With little oversight in Bangladesh’s informal apparel factories, the risk for workers is high.

Forced Labor Among Informal Apparel Workers in Bangladesh: A Prevalence Estimation Report

Since 2018, GFEMS has invested in several studies to shed light on exploitative labor practices in the informal apparel sector of Bangladesh, including law and policy analysis and a rapid assessment of the impacts of COVID-19 on workers. GFEMS has also created practical resources for use by practitioners and policy-makers to reduce exploitation in this sector. However, to date, there have been few attempts to estimate the prevalence of forced labor in the informal ready-made garment sector. Prevalence estimations are critical. They provide deeper insight on the scale and scope of modern slavery in targeted sectors and geographies, contributing to more effective programming and more sustainable solutions.

GFEMS engaged NORC at the University of Chicago to measure the prevalence of forced labor among informal apparel factory workers in the Narayanganj and Keraniganj garment production hubs in Bangladesh. Research uncovered high rates of exploitation, with over 86% of workers meeting the ILO’s criteria for forced labor.

For additional findings and recommendations on how the government of Bangladesh and civil society can work together to reduce exploitation among workers in Bangladesh’s informal apparel sector, read the full research brief.

The impact of COVID-19 on apparel workers in Bangladesh has been devastating, but the pandemic did not create worker vulnerabilities.

COVID Revealed Just How Vulnerable Apparel Workers Are. Now What Do We Do About It?

Bangladesh has long been an epicenter for apparel production.  Its garment industry is the second-largest in the world, behind only China. It accounts for about 84% of Bangladesh’s export revenue, and readymade garments account for almost 16% of the country’s GDP. It is home to some 4,000 factories and employs more than 4 million people. 4 out of five of these workers are women

The cost of labor in Bangladesh apparel factories remains low, among the lowest by global standards. The Bangladeshi government raised the minimum wage for garment workers to 8,000 Tk or $95 USD per month in December 2018, the first increase in 5 years. In response, in January 2019, protestors took to the streets. Workers claimed the increase did not reflect the rising costs of living, and questioned how they were to sustain families and households on poverty wages.

Image Courtesy of UN Women

Then, in 2020, a global pandemic hit.

At least $3 billion of orders were cancelled. More than 1 million workers- mostly women- were laid off or furloughed, representing a quarter of the workforce. Overseas apparel sales fell 18%. Recent data shows that fashion owes $16 billion in outstanding payments.

The numbers are stark, but what’s behind the numbers is even starker.  For those working in Bangladesh’s apparel factories, especially those laboring in the informal economy to produce the “made in Bangladesh” tag, these numbers mean a very grim reality.

They mean that millions living on the margins were suddenly without an income. Most had little or no savings. And many were denied the legally mandated severance benefits to provide any cushion. Workers like Mr. Ali, a knit operator for 17 years owed over $4,000 USD in severance pay, hold out hope that “the money will come” but are so desperate to feed their families that they have contemplated suicide.

They mean that there are more children- school age boys and girls, some not yet 10 years old- in Bangladesh’s apparel factories, working to keep their families afloat. 

COVID-19 is not the root cause of vulnerability but it has shown the world just how vulnerable apparel workers are.

They mean that expecting mothers and older workers are being terminated first because employers do not want to or cannot pay the benefits to which they are entitled.

They mean workers are putting up with more abuse in the workplace because they fear losing their jobs and their only source of income. Women workers, in particular, are reporting increased sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

They mean that, in some of the most vulnerable communities, 95% of households have less than a week of food supplies, and barely 3% are receiving any government aid. Mothers who work long days at the factory are undernourished, going without so that their children can eat.

The impact of COVID-19 on apparel workers in Bangladesh has been devastating, but the pandemic did not create worker vulnerabilities.  Those laboring on the factory floor, under exploitative conditions for up to 12 hours a day, do so because they have few other employment options. They are often young, unskilled, and frequently women and migrants. They are vulnerable to forced labor due to poverty, the fragmented, informal nature of textile supply chains, and the lack of enforcement of legal protections for workers. COVID-19 is not the root cause of vulnerability, but it has shown the world just how vulnerable apparel workers are.

