First hand view on how the other half live.
Updated: Apr 25, 2020
Its Friday evening, the first day of Ramadan and in 1 hour it will be time for Iftar (time to break fast) in Dhaka. I just finished my first phone call with Shanu Aktar, a stitching operator from Comilla working in a factory called Jabir Fashion in Mirpur, Dhaka. It was a 24 minute conversation and I already feel pretty exhausted.
After introducing myself, I started off by asking how she entered the industry and why she chose working in the garment sector? She responded by saying “bhai, ektu shajo koren, bashai kono khawa nai” (brother, please help me, there is no food at home) so I calmed her down and tried to bring her focus back to the day she joined the fashion industry. She said “I started working in the industry when I was 25 years old at a small factory with 30 people which is now closed down. I joined as a helper on Tk 3000 (£30) per month after my husband divorced me and left me with my 2 kids.”
I followed up by asking what her kids are doing now and what her plans were with her kids. She continued “I understand the value of education and I do not want them to end up like me. My kids are in grade 6 and grade 9 now. If I don’t have any income then I have to take them out of school and send them back to my village in Comilla to stay with my parents.” I continued by asking how much food she has and what her savings situation was like, as expected, she said she had no savings and then continued on to say “We had potato and rice yesterday and today. We have some more potato and rice that will last me for another 2 days and after that I really don’t know what will happen. I keep seeing on tv and hearing from people that the government is giving away food and benefits but I have not received anything yet.”
Shanu hasn’t been paid since Mid-March and is unlikely to receive any further payment for the rest of March, April and May. When asked about her boss and her company, she got extremely defensive and said “Please do not blame my boss brother, he is a very hard working person. He owns a few shops in the market and we do some sub-contract work from time to time but at the moment we can clearly see that there is no income. How can we expect him to pay us? I understand that in this world you cannot sit at home and expect to get paid. This is not possible. I beg you brother, please organise some food for me and my children. I will do anything you need us to do.”
My next question was about her accommodation and rent situation, her reply was , “my landlord has allowed me to stay here without paying rent for the month of April but he is has said that if I do not pay rent by 1st week of May then I have to leave. It is not the landlords headache that I don’t have no job and no income”
As she ended the conversation, she said “I am alone in this world and my kids are all I have. No one will marry me again as I have been divorced and I am begging you for some food so I can just feed my children.”
So here is my summary of the situation, in certain cases like Shanu’s case. There isn’t really any obvious person to point your finger at, the reality is that people at the bottom of the value chain carrying out repetitive tasks will always be paid based on their marginal output. When everything is going well they can earn just enough to survive and as soon as there is an external shock to the system they are the first ones to get fired forcing them to beg for survival.
Consumer behaviour, regulation and compliance have an impact to a small group who fall within the supply chain of the good actors but I am wondering how do we work with the good actors to improve lives of the many not the few.
Can there be a system where buyers are told that they are not allowed to cooperate with economies where the rule of law and compliance is followed across the board, not just their supply chain? I don’t see why not? We have sanctions in place on North Korea and Iran because we do not like the way they do business. However, such drastic decisions will have their own set of negative externalities.
Advocates of social sustainability have often been against the idea of extreme automation, arguing that this would put millions of low skills workers out of work. From the face of it, it is hard to completely dismiss this point. However, would automation not force economies relying on low cost labour to invest more on its people and education in order to create the new age jobs? The answers to the problems are much more nuanced and if we really want to make long term impactful change then we need to think more deeply about how the global value system works.
Going forward, I will be exploring these ideas in more detail.