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The dark side of Japanese fashion made in Bangladesh

by Philip Brasor

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.

  • TO

    They are all based on the essentially same logic of economic exploitation, enabled by the politics which puts the least concerns on the most vulnerable. But, there is no equivalent social movement in Japan that counters those explotative political and economic forces, thanks to the de facto demise of labor unions/left political parties/grassroots radical activism since the 1970s. More specifically, my understanding is that there has been no publicly visible and effective “anti-sweatshop” movement in Japan unlike the US or western Europe in the late 1990s/early 2000s which changed how the issue is understood in those countries (including corporate responsibility at those sub-contracted factories), but not in Japan. I think this plays at least a part in the Japanese media, apparently not concerned about the corporate involvement in those factories abroad.

  • Christopher-trier

    The unpleasant thing about these situations is that we only have two choices. We either push for greater oversight of factories or we continue to tolerate the situation as it is. Considering the corruption levels in most developing countries the only way to make the oversight effective is to send observers from the countries the products will be going to in order to make sure things are done correctly creating, ultimately, a semi-colonial system in which each step of the process is monitored by outsiders. So much for post-World War Two attitudes.

  • Electra CV

    The truth is us consumers we want to have our cake and eat it too. We demand good quality fabrics, we demand that our t-shirt doesn’t look cheap and of course we want it to BE cheap. But somehow we don’t expect the companies to cut corners with their Bangladeshi employees. Or at least we expect them to do it in a way that leaves us out of it -you can’t possibly be guilty of something you don’t even know.

  • Franz Pichler

    I guess one could see it also this way: Their employer is Bangladeshi, he/she treats the workers like total crap and pays them almost nothing IN ORDER TO MAKE A HUGE PROFIT!! Why always say its the importers/clients’ fault! If they would pay them more and treat them better less incidents would happen. Only increasing the money paid in the contract or new giudlines will never help if as in this case, Bangladeshis treat their own blood like crap!

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    This will never end when greed is the driving force by which man makes his economic decisions. One would hope that some of these companies would have greater oversight, and seek to do right by their employees, even if it narrows the profit margin. Sadly, the moral are few.