seeking anonymity.
He added that the garment owners have successfully been accumulating their wealth at the cost of the weak garments workers, who are sufferings from the adequate food and shelter.
"Health and safety regulations are ignored by the factory owners and are hardly enforced by the government as many politicians have business interests," he pointed out. Sources said more than 30 sitting members of parliament (MPs) are operating garment business having export-oriented apparel units.
"The poor calorie intake and overwork of garment workers, especially women, who accounts for 85 per cent of the total workforce, is causing stunted physical development and they become older than their age due to malnutrition," an expert said.
He said cost of food, housing and transportation have become unbridled due to soaring prices of fuel oil and electricity. "In such an adverse situation workers were reported to be sick during their long working shifts," he added.
"We used to live hand to mouth as our present wage does not support us to buy adequate foodstuffs," Nahar, a garment worker said, adding, most of the time we remain half-starved and we did not even have the access of taking medicine when we became sick.
"Prices of essentials have increased manifold within a short span of time but wages of the garment workers remain static creating unbounded sufferings to them," Shirin Akhter, a workers' right activist told The New Nation on Friday.
She said as the government reviewed the minimum wage in 2010 after a gap of 12 years and there is no scope of another reviews immediately. "Wages of garment workers can be evaluated after a period of three years and it is the normal practice of our existing law," she added.
Expressing dissatisfaction over the delay of wage re-fixation, she said the successive governments have failed to review the minimum wage for the apparel workers facing tremendous pressure from the interest groups.
"If we had to fix the minimum wage during the period, minimum wage of a garment worker could reach to Tk 12,000 at the moment," she noted. Not only the garment workers, the middle and the lower class people of the country are also the worst sufferers of the skyrocketing prices of food and services.
"The ever-rising inflation made the lives vulnerable of the limited income group people and it may be a task of the time to reactive the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB)," she suggested. Reintroduction of rationing system by the government is a must to give a relief to the common people from the present price hike, she added.
Admitting the fact, Abdus Salam Murshedy, former president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters' Association (BGMEA) said they are very sympathetic to their workers and for that they had endorsed a wage hike of 80 per cent in the last wage board award. "If the industry comes to a better share, we will think for another wage review for our workers," he added.
He said rising inflation hits the workers hard and they could hardly afford to buy basic essentials. The industry was also hit by the rising fuel and electricity prices and can now hardly maintain its production smoothly due to the rise of cost of production.
Besides, economic crisis in the West also forced to cut down demand of the local apparels causing closure of many small and medium garments industries, added Murshedy.
To overcome such an unstable situation, he suggested, the government should introduce the rationing system providing foodstuffs at subsidized rate for the garment workers.
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