Informal Factories Operate in the Shadows, Leaving Workers Vulnerable

Image courtesy of Trades Union Congress

Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when more than 1,100 people died in a garment factory collapse, labor standards have improved, at least in Bangladesh’s formal factories. Evidence shows better working conditions, more factory inspections and greater accountability. But, for those working in informal factories, the risks of exploitation remain high.

The informal economy is characterized by one central feature: it is unregulated by the institutions of society, in a legal and social environment in which similar activities are regulated.” In other words, there is little government or corporate oversight, meaning factory owners often have limited awareness or knowledge about labor laws; they operate with little consequence for violating laws and little support to improve working conditions.

Some of the worst labor practices are clustered in the informal economy. Informality is associated with lower and less regular incomes, inadequate and unsafe working conditions, extreme job precarity and exclusion from social security schemes, among other factors. A recent study estimates that as many as 3 million Bangladesh workers producing ready-made garments (RMGs) fall outside the scope of any labor monitoring programs.

Worker Survey Gives Voice to Hidden Workers

To give voice to these invisible workers and increase transparency in the RMG sector, we partnered with ELEVATE to deploy a worker survey in Keraniganj and Narayanganj, two of Bangladesh’s key informal apparel production hubs. A relatively low-tech tool, the survey does not require a respondent to be literate or even own a smartphone. Rather, workers anonymously answer a series of multiple-choice questions by pressing a number on their mobile phone’s keypad using voice response technology. During the weeks after responding to the survey, workers then received a series of informational/educational messages informing them of their rights. In instances where child labor or risk of forced labor was identified, referral operators followed-up to link workers to support services such as skills building activities and/or education. While giving voice to a hidden population, this project not only identified exploitation in informal apparel factories, but supported workers to remove from exploitative conditions.

The Results:

The results of the worker survey revealed high rates of child labor –higher than expected and much higher compared to the formal sector. Poverty, exacerbated by the pandemic, pushed most children into factory jobs. Nearly 9 out of 10 working children reported migrating to the cities for work in the informal sector to be able to support their families’ income. Most of these children live in the nearby slums within walking distance of their workplace. Most had never attended school or were forced to drop out. Children are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Anecdotal evidence shows that employers prefer to engage children because they are more easily convinced to work longer hours for less money. Many children are unaware of their rights and thus less likely to protest when those rights are violated.

Bangladesh Labor Foundation School
School for Child Labor facilitated by Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF). Photo courtesy of BLF.
LEEDO school for children from apparel factories, Bangladesh
Mobile school for child laborers facilitated by LEEDO. Photo courtesy of ELEVATE.

What to do with these findings? With the Fund’s support, ELEVATE partnered with three local organizations to provide educational and support services to identified victims of child labor. Each of these three organizations- Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), LEEDO, and Community Participation and Development (CPD) – have experience in these two high-risk areas and in implementing educational programs. Each adapted their curriculum and program offerings in response to student needs. 

BLF, for example, amended its traditional curriculum to include Bangla language, mathematics, and English, as these were the courses that young workers most requested. CPD, focused on building technical and vocational skills, enabled students to select a program based on their needs and interest. While some preferred to hone skills relevant to the garment industry, others, especially the younger students, were most interested in learning generic trades to improve their future employability and personal self-development. LEEDO, an organization that runs informal schools for street children, primarily targeted children under the age of 14, complementing their curriculum with recreational activities such as Carom Board, Ludo, and gaming

Of the children who attended these schools, some have left the factory. They have returned to their villages and enrolled in school. Yeasin*, just 9 years old when his father’s injury forced him to quit school and start working, found time to attend one of BLF’s programs in between work shifts. Finding Yeasin eager to exit the factory and continue studying, BLF reached out to his father. Yeasin returned to his family and is now enrolled in the government school in his village.

