Hidden, Unprotected, and Vulnerable: Supporting Informal RMG Workers in Bangladesh
June 7, 2021
An analysis of Bangladesh’s existing legal standards for the apparel industry reveals significant gaps in protections for workers in the informal ready-made garment (RMG) sector. This study, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with support from GFEMS and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, provides recommendations on how government stakeholders, brands, and factories can address these gaps to improve labor conditions for workers in the informal apparel industry.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, the Government of Bangladesh, with support from international buyers, has enacted measures to improve labor conditions in Bangladesh’s apparel sector. More frequent factory inspections and greater accountability have been critical to these reforms. However, improvements in labor conditions have not extended to workers in informal apparel factories that produce for domestic markets or to those working as under-the-table subcontractors for formal, export-oriented factories. Without the same levels of scrutiny and enforcement of labor laws that have improved conditions in the formal sector, workers in the informal sector remain beyond the reach of brand and government oversight and highly vulnerable to abuse.
Without the same levels of scrutiny and enforcement of labor laws that have improved conditions in the formal sector, workers in the informal sector remain beyond the reach of brand and government oversight and highly vulnerable to abuse.
This study identifies key reasons for this discrepancy, including gaps in laws and policies that pose risks to occupational health and safety and may block unionization; poor enforcement of applicable laws in the informal sector and weak coordination between inspection agencies, factories, and their workers; lack of political will; limited awareness among factories and workers of existing laws and rights and inadequate resources to comply; and buyers’ poor visibility into supply chains and heavy reliance on unauthorized subcontracting – and therefore weak compliance enforcement. These interconnected factors create a poor regulatory environment, where government and buyers enable the labor abuses that threaten worker welfare.
To address these findings, NORC developed targeted recommendations to inform action by government, legislators, buyers and brands, and workers.
- Provide tools to increase supply chain transparency and buyer visibility into their suppliers’ capacity, reducing the need for unauthorized subcontracting where many of the worst forced labor violations are found. (Read more: With its partner, Social Accountability International, GFEMS is tackling buyer-supplier coordination to improve conditions for workers in informal factories in India and incentivize informal factories to improve their working conditions.)
- Raise awareness of labor laws among factory owners to increase compliance, and among workers to ensure they know their rights and options for recourse. Building the capacity of trade unions and, where they are not yet present, NGOs and other worker groups, is key to reaching workers through trusted, knowledgeable channels.
- Strengthen labor inspectorates’ authority to oversee labor law compliance in the informal sector, including empowering the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) and assigning a monitoring authority for the domestic garment sector. Key changes to the legal framework include broadening anti-discrimination provisions, repealing clauses that allow for the employment of children aged 12-14 and discourage the formation of trade unions, and imposing stronger penalties for labor violations including child labor. Streamlining coordination among DIFE, law enforcement, and relevant government agencies will improve monitoring and enforcement.