Sweatshop Solutions?

Publication Date: 

October 10, 2008


SweatFree Communities

This is an account of a particularly abusive factory in Bangladesh which produces children’s wear, primarily for Wal-Mart. It reveals how one of the world’s most powerful companies is influencing lives and working conditions in one of the poorest countries in the world.

The report is based on in-depth interviews with over 90 workers carried out by a Bangladeshi non-governmental labor research organization on behalf of SweatFree Communities. The first interviews were conducted in September of 2007, the final research completed in September of 2008. We shared an initial version of this report with Wal-Mart in the early part of August 2008; Wal-Mart has committed to turn the factory into a “model for other factories in Bangladesh” through a one-year program of corrective action. As of late September of 2008, workers report that “buyer intervention” has had some positive effect in the factory, but they still consider it to be one of the worst in this export industry intensive area.

Here is a preview of our findings:

  • Forced overtime: Under pressure to finish Wal-Mart orders with tight deadlines, the factory sometimes forces workers to toil marathon 19-hour shifts from 8 am to 3 am. Anyone who refuses this overtime may be fired.
  • Physical and verbal abuse: Verbal abuse for slight mistakes or delays in their work is so common that workers take it for granted, though it appears to have diminished of late. At the early stage of research, workers recounted frequent incidences of managers kicking them or beating them with the clothes they make; at this stage supervisors still affirm the use of “light” corporal punishment by forcing workers to stand up for hours on end if they arrive late to work or miss a day.
  • Climate of fear: If workers were to speak up for their rights they would be fired immediately. “We don’t complain against the supervisor and line chief because we’re afraid of losing our job,” many workers told us. Workers are being denied the right to form a Worker Association despite voting in favor of forming one.
  • Inescapable poverty: Workers live in abject poverty. The lowest paid workers earn only $20 per month, which is less than the legal minimum wage, and not enough to feed one person.
  • Forced to lie to inspectors: When Wal-Mart’s inspectors come to visit, “everything changes in the factory,” workers say. The managers “all become good and ask us to forgive them,” but force workers to lie about the sweatshop conditions and paltry wages.

The workers are asking that all their rights under the law be respected. They want the quality of food in the canteen to be improved; a Workers Association to be established; overtime pay rates for overtime work; and all termination benefits to which they are entitled. This does not seem to be too much to ask.

As one of the most powerful companies in the world, with such a large presence in Bangladesh—its purchases account for 15% of the country’s garment export earnings— Wal-Mart could have a dramatic positive impact on working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment sector.

That would require the company to acknowledge that low pricing, just-in-time production, and labor repression by local authorities have a negative impact on working conditions. We look to Wal-Mart to:

  • Eliminate those purchasing practices that depress wages and foster abuse;
  • Urge the government of Bangladesh to protect workers’ freedom of association and expression; and
  • Reform its own auditing practices to be able to accurately monitor human rights and labor rights violations in contract factories.