Other children have moved on to better jobs or better wages. 14-year old Joshin* left school to work in a garment factory after COVID-19 pushed his family into financial crisis. For his labor, he was provided three meals a day, but no wages. After studying English, Bengali, and mathematics as a student in LEEDO’s School under the Sky program- courses that helped him excel in his daily work- Joshin found work in another factory. In his new position, Joshin earns wages that are helping support his family. He expects to earn a promotion soon.

Education is only part of the solution. Reducing vulnerability means changing systems

Educational programs and skills training play an important role in providing children an alternative to working in informal factories, but they are not the solution. Nor is any one program. To ensure children are kept out of factories, we need to address whole systems. This means engaging governments to legislate and enforce labor reform; engaging businesses to change exploitative labor practices; raising awareness to prevent child exploitation; enhancing access to social protection benefits to build financial security; and creating sustainable livelihood options so that mothers, fathers, boys, and girls are not forced into exploitative working conditions.  

The Global Fund supports numerous projects to reduce forced and child labor in Bangladesh’s informal factories. In addition to the worker voice survey and the educational programs that resulted, we support research to identify gaps in existing legislation and we recommend specific actions for policy and law enforcement groups, government officials, and brand representatives to take to end forced labor. We invest in the development of innovative tools to help brands, buyers, and suppliers prevent, detect, and remediate forced labor in their operations. The Fair Capacity Platform, for example, helps businesses plan their production capacity better, reducing the probability that they resort to subcontracting or excessive overtime to meet unrealistic order deadlines. 

The garment industry is a central pillar of the Bangladesh economy, and so are the millions of men, women, and children who sustain it. The outbreak of a global pandemic showed the world just how vulnerable these workers are, especially those laboring in the informal sector. It also reinforced our commitment to reducing that vulnerability. 

If you are interested in partnering with us to end forced and child labor in the apparel sector, please reach out.

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect identities. The legal age of employment in Bangladesh is 14.

Apparel I Bangladesh

Lessons Learned

During follow-up, many children said they couldn’t afford to quit their jobs, or even reduce their workload to participate in the educational programs being offered, despite expressing interest. For some children, engaging in part-time learning could compromise the source of income that their families depend on. Based on findings from the worker voice survey and real-time feedback from children whom the survey engaged, ELEVATE developed the following guidance for governments, donors, civil society, or private sector actors:

  • Efforts to provide education or remediation services to working children must assume that children will not or cannot immediately leave their jobs and should accommodate their work schedules (e.g. by offering part-time courses)
  • Educational and support services should offer income-replacement stipends or allowances and provision of social safety net services to convince children and their families to enroll in the programs, and eventually transition into the mainstream education system.
  • Referral services should target working children as well as their families. Lack of awareness regarding the negative effects of child labor contributes to decisions that put children in factories.
  • Programs aimed at reducing child labor should engage other actors such as factory owners, trade union leaders, and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment to eliminate child labor.

Moving Towards Survivor Leadership

2021 Impact Report

2021 saw the Fund continue its programming in Kenya, Uganda, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Vietnam and launch a new project focused on coffee production in Brazil. Through it all, the work was first and foremost about the difference it made for those most affected by modern slavery. For this Impact Report, we focused on these stories, and in our work this year we began to move more fully towards meaningful survivor leadership.

What do your stakeholders need to know about forced labor in Bangladesh’s informal apparel sector?

What do they need to know? Talking to different stakeholders about forced labor in Bangladesh’s apparel sector

Different stakeholders need to take different actions to end forced labor in Bangladesh’s apparel sector

Different stakeholders need different types of information. What governments need to know vs. what brands need to know may be worlds apart. As an anti-slavery leader working to end forced labor in Bangladesh’s informal apparel sector, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery seeks to empower everyone to have the right information and enable better conversations with stakeholders dedicated to ending trafficking in the sector. To assist, we’ve created three handouts to help you appropriately tailor discussions with policy and law enforcement groups, key government officials, and brand representatives.

