In late December, tens of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers went on strike, shutting down over fifty factories making fast-fashion clothes for international brands including Gap, H&M, and Zara. What started as a walkout in support of 121 workers fired for asking for higher pay quickly grew into larger protests demanding a tripling of the minimum wage.
Bangladeshi authorities responded by firing rubber bullets into the crowds and detaining and interrogating dozens of protestors and union leaders—sending many more into hiding. Factory owners sued scores of workers for inciting labor unrest, and fired over 1,600 more. Throughout, reputation-sensitive fashion brands largely remained silent.
The current minimum wage in Bangladesh is just 5,300 taka—about $68 per month—not enough to cover basic food, medicine, and housing. The last increase was in 2013, when the government nearly doubled wages in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, the building collapse killing over 1,000 people.
While justified in their grievances, it is unlikely the workers will get their raise. The government and companies’ disregard reflects Bangladesh’s labor supply. In a country where nearly one in five people lives on less than $1.90 per day, $68 a month sewing pants, shirts, and dresses finds many takers.
But the government’s harshness also reflects the competition Bangladesh faces from other nations for the loyalty, and orders, of international apparel brands. Many already have diversified their supply chains, making garments in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Some have even moved to Ethiopia, which currently pays the lowest wages in the world. With apparel now comprising 80 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports, losing even part of the $30 billion industry could devastate the national economy.
Precedent shows that the major labels only support living wages when under widespread and sustained pressure from consumers. This happens rarely—getting customers to know and care about sweatshop conditions, as happened to Nike in the 1990s, is an anomaly. Still, for Bangladeshi workers, their best hope is drawing more international attention from the Westerners who buy the clothes they sew.