The Sweatshop Connection: From Bangladesh to US Universities

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work in a sweatshop? Extremely long hours at abysmally low pay. No holidays, vacation, sick leave, or pension. Cheated on overtime wages. Talking during working hours is strictly prohibited, and both verbal and physical abuse by supervisors are commonplace. The factory is overcrowded, hot, and often hazardous. Water and bathroom breaks are strictly limited. Unions are banned, and union organizers are summarily fired. Workers are trapped in stifling, unremitting misery.

The most visible product of sweatshop abuse found in Bloomington-Normal may well be the Illinois State University caps that are made in Bangladesh. The ISU organization Students Against Sweatshops was contacted by the National Labor Committee to purchase an ISU hat sold by Headmaster and labeled “Made in Bangladesh.” When the NLC received the hat at its New York City office, it confirmed that these particular hats were coming from a factory which they had investigated, Lim’s Bangladesh Ltd. in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The National Labor Committee is releasing several reports that document conditions in Bangladesh factories which produce apparel for universities across the United States.

According to the National Labor Committee, the $18.99 retail price for the caps represents more than a 1,400% mark-up over their total landed US Customs value of $1.23. Workers are paid just 1.5 cents for each university hat they sew.
This is the most egregious exploitation the National Labor Committee has encountered to date, though many sweatshops are comparable. Workers at Lim’s have never even heard of university codes of conduct, let alone seen them. No worker knew where or by whom their hats were purchased. They knew nothing of the US companies or the universities. They had no idea what price the hats sold for.

A senior operator at Lim’s, with more than five years experience as a sewer, earns 2,200 taka per month, or $38.33, which amounts to 18 cents per hour. This is less than the legal minimum wage set for the Export Processing Zones, which is $45 per month or 22 cents per hour. The average junior operator’s wage at Lim’s is just 12 cents an hour. Helpers, typically young teenage girls who supply the assembly lines with fabric and then clean the finished garments by cutting off loose threads, are paid only 8 cents an hour.
In the US, labor accounts for approximately 10% of the retail price of a garment. In Bangladesh, the labor cost has now been almost completely eliminated, falling from 10% to less than 0.1% of the retail price.

What would happen if universities insisted on payment of a basic subsistence level wage as a condition of permitting the apparel companies to emblazon the university logo on their garments? Would the sky fall in on corporate profits if the wage for the Bangladeshi women was increased from 18 cents to 34 cents as hour? Hardly.

If the women were paid 34 cents an hour, so that they could climb out of misery and into mere poverty, the direct labor cost to sew a university cap would still be less than 3 cents per cap, and their wages would still amount to just a little over 0.1% of the cap’s $18.99 retail price.

The working conditions of Bangladesh apparel makers are odious. Due to the long hours, the rapid pace and the incessant pressure, the workers report suffering from near constant headaches and vomiting. Almost no one lasts past the age of 30, when the factory replaces them with another crop of young girls.
At Lim’s a 13-hour shift is the norm, from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week, resulting in a 91-hour work week. Workers get every other Friday off. Overtime is mandatory, and not paid at overtime rates. In other sweatshops there are documented cases of 33-hour shifts during busy periods, when the workers are required to labor from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. the following day.
In addition, workers at the Lim’s factory report routinely being paid for only one half of the overtime hours which they are actually forced to work. But while the workers sewing university caps go hungry, the company does quite well. On average, the Lim’s factory cheated each worker out of $8.03 a week in regular and overtime pay – a total of $7,227 a week for 900 workers, or $375,804 a year.

Reports of these factories are being released by the NLC as they begin a national tour with two women from Bangladesh, who offer testimony of working conditions in Bangladesh. The NLC is also demanding enforcement of university codes of conduct in Bangladesh.

Illinois State University has students, faculty, and local labor leaders who support the demands to improve and enforce workers’ rights in Bangladesh and around the world: that their human and workers rights be respected; that they be paid at least a subsistence level wage; and that basic factory health and safety standards be implemented.

In 2000, US companies imported 924 million garments made in Bangladesh. Apparel imports from Bangladesh were up 25.7% from the year before, and 49% of Bangladesh’s apparel exports are destined for the US market. This gives the American people a strong potential voice to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. We purchase the goods, and we have the power to make companies and universities listen.

Nick Berveiler, a student at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, is active in the United Students Against Sweatshops, and a regular contributor to the Indy, Bloomington-Normal’s free independent biweekly newspaper.

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