Download the handouts:

Employers who provided Covid-19 protections were significantly less likely to abuse their workers.

Prevalence Estimate: Forced labor among apparel workers in Vietnam

Vietnam is a major global supplier of apparel, and the second largest source of garment and textile exports to the United States, accounting for (along with China) nearly half of all apparel entering the North America. For years, the apparel industry was also the largest source of export revenues to Vietnam’s economy only to be eclipsed in 2018 by electronics. The apparel industry in Vietnam also attracts large sums of foreign direct investment to shore up the production and export capacity. Because of the long hours and physically demanding nature of garment factory apparel work, concerns about forced labor have been raised by foreign governments and the international NGO community.

In 2012, the United States Department of Labor (USDOL) added garments from Vietnam to the list of products made with forced and child labor. In 2020, garments from Vietnam remained on USDOL’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.

This study was commissioned by the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) to estimate the prevalence of forced labor in Vietnam’s apparel industry. It surveyed over 5,000 apparel workers in Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, and Thai Binh in the Red River Delta, locations that are the three main apparel production regions in Vietnam. Respondents were surveyed about their work experiences to determine whether
there was evidence of forced labor in the apparel industry.

To see our findings and recommendations, download the briefing:

We create innovative solutions for global brands

Bridging the buyer-supplier gap to root out forced labor in supply chains

Global supply chains are a major perpetrator of modern slavery. With over 16 million victims in the private sector, business involvement is key to sustainable, systems change that eliminates forced labor. In the apparel sector, a lack of transparency between buyers, suppliers, and manufacturers is what often allows modern slavery to go unnoticed.

International apparel brands, particularly those in the ready-made garment (RMG) or “fast fashion” sector, monitor their legally registered Tier 1 suppliers in India. Due to the low pricing and quick turnaround production pressures of the industry, Tier 1 suppliers often sub-contract to unauthorized and unregistered factories that are hidden from brands in order to meet demand. This creates a lack of transparency between buyers (brands) and suppliers, leading to poor monitoring of deeper supply chain operations and allowing forced and child labor to thrive.

To enhance monitoring and make supply chains more visible to buyers, GFEMS and ELEVATE, a business risk and sustainability solutions provider, are creating innovative apparel brand monitoring and remediation systems in India.

ELEVATE has built and tested a predictive analytics tool to detect risks of unauthorized sub-contracting and forced labor practices. The tool uses institutional knowledge, third-party data supply chain data, and new procurement audit data to identify which Tier 1 suppliers are at high risk of using unauthorized contracting to meet their production orders.  Along with identifying high-risk suppliers, ELEVATE has also developed remediation processes for brands, Tier 1 suppliers, and informal/unauthorized factories to collaborate to improve labor practices, ensuring that factories are incentivized to participate and remain transparent.

Despite a slowdown in the apparel industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, ELEVATE has already generated significant brand interest in hosting social compliance audits. To date, the project has:

  • Established partnerships with four key global brands
  • Completed 22 on-site assessments
  • Generated 13 supplier reports on risk of unauthorized sub-contracting.

Five monitored suppliers have indicated varying levels of extreme to medium risk of unauthorized sub-contracting. Two of those suppliers have agreed to deliver a remediation plan, including onsite capacity building with suppliers.

By offering both modern slavery risk identification and effective remediation plans for suppliers who are at risk, the tools developed in this project both allows buyers to make smarter decisions about their suppliers, and provides suppliers with plans to improve their practices and continue operating. Both are essential for generating and maintaining systems level change that eliminates forced labor from supply chains.

This project was funded through a grant made by the U.K Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO). Any opinions in this article do not reflect the opinions of FCDO.

