By Naimul Karim
DHAKA, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Garment workers in Bangladesh face lower wages and exploitation as fashion brands have failed to compensate factories for safety improvements backed by big labels, labour leaders said on Wednesday, six years after the deadly Rana Plaza disaster.
The collapse of the factory on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, in April 2013 killed more than 1,100 workers, placing scrutiny on major brands and sparking demands for better safety in the world's second-largest exporter of readymade garments.
Yet fashion companies constantly pressure Bangladeshi garment suppliers to keep prices low and make clothing faster, a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, resulting in cost-cutting on safety and wages, and the mistreatment of workers.
Two agreements after the Rana Plaza disaster saw retailers involved in initiatives to improve conditions in factories: the Bangladesh Accord on fire and building safety - signed by about 200 major brands and unions - and an alliance on worker safety.
But many of Bangladesh's factory owners said that brands had not covered the cost of the safety improvements they had made.
"While we have had to invest ... the prices (of production) have not gone up," said Rubana Huq, the newly-elected president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a national trade organisation of 4,000-odd members.
"We have mostly become cash strapped," added Huq, also managing director of the Mohammadi Group, which owns a string of factories supplying brands from H&M to Primark in Bangladesh.
"Buyers could have helped by being a little generous instead of taking advantage of the post-Rana Plaza image of Bangladesh."
As competing garment factories are pushed lower on price by global clothing brands, profit margins are squeezed and this leads to workers' wages being cut or paid late, restricted break times, and rising production targets, said the report by HRW.
This also leaves factories that had made safety improvements unable to compete or forced to push costs onto their workers by cutting wages, according to HRW, which urged brands to be more transparent and create fairer contracts with factory owners.
British pop band the Spice Girls in January said they would fund a probe into a Bangladesh factory over its treatment of women making T-shirts for a charity campaign backing equality, following media reports of long working days, low pay and abuse.
The workers were reported to earn as little as 45 cents an hour, but Huq said earlier this year that factories struggle to pay higher wages as they do not get a fair price from brands.
Syed Ahmed, additional secretary at the labour ministry, said prices paid by brands had fallen despite big investments by factories to improve conditions after the Rana Plaza collapse.
"Investments should see returns," he said, adding that he backed HRW's study. "There needs to be a sustainable solution."
Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labour leader, said factory owners should work together in order to push back against brands that make unreasonable demands and request ever-lower prices.
"There is so much ... competition (between factories), the price for producing clothes keeps going lower and that's harmful for workers," said Kalpona Akter, founder and head of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, an advocacy group.
"Factory owners in Bangladesh along with owners from other countries need to learn how to say no to brands. That will help workers a lot," Akter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI), an organisation that represents brands, suppliers and trade unions, said that it encourages all companies to follow U.N. global guidelines and ensure that workers are safe, paid fairly and free from abuse.
"All workers should be free from exploitation and discrimination and enjoy conditions of freedom, security and equity," an ETI spokeswoman said in an email.
The country's Supreme Court is considering an appeal by the Accord against a ruling last year which ordered it to shut down, with a national regulatory body primed to take on the mantle.
(Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Michael Taylor and Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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