Squeezed by the Global Economy
Why do Bangladeshi garment workers feel compelled to work in hazardous factories? People keep asking this since the factory collapse that crushed 1,129 people to death near Dhaka. The answer lies in where these young people are within the global economy: at work, they are precariously at the bottom of the global garments value chain; at home, they face steep cost of living rises from unpredictable global food and commodity prices. Halima, 33 year old garments worker and mother of three told researchers in 2012:
"There is no guarantee for our job stability, what will happen tomorrow only God knows ... we cannot make any plans to save ... I need nutritious food for my health. But because there is not enough nutritious food in my diet, my working capability is decreasing day by day ... working with needles doing garments work causes a severe headache ... If I concentrate to see something, everything seems dim-sighted to me and my eyes fill with water. In fact, I don’t have the education for a better job."
People like Halima are being squeezed by their place in the global economy, and this is why they ‘choose’ to work in death-trap factories.
Since 2009, Dhaka garment workers have been among the people on low and precarious incomes talking to researchers about how global economic volatility plays out in their lives. In 2012, as part of the Oxfam-Institute of Development Studies Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, with fears of price spikes still live following the US drought, teams spoke to people in 23 communities in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. The sense of a squeeze was widespread. Food, fuel and other costs of living have risen since 2007, in some cases, by double or treble or more. How well people eat is the single best indicator of their wellbeing, and people on low incomes, like Halima are not satisfied with what they eat: few nice and nutritious foods, no protein to speak of, possibly contaminated fish or vegetables, cheap additives for taste, and for the worst off, small or no meals at all. Famine-type behaviours – gathering wild vegetables, eating what is in effect livestock feed, and relying on ‘hunger’ recipes – are common.
Earning cash is pushing out other priorities. People take on higher risk jobs, in garment factories notorious for poor safety records, or gold mining in Burkina Faso. More women are out trying to earn cash to add to the family budget than before, even where women traditionally stay at home, as in Pakistan. This is having important but often overlooked social costs that further squeeze the lives of people living in or near poverty. The unpaid care work necessary for wellbeing at home is turning into a juggling act, with grandparents and older children drafted in to help with cooking and childcare, where possible. Food shopping has become a marital battle zone: hard work does not guarantee a decent meal, and men that fail to meet their families’ most basic needs feel emasculated. And people can afford to help each other less, depending more on earning a daily wage.
The good news should have been that wages and earnings are also rising, mainly. Yet progress is illusory: in real terms, people feel their wages are not keeping pace with five years of food price rises and they are in fact worse off. Many worry they can no longer save or plan for the future. Farming has become so uncertain that neither parents nor young people themselves see it as their future – most avoid it as risky, unrewarding, hard and dirty.
Policymakers are unlikely to worry that women are juggling paid and unpaid work, or that men are feeling like failures. But they will want to pay attention to what these changes add up to. Unchecked food price rises are pushing out all other priorities: the importance once paid to the invaluable work of caring for families and the social cohesion built through socialising and helping neighbours are being replaced with calculations about daily wage incomes and the cost of living. This is social change by stealth, with people being dragged into the ever tighter coils of the global economy.
The hidden costs of food price rises on individuals and communities will worsen with time. Governments cannot indefinitely rely on the ‘resilience’ of individuals or the ability of families to absorb extra unpaid care responsibilities. The assumption that communities will take care of each other in times of stress will no longer hold.
Poor people expect their governments to stabilise food prices and listen to their concerns about the cost of living. Yet their worries about food price rises affect the things that matter in everyday life – how they care for and live alongside each other - are not heard in global food policy debates. Until they are, the pressures of life in a time of food price volatility mean we are unlikely to have seen the end of workers squeezed into dangerous factories.
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