Improvement’s in labor conditions made in Bangladesh’s apparel sector in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster have not extended to informal apparel factories.

Hidden, Unprotected, and Vulnerable: Supporting Informal RMG Workers in Bangladesh

An analysis of Bangladesh’s existing legal standards for the apparel industry reveals significant gaps in protections for workers in the informal ready-made garment (RMG) sector. This study, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with support from GFEMS and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, provides recommendations on how government stakeholders, brands, and factories can address these gaps to improve labor conditions for workers in the informal apparel industry. 

Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, the Government of Bangladesh, with support from international buyers, has enacted measures to improve labor conditions in Bangladesh’s apparel sector. More frequent factory inspections and greater accountability have been critical to these reforms. However, improvements in labor conditions have not extended to workers in informal apparel factories that produce for domestic markets or to those working as under-the-table subcontractors for formal, export-oriented factories. Without the same levels of scrutiny and enforcement of labor laws that have improved conditions in the formal sector, workers in the informal sector remain beyond the reach of brand and government oversight and highly vulnerable to abuse. 

Without the same levels of scrutiny and enforcement of labor laws that have improved conditions in the formal sector, workers in the informal sector remain beyond the reach of brand and government oversight and highly vulnerable to abuse.

This study identifies key reasons for this discrepancy, including gaps in laws and policies that pose risks to occupational health and safety and may block unionization; poor enforcement of applicable laws in the informal sector and weak coordination between inspection agencies, factories, and their workers; lack of political will; limited awareness among factories and workers of existing laws and rights and inadequate resources to comply; and buyers’ poor visibility into supply chains and heavy reliance on unauthorized subcontracting – and therefore weak compliance enforcement. These interconnected factors create a poor regulatory environment, where government and buyers enable the labor abuses that threaten worker welfare.

To address these findings, NORC developed targeted recommendations to inform action by government, legislators, buyers and brands, and workers.

Recommendations include:

  • Provide tools to increase supply chain transparency and buyer visibility into their suppliers’ capacity, reducing the need for unauthorized subcontracting where many of the worst forced labor violations are found. (Read more: With its partner, Social Accountability International, GFEMS is tackling buyer-supplier coordination to improve conditions for workers in informal factories in India and incentivize informal factories to improve their working conditions.)
  • Raise awareness of labor laws among factory owners to increase compliance, and among workers to ensure they know their rights and options for recourse. Building the capacity of trade unions and, where they are not yet present, NGOs and other worker groups, is key to reaching workers through trusted, knowledgeable channels.
  • Strengthen labor inspectorates’ authority to oversee labor law compliance in the informal sector, including empowering the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) and assigning a monitoring authority for the domestic garment sector. Key changes to the legal framework include broadening anti-discrimination provisions, repealing clauses that allow for the employment of children aged 12-14 and discourage the formation of trade unions, and imposing stronger penalties for labor violations including child labor. Streamlining coordination among DIFE, law enforcement, and relevant government agencies will improve monitoring and enforcement.

Want to learn more? Download the briefing or full report.

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Our first look at intervention effectiveness for SafeStep, LaborLink, and predictive analytics

First Look: Intervention Effectiveness in Bangladesh

Under a partnership with the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, GFEMS funded three individual interventions, led by implementing partners ELEVATE, aimed at disrupting the prevalence of forced labor in India and Bangladesh. For each of the three interventions, GFEMS partnered with Athena-ITAD to conduct “First-Look” case studies. These case studies represent a snapshot of the current status of the project and assesses project progress in alignment with the Theory of Change. It also documents the progress made, if any, at the preliminary stages of the project.

Findings suggest that implementation is on track for the first phase of the project, despite delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that it is still early in the project implementation, the bulk of evidence will be assessed in the ‘Second Look’ case study which will offer a deeper, more comprehensive overview of the intervention and its impact.

