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Garment Worker Diaries Reveal Working Conditions, Wages in Bangladesh, India, Cambodia

A first-of-its-kind research project led by Microfinance Opportunities (MFO) in partnership with Fashion Revolution and C&A Foundation gives the most comprehensive picture yet of the living and working conditions faced by female garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia and India.

The reports coincide with the presentation of Fashion Focus: The Fundamental Right to a Living Wage in the European Parliament, with comments from MFO’s Executive Director, Guy Stuart: “The Diaries provide a dynamic picture of the daily lives of women garment workers: their regular earning and spending habits, as well as how they cope with the ups and downs of life. What we see are stories of endurance in face of a difficult combination of low wages and economic uncertainty.”

Over a period of 12 months, researchers visited 540 workers (180 per country) at their homes to learn about what they earn and buy, how they spend their time each day and what their working conditions are like.

The report highlights that living and working conditions of female garment workers varies greatly between countries.

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Of the three countries covered in the study, Bangladeshi women earned the least per hour — about half what the women in the other two countries earned. Nevertheless, in the other countries there was similarly opaque data when it came to base wage rates and overtime pay. On average, they worked 60 hours a week and earned an hourly rate of 28 taka (the equivalent of $0.95 in purchasing power parity). They earned less than the minimum hourly wage 64 percent of the time and there was significant evidence to suggest that the more they worked, the less they earned. Outside of work, men controlled earnings that were spent on basics such as food and rent and rarely improved a household’s quality of life.

Cambodia’s workers sought overtime hours to boost their incomes, but in many cases, were not paid a legal wage for these hours. On average, they worked 48 hours a week and earned an hourly rate of 3,500 riels (the equivalent of $2.53 in purchasing power parity). Despite earning the minimum wage and supplementing their income with overtime hours, most workers still faced financial strain, and at certain points throughout the year this resulted in limited access to quality food and medical care.

India’s workers — a sample of export-oriented factory employees in the southwest of Bangalore — typically earned the legal minimum wage or higher and paid into pension and state insurance programs. On average, they worked 46 hours a week and earned an hourly rate of 39.68 rupees (the equivalent to $2.27 in purchasing power parity). They were often exposed to verbal abuse by their supervisors and relied heavily on income from their husbands or other household earners to meet their financial obligations, but lived in comparative comfort to workers in Bangladesh or Cambodia.

“By listening to their stories, we identified patterns of behavior within and across countries. This gives brands something to consider above and beyond their margins when deciding where to make their clothes. Their decisions have a real and meaningful impact on the lives of these women and their families,” said Eric Noggle, Research Director at MFO.

The projects’ findings are effective tools for workers, factories, brands and governments to make, change and leverage positive movements in target countries as many of them continue to source clothing from factories employing workers who struggle to make ends meet. This is an opportunity for key global stakeholders to work collaboratively and bring about systemic change in the garment industry.