An informal garment factory located on the outskirts of the center of Dhaka.

A new report on female apparel workers in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia shows how one region can take inspiration from another.

According to the report, titled “Workers Diaries,” there are the wage comparisons to begin with, but then there are issues about overtime; how much of workers’ wages are spent on food and other necessities, and living and working conditions, leading to some important insights, especially for policy makers and global brands and retailers.

The report was based on a study by a team of researchers who visited 180 workers in each of the three countries every week for a year.

“We think there does not exist such a data set that policy makers, brands, factories, unions and workers themselves can use to discuss changes in the way in which the supply chain works to improve the lives of garment workers,” Guy Stuart, executive director at Microfinance Opportunities, told WWD. Microfinance Opportunities is a global nonprofit committed to understanding the financial realities of low-income households. The company collaborated with the C&A Foundation and Fashion Revolution on the research.

The report features stories from industry workers, and is backed up with data, graphs and an analysis of the living and working conditions in the three countries, concluding that female workers in India fared the best in the overall comparison.

The wages in Cambodia were found to be the highest among the three countries, at an hourly rate of 3,500 riels (the equivalent of $2.53 in purchasing power parity), followed by an hourly rate of 39.68 rupees (the equivalent of $2.27 in purchasing power parity) in India and Bangladesh with an hourly rate of 28 taka (the equivalent of 95 cents in purchasing power parity).

The average time working each week differed as well: in Bangladesh, the average work week was 60 hours; in Cambodia, it averaged 48 hours, and in India, the average was 46 hours.

“So the story is a complex one,” Stuart explained. “And that is something to note, that for example in India there is production going on during the regular eight-hour day compliant to the minimum wage, in comparison with Bangladesh, where the laws are being broken on both overtime and minimum wages. But in India there is an extraordinary production pressure put on the workers during those work hours. So you see more instances of women in India saying that they’ve been insulted or humiliated in front of others during the work hours in comparison to Bangladesh and Cambodia. Overtime is a little higher in Cambodia than in India, but overtime is used by the factories in Cambodia to exert some pressure on the workers because workers want to work some overtime to have the extra money.”

It wasn’t just that Bangladeshi women earned about half what the women in the other two countries earned, but rather that they earned less than the minimum hourly wage 64 percent of the time and there was significant evidence to suggest that the more they worked, the less they earned. Outside of work, men controlled earnings that were spent on basics like food and rent and rarely improved a household’s quality of life.

In Cambodia, despite earning the minimum wage and supplementing their income with overtime hours, most workers still faced financial strain, and at certain points throughout the year this resulted in limited access to quality food and medical care. Cambodian women reported that in addition to financial stress they faced a stressful work environment — 77 percent reported not feeling safe in their factory and 40 percent witnessed a fire. More than half of participants were, at most, only somewhat confident that they could access an emergency exit if needed.

India’s workers — a sample of export-oriented factory employees in the southwest of Bangalore — typically earned the legal minimum wage or higher and paid into pension and state insurance programs.

The research will continue in coming years.

Going forward, Stuart said that the focus this year would be an “expanded, scaled-up” study on female apparel workers in Bangladesh over the next year, in partnership with the C&A Foundation and South Asian Network on Economic Modeling.

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