Case Study 1: LaborLink

Country: Bangladesh

Sector: Apparel, Ready-made Garments

Project Description: GFEMS funded ELEVATE to increase transparency in the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh by deploying its proven Laborlink worker survey tool to collect data on working conditions and forced labour risks faced by workers in informal factories. Building on the successful deployment of this tool in formal factories, ELEVATE has customized this anonymous and mobile-based worker survey tool for deployment in informal garments factories.

Deployment was focused in Keraniganj and Narayanganj, two apparel production hubs dense with informal factories, typically orienting production for the domestic apparel market. The Laborlink identifies child labor and workers at risk of forced labor, which ELEVATE referral operators (Amader Kotha Helpline) follow-up with. If this tool is found to be applicable, informal RMG workers in Bangladesh – currently hidden from view – will have an anonymous tool to give direct feedback on exploitive working conditions, and the project will connect them to pertinent information and resources required to remove them from situations of forced and child labour.

To see findings of our “First Look” Case Study, download the report:

Case Study 2: SafeStep

Country: Bangladesh

Sector: Ethical Recruitment

Project Description: GFEMS funded ELEVATE to design and develop a mobile application called SafeStep to ensure transparent and accountable overseas migration for Bangladeshi workers looking to migrate to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Middle East countries for work. The app is designed to provide pre-decision and pre-departure migration information for workers aspiring and/or planning to go abroad. The app currently offers five main features to its users:

  1. User profile
  2. E-Learning
  3. Migration Checklist and Document Library
  4. Budget Calculator
  5. Help Center

To see our early assessments for intervention effectiveness, download the report.

Case Study 3: Predictive Analytics

Country: India

Sector: Apparel, Ready-made Garments

Project Description:

Under this innovation-focused project, GFEMS funded the ELEVATE team to increase visibility into unauthorized subcontracting and the risk of forced labour practices in apparel supply chains in India. The project will develop a data-driven predictive tool to engage brands in detecting and mitigating forced labour and its risk in their supply chain(s). The completed tool will be used in conjunction with remediation plan to bolster brands’ efforts to reduce the risk of unauthorized contracting and forced labour violations. ELEVATE’s predictive analytics tool will increase brands’ visibility into unauthorized subcontracting and therefore, their vulnerability to forced labour in their supply chains. The predictive tool is built on ten years of social audit data from ELEVATE’s existing clients in India’s apparel sector.

To see findings of our “First Look” Case Study, download the report:

If adopted by enough stakeholders, this innovative buyer-supplier engagement platform will be transformative.

First Look: Improving Buyer-Supplier Engagement to Disrupt Forced Labor in Apparel

GFEMS is working with Social Accountability International (SAI) to develop an innovative buyer-supplier engagement platform to improve buyer purchasing practices and supplier capacity/production planning in India’s ready-made garment industry, with the intent of interrupting factors that drive forced and bonded labor. GFEMS has partnered with the Athena-Itad consortium to review this intervention.

Within this project, SAI seeks to address issues related to ordering and capacity in a supply chain via a comprehensive platform that helps suppliers, including those at the lower-tiers, improve their production-capacity planning and labor practices. In turn, suppliers will gain access to buyers who commit to provide business incentives. The key component of this innovation-focused project is the Supplier Capacity Platform that includes:

  • A production capacity calculator that incorporates an expanded set of indicators such as worker productivity, skill levels, and shift optimization to help estimate production capacity and improve planning on the buyer as well as the supplier side
  • Methods to quantify the effects of purchasing practices on supplier production capacity, to help buyers and suppliers better predict supplier capacity and the likelihood of sub contracting.

On this platform, suppliers can showcase their business capabilities and report their production capacity and buyers can book capacity and ensure that their order does not overextend a factory.

This “first look” case study measures progress towards sustainable model for reduction of the prevalence of modern slavery and will inform the scalability and efficacy of the intervention.

To learn more about the outcomes of the case study, download the report.

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