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Price of a bargain

November 10, 2010

Two garment workers from Bangladesh are touring Germany to highlight the plight of those working to make cheap clothes for European discount supermarkets. Lidl has come under particular fire over pay and practices.

Arifa Akter and Yessmin Begum on a shopping street in Stuttgart
Arifa Akter (left) and Yessmin Begum find their handiwork in StuttgartImage: Kampagne für Saubere Kleidung

Supermarkets across Germany are popular places to buy clothes. Prices are cheap: you can buy a men's shirt for seven euros (nine US dollars) or a pair of women's trousers for under 10 euros. However two women from Bangladesh are currently on a speaking tour of Germany to highlight how these cheap prices come at a human cost.

26-year-old Jessmin Begum and 36-year-old Arifa Akter both work as seamstresses in clothes factories in Dhaka that make clothes for European stores. They say the working conditions are terrible and the pay is inadequate.

Woman at sewing machine in Dhaka factory
Workers complain about cramped conditions, dirty water and tough bossesImage: Kampagne für Saubere Kleidung

"I'm proud of my work, especially when I see people here wearing my clothes," said Begum, who works for a factory that supplies clothes to German-based supermarket chain Lidl. "But it makes me mad that what we get for our work in Bangladesh is nothing."

Not a living wage

As a seamstress, Jessmin Begum earns around 35 euros a month (just under 4,000 Bangladesh Taka). The monthly rent for a one room apartment in Dhaka is around 25 euros a month.

"It is not even close to the living wage we have calculated," said Khorshed Alam from the campaigning group Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society (AMRF).

With calculations based on someone working a 12- to 14-hour day, the AMRF estimates around 5,000 Taka a month (52 euros) is necessary for a single worker. A family needs to earn around 9-10,000 Taka.

Dirty water, mean bosses, unpaid overtime

The two seamstresses are using their tour of Germany to highlight how bad working conditions are in the factories.

"The drinking water is dirty and we are packed in with little space between the machines," said Begum.

Jessmin Begum
Jessmin Begum has been working as a seamstress in Dhaka for eight yearsImage: DW

"Our supervisors insult us and put us under pressure to work harder. Almost every day I do overtime and I hardly ever come home much earlier than midnight," she added.

The workers have no sick pay or other benefits, so most seamstresses continue to work even when ill.

Highlighting the problem

Jessmin and Arifa's tour of Germany was organized by the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), which campaigns worldwide to promote better working conditions and fair wages.

The CCC wants international corporations to stick to their pledges to provide better labor conditions.

"For years companies have been saying they are willing to meet certain standards, but it's only on paper, not in actions," said the CCC's Gisela Burckhardt.

"We want a proper legal framework so that companies can see the impact of their activities on the environment and people in other countries," Burckhardt argued.

Woman at sewing machine in Dhaka factory
This Dhaka garment factory was visited by the CCC in 2009Image: Kampagne für Saubere Kleidung

Khorshed Alam from the AMRF added that it is also the responsibility of the Bangladeshi government to monitor the brands which manufacture clothes in the country, and to ensure they implement local labor laws.

Making consumers aware

In addition to putting pressure on manufacturers and local governments, the tour aims to give consumers more awareness of the origin of their cheap shirts and trousers.

"I came here because the people who buy our products have no idea where they came from, or how much we suffer," said Begum.

The AMRF want consumers to question companies like Lidl who sell cheap clothes, while claiming they pay their workers well.

In response to the claims, a spokesperson for Lidl said they completely oppose any form of child labor and violations of workers' rights. They also added that Lidl was the first German discount store to join the Business Social Compliance Initiative which works to improve working conditions in supply networks worldwide.

Author: Catherine Bolsover
Editor: Michael Lawton