context: an estimated 90% of the more than 3,780 export garment factories in Bangladesh violate women's legal right to 3 months full pay maternity leave. Some companies harass and pressure the pregnant women workers to force them to quit. Others give the leave but will only take the women back as new employees. Only a handful of companies in fact pay the benefits. The vast majority of factories simply cheat the women. A couple of eloquent examples:
the campaign: against this background, NLC, the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), and the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) launched a joint campaign to demand that the maternity rights be respected. They are asking Wal-Mart, Disney, Kohls and other companies to sign The Pledge - that any woman in Bangladesh sewing their garments, will be guaranteed her legal right to three months maternity leave with full pay. This campaign is just a start. If it is successful, the campaign will move on to other countries.
- For the last 8 years, at the Shah Makdhum factory in Bangladesh, young women have been forced to work over 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have been denied maternity benefits, been beaten and paid just 15 cents for each $17.99 Disney shirts they sewed. When the women stood up for their rights and denounced the violations, Disney responded by cutting and running, pulling its work from the factory and dumping the women on the street with nothing.
- On March 2, 2004, the National Labor Committee (NCL) released a new report about the Disney contractor’s Niagra in Bangladesh: 22 union members demanding their legal overtime pay were beaten, fired, and imprisoned on false charges. The factory requires 19 hour shifts, pays no overtime, and denies maternity leave & benefits.
maternity benefits cost: some garment workers earn as little as 8 cents an hour, while the top wage for an experienced sewer is just 18 cents an hour. This means the US companies and their suppliers in Bangladesh would be responsible to pay anywhere between $15.76 and $36.44 a month for three months for a grand total of $47.28 to $109.32 in maternity benefits. It is pretty probable that multinationals could afford this! Less than $110 in benefits might not seem like a great deal of money to us, but for mothers earning just eight to 18 cents an hour, and trapped in abject poverty, it is a matter of life and death to them and their infants.
women on the frontline: in Bangladesh, the women are leading this struggle to demand that their right to maternity leave with benefits be respected. They are marching, demonstrating, holding press conferences, distributing flyers in a massive popular education and outreach campaign, writing to all 3,780 export garment factories, pasting up posters on factory walls and meeting with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer Export Association. The three promoters (NLC, BCWS and NHWF) are spearheading this campaign, but new local organisations are joining the effort every day. These women feel they can win - but they need a broader support: multinationals only react when they feel pressure in their marketplace.
take action: NLC has published on its web pages a downloadable model letter to be addressed to the companies asking them to sign The Pledge. Moreover, NLC keeps a running score card highlighting companies that do the right thing and, in the same vein, companies that refuse to respond to do the right thing.