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Abused and beaten

Speigel  |  May 11, 2009  |  Share

Alleged violations at large Metro AG supplier
in Bangladesh: One female worker died, frequent beatings by factory foremen are common


German-language article

By Nils Klawitter

On the morning of December 7, the Fatema Akter' body stopped cooperating.  According to eyewitnesses, the 18-year-old female worker stopped work and huddled down on a piece of cardboard in the middle of the factory floor.  Her employer, R.L. Denim, is a textile factory in Chittagong, a Bangladeshi port city with a population of about one million people.  Even the callous factory supervisors seemed to realize that something was not quite right with young woman, and they refrained from delivering the usual beatings.  Coworkers claim that management left the female worker lying on the ground.  When, after a half hour, no one moved to help the sick worker, some of seamstresses began to protest, and the lifeless woman was carried via rickshaw to the hospital.  She died there a few hours later.

Dysentery and dehydration are mentioned on her death certificate as the causes of death.  Fatima's father, Abdul Khalek, recalled that his daughter had been suffering from diarrhea and fever.  "She asked her supervisor several times for a day off," he recalled.  Her supervisor answered her request with a beating.

Fatema Akter did not know this at the time, but she was working for a supplier of the Metro Group.  According to an announcement on R.L. Denim website, Metro is the Bangladeshi factory's main buyer.  R.L. Denim's 600 workers produce 124,000 pairs of jeans each month. 

Fatema had worked at the factory for only a few weeks as an assistant sewer.  Her job was to carry the heavy material to the sewers.  At the same time, she was responsible for cleaning the material and removing lint from the fabric. 

Apparently, her body had difficulty adapting to the hard work.   A former housemate tells us that Fatema frequently worked seven days and over 70 hours a week.  For this, she was paid 2200 taka (24 Euro).

The R.L. Denim factory is a subsidiary of the Jeans Express company.  Owner, Ratan Datta, has been in business for over 30 years.  Mr. Datta claims to be a man of "integrity" who runs a "vertically integrated" enterprise.  On his website he claims to "say yes to the fight against child labor." 

Datta's attorney announced last week that "SPIEGEL's research is a violation of the "common declaration of human rights of 1948."  Moreover, Mr. Datta claimed that the sick Fatema had been accompanied by her supervisors on her way to the hospital, and that they had also paid the hospital bill. He claimed that no laws were broken and that there was no hitting at the factory.  No workers had complained to the BGMEA — but hardly anyone would approach that contractor sector group. 

"On the surface, it appears that Jeans Express is a model company," says Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, a non-governmental organizations that specializes in researching working conditions in developing countries.  He says that the Jeans Express runs "certified for-show-factories that produce brands like Wrangler."

Last February, Kernaghan was in the port city of Chittagong collecting material about Bangladeshi ship breakers, when local union representatives called his attention to the R.L. Denim factory.  They were able to organize meetings with the workers at night, and Kernaghan was shown the time cards of a few female sewers.  The cards recorded weekly work times of 67.5 to 82 hours.        

The workers reported that the factory's drinking water smelled of oil, and they often had to work "seven days a week, for the equivalent of 11 cents US per hour.  They are denied maternity leave, and they are molested and beaten when they request it," said Kernaghan.  By his calculation, sewers receive 13 U.S. cents per pair of Metro-jeans. 

The Duesseldorf-based business giant has been sourcing from R.L. Denim since 2003.  According to a Metro spokesperson, the Bangladesh factory produces good quality products and was inspected in 2005 as part of Metro's commitment to the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BCSI).   BCSI is a kind of comprehensive insurance protection created by enterprises like C & A, Karstadt and Metro. 

The initiative has been trying since 2005 to improve working conditions at its textile supplier plants.  However, the factory owners decided on the rules themselves and inspections are announced in advance.  In spite of the lax inspection standards, the results of R.L. Denim's inspection still showed that there were problems at the factory, though there was no mention of discrimination, child labor or prison labor.  But, according to Metro spokesperson Ruediger Stahlschmidt, "the factory did not meet BCSI standards in terms of work hours, pay levels, health and safety".  Four years after this initial inspection, an night inspection has yet to be carried out.  There is a night inspection scheduled for the first half of 2009. 

Several female workers at R.L. Denim report that the official inspections are a joke, that supervisors warn the workers in advance not to complain. On inspection days, workers are actually let off their shifts on time.  There is a blackboard in the factory informing workers about the legal protections for pregnant workers.  The protections spelled out on the blackboard are extensive, but "no one has ever had their rights respected." Fatema Begum[1] is one worker who was forced to leave the factory after the birth of her son.  Begum reports that workers who attempt to organize are also fired.  Another worker, Aisha Kondaker,[2] was fired after eight years in the factory after asking for her legal maternity leave.  Both women reported being beaten at the factory. 

"The BSCI code is merely an advertisement for consumers; it does nothing for the workers," says Maik Pflaum of the Christian Initiative Romero.  The Christian Initiative is a co-founder of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). 

Inspections were not only unable to prevent child labor at Metro contracting plants (SPIEGEL 25/2005), but also failed to prevent child labor at factories producing for the Otto-Tochter Transport Company and Esprit.  These cases, however, "occurred lower down on the supplier chain," says a BCSI spokesperson.  Metro admits, though, to have come across child labor twice during inspections of their main suppliers in Bangladesh.

That these grievances had been corrected affirms "the positive effect of the BSCI inspections," according to Metro.  Though, they could just as easily be proof of the factory managers' quick reaction times. 

Over the past three years, inspectors have made 481 visits to suppliers in Bangladesh.  Eighty percent of these suppliers failed inspection.  These failed inspections reflect conditions in a country that has been trying for 30 years to escape poverty through sewing, weaving and dying — and whose inhabitants gain almost nothing from it.  The reports also expose much about suppliers who hide behind laws that in reality are nothing more than window dressing.  According to Bangladesh law, a 48-hour work week is the rule.  Furthermore, workers are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, two weeks paid vacation, and clean drinking water in each workplace.  When an enterprise hires 14-year-olds, they are not allowed to crouch for eight hours at the sewing machines. 

By now, every western enterprise, from Lidl to the textile discounter KiK, accepts the principles of "social responsibility."   It is a trend.  But these companies' caring images are not commensurate with their practice of letting local producers compete with one another to drive down prices and wage or with making sewers put in 80-hour weeks to keep up with rapidly-changing fashion trends.

"The worst that Metro can do now, is cut and run," says specialist Kernaghan.  Metro should help to transform R.L. Denim into a model factory where there are tangible changes and where worker rights are respected.  Company spokesman Stahlschmidt announced at the end of last week that a comprehensive investigation into the death of Fatema Akter has been initiated.  Stahlschmidt claimed that up to now, it was assumed that the supplier, R.L. Denim, had been acting properly. 

Though the family of the deceased has been promised help by the company management, "We have received nothing so far," says the father.  Prior to her death, Fatema was planning to go visit them in the countryside for observance of the "sacrifice celebration."  She had put aside a small portion of her earnings to make the trip.

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