The underpayment of garment factory workers in Bangladesh has been a prevalent issue long before public demands to cancel celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Beyoncé – over labor exploitation – surfaced.
War on Want, a London-based anti-poverty charity, revealed that the 3.5 million Bangladeshis employed at 4,825 garment factories across the country earn approximately 3,000 takas each month. In other words, workers in the sector generating 80% of Bangladesh’s export revenue receive a monthly wage of a mere £25 despite the minimum wage set at 5,000 takas.
Additionally, working conditions inside these factories are volatile for those involved. An example of this is the collapse of 5 garment factories in 2013, leading to over 1000 deaths – many of which were, presumably, factory employees.
The 2013 incident, paired with two factory fires in November 2012, led to significant protests. Furthermore, entities such as the National Garment Workers’ Federation have vocalised the need for better working conditions. However, due to corrupt agreements between factory owners and the Bangladeshi government, the factories can retaliate in damaging ways such as firing 5000 garment workers in 2019 for protesting exploitative wages.
Given the current global pandemic, the plight of these workers – heavily dependent on, yet routinely shunned by, conscienceless corporations – has worsened. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has reportedly experienced cancellations of garment orders worth $3.18 billion since the spread of COVID-19. It is, thus, no surprise that this decline in demand has led to factory owners to sack their workers. A report by News ABC exemplified this: a garment worker had been laid off due to weakened demand of the Jenner sisters’ clothing line and was only left with $6.
With countless incidents of employee injury, underpayment, and morbid working conditions, a significant question is raised: why are these garment workers repeatedly and increasingly forced to endure such maltreatment?
This answer, like most answers to questions of labor exploitation, has one word: revenue. As mentioned, garment workers – 85% of which are female – are a significant source of revenue for Bangladeshi factory owners and the government alike. Both stakeholders exploit these employees, using low labour wages to attract multinational corporations and then pocketing the export revenue. They further cut costs by forcing employees to work in a state of danger- be financial or physical.
Which parties have been found complicit?
Fast fashion brands and multinational corporations,which have been enticed by what Karel De Gucht calls ‘modern slavery’, have both been complicit in this exploitative charade. Notable examples include H&M, Gap, Bershka, Zara, and Romwe, and the Global Brands Group – and here’s how celebrities such as the Jenner sisters and Cardi B – amongst others – have become the epicenter of public criticism.
During June, 2020, Remake, a not-for-profit dedicated to ethical fashion, revealed that the Global Brands Group (GBG) – an apparel company affiliated with kendall and kylie – had refused to compensate garment workers in Bangladesh, for the cancelled orders dated February and March.The same has been the case for 27-year-old rapper Cardi B and the fashion brand FashionNova, which are also enlisted as GBG’s associates.
When interviewed, Mostafiz Uddin – Central Executive Officer (CEO) at Denim Experts – expressed his woes, perpetuated by the Global Brands Group; it is yet to compensate his company for its orders produced and shipped in February, 2020. “Here my workers are hungry, they are being agitated, they are very angry. I have promised them to pay wages. So please please make my payment.”
Shortly after allegations surfaced, in July, 2020, Kendall and Kylie issued a defensive statement: “we would like to address the unfortunate and incorrect rumor that Global Brands Group owns the Kendall + Kylie brand and that we have neglected to pay factory workers in Bangladesh as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is untrue. The Kendall + Kylie brand is owned by 3072541 Canada Inc., not GBG. The brand has worked with CAA-GBG in the past in a sales and business development capacity only, but we do not currently have any relationship at all with GBG.”
Nevertheless, while the legitimacy of Kendall + Kylie’s statements goes unchecked, there remains little to no hope for the plight of Bangladesh’s garment workers to abate.