It has been a month since a factory building on the outskirts of Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 textile workers. On April 24, representatives of some of the world’s major clothing manufacturers and retailers met in Germany to talk about the tragedy, including H&M, Tesco and the parent companies of Zara and Calvin Klein. Five signed an agreement to enforce safety rules at factories they have contracts with. Benetton is likely to join but Walmart, the biggest single customer of Bangladesh factories, probably won’t.
It remains to be seen if the agreement amounts to anything more than lip service, but it’s likely it wouldn’t have happened if the media didn’t make public the names of the companies. During the long effort to find survivors in the rubble of the collapsed building, news outlets outlined the fundamental economic truth at the bottom of the tragedy — the developed world’s demand for cheap apparel — and identified those companies that benefit from Bangladesh’s low wages while discussing their complicity in the dangerous conditions that led to the collapse. Even business-positive media such as The Wall Street Journal published their names and explained their business dealings in Bangladesh.
In Japan the tragedy received press attention but local connections were made circumspectly. The frankest report was from Nihon Keizai Shimbun, which said that Japanese companies in Dhaka became targets of violent protests, with the embassy telling Japanese nationals to stay indoors. And while these companies weren’t named, the article did say that Fast Retailing, which runs discount clothing giant Uniqlo, and textile manufacturer Toray are moving some of their operations to Bangladesh in the wake of rising wages in China. “Labor conditions and exploitation have been mentioned in the context of lower production costs,” went the report in typically passive fashion. “Japanese companies must find out how their products are made.”
So while it’s not clear if any Japanese firm had interests in factories operating in the collapsed building, it is natural to infer that there are Japanese companies in Bangladesh taking advantage of lower wages and less stringent safety regulations. According to Japan External Trade Organization surveys, the average monthly salary of a Bangladeshi working for a Japanese company in Dhaka is ¥7,200, compared with about ¥45,000 for a Chinese worker in Beijing and about ¥27,000 for an Indian in New Delhi.
Ninety-five percent of all clothing sold in Japan is manufactured overseas, but even the remaining 5 percent seems to be made by workers from developing countries. On April 3 a 24-year-old Bangladeshi woman filed a suit in Kyoto District Court against her employers at a textile factory in Nagasaki Prefecture for more than ¥11 million in unpaid wages and consolation money. The woman had come to Japan in late 2011 as a trainee under the country’s technical internship program, which used to allow small and medium-sized Japanese businesses to hire foreign workers and pay them lower wages than they would have to pay to Japanese workers.
Because of the negative publicity the program had generated over the years, the government revised the Immigration Law in 2010 to change the status of these foreign interns to that of “skilled workers.” Ostensibly, they are here to learn a skill that they can take back with them to their home countries, and previously they could be paid below minimum wage for the first year because during that time they were supposed to be undergoing training. The revision tacitly acknowledged the reality that little in the way of training goes on in these transactions and mandated that employers pay workers minimum wage from the start.
The plaintiff, identified in the press as Begum Rabeya, said that the agency in Bangladesh which arranged her employment told her she would receive at least ¥107,000 a month and up to ¥200,000 with overtime. After arriving she worked every day from 8 a.m. to midnight and shared a room with other workers. Her employers subtracted ¥40,000 from her monthly pay for room and board, and an additional ¥50,000 was taken by the “broker,” leaving her with only ¥10,000. Given that she was working more than 400 hours a month, she believed the factory was not paying her the minimum wage, which in Nagasaki is ¥646 an hour, much less any overtime pay.
Interviewed by Mainichi Shimbun, the employer said that Begam was paid minimum wage “until 5 p.m.” and thereafter worked on a per-piece basis. The employer, who is not identified in the article, also claimed no knowledge of the broker’s fee and thought the whole matter was a case of miscommunication.
The term “black kigyō (enterprise)” used to describe the business affairs of underworld organizations, but it now refers to legitimate companies with regressive employment policies. In a recent interview with the Asahi Shimbun about his documentary on the subject, filmmaker Tokachi Tsuchiya said that Japanese companies have always demanded loyalty from workers, but now do so without the quid pro quo of benefits and job security. Younger people who enter this system “don’t know anything about labor laws” and are easily exploited, he said, because they have bought the line that anyone who gives you a job is automatically doing you a favor.
Fast Retailing, which recently announced it would unify salaries in Uniqlo outlets worldwide, has been described by the Japan Communist Party as a black kigyō during Diet debate due to the company’s punishing workload, which the business weekly Toyo Keizai reported in a March cover story. There is nothing structural that connects workers in Bangladesh, foreign “trainees” in Kyushu and Uniqlo employees, but there is a pattern, which may explain why local media didn’t report on Japanese involvement in the Dhaka tragedy. It doesn’t really matter which companies were there, because that’s just the way the world works.