The second of two parts
DHAKA, Bangladesh — On the noisy work floor of Creative Collections, a garment factory that makes clothing for Western retailers, dozens of employees worked in lines sorting and stitching fabric on a July day. Others operated special machines that drew bright yellow embroidery into the back pockets of dark denim jeans.
Ha-Meem Group, one of the largest apparel makers in Bangladesh, owns the factory. The company touts the building’s safety features, including sprinklers. A 2010 fire at another of Ha-Meem Group’s factories, That’s It Sportswear, left 29 workers dead and prompted upgrades in safety companywide, officials said. That’s It Sportswear makes clothing for several large Western apparel companies, including Pittsburgh-based American Eagle Outfitters, which began contracting with the factory after the fire.
Ha-Meem Group workers said some things have changed; others have not. They’ve been trained in operation of fire extinguishers and helping to evacuate colleagues in the event of a fire, but they still routinely work more than 60 hours a week, the legal limit in Bangladesh. A system of double books sometimes conceals those extra hours, the workers said.
Employees, most of whom did not want their names used for fear of retribution, said their hours are tracked with a “finger-punch” machine that scans a fingertip to clock them in and out of the building, but one worker who was fired last year said the factory hid the extra overtime by having him clock out at 7 p.m. and then had him back working at his machine. His excess hours were tracked separately, he said.
“They used to tell us that this is the sheet we show the buyer,” said Mohammed Musa Khan, who said he was let go in March 2013 after a family emergency forced him to return to his village for a week. “If we show [the real hours] to the buyers, they will not give us work.”
Other workers said they clocked in and out usually with the “finger-punch” but that they signed two sets of pay sheets: one that indicated the hours they actually worked and a second that showed they worked only the legal amount of overtime.
The “official” sheet had a watermark of a water lily, Bangladesh’s national flower, said one woman, who did not want her name used for fear of being fired.
Their pay stubs did not show the extra overtime, but the workers said they were paid more than the stubs reflected. When brand managers from the Western retailers who contract with the factory arrive at the factory, one worker said supervisors instructed her to lie about her hours and her treatment if brand representatives interviewed her.
“We know what to say when the buyer visits the factory: … ‘There is no excessive overtime, and there is no scolding [or] verbal abuse,’ ” the 20-year-old said.
Delwar Hossain, a deputy manager with the factory group that owns That’s It Sportswear, denied there were two sets of time sheets. He acknowledged employees might have put in more than 60 hours a week on occasion as the factories were attempting to catch up on orders after labor and political unrest shuttered factories for more than two weeks last year.
“All [instances of extra overtime] are reflected in the same salary sheet and not in two,” he wrote in an email.
Gap and American Eagle, which had orders with That’s It Sportswear this summer, declined official comment for this story, but both have a “vendor code of conduct” that requires producers to comply with local labor laws.
American Eagle is aware that some factories use this practice to conceal overworking employees and addressed the issue head-on with factory management at That’s It Sportswear within the past year and told them they would not be penalized for overworking employees, even if it was in violation of labor laws that prohibit work weeks longer than 60 hours. The company has instead made it a priority to ensure employees get paid for their hours, and it’s difficult to do that when the factory is hiding time sheets.
It’s also why the company placed a staff person on the ground to interview workers outside of the factory, but the workers have an incentive to conceal the overtime. Without the extra overtime, the woman who discussed the extra hours said she made the equivalent of $110 in June. With it, she earned about $130 by working 40 additional hours illegally.
The Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights recently released a report on another Ha-Meem Group factory.
Next Collections is located next to That’s It Sportswear and was constructed to make up for the capacity lost at That’s It Sportswear after the fire. The report described a similar scheme of keeping track of excessive hours separately to hide overtime.
Employees at Next Collections told researchers they were regularly working more than 100 hours a week and that the factory was also shortchanging them their illicit overtime wages — the wages that are not tracked on their pay slips. The institute was told about the same type of practice at That’s It Sportswear.
Mr. Hossain said the problems at Next Collections have been corrected and attributed the overworking to worker disruptions that forced factories in Ashulia, the area where many factories are located, to close and fall behind on orders. He said the company has been vigilant about the problems exposed in the report at all its factories.
“After the report, we are pretty careful on that,” he said. “We have taken that lesson from that occurrence that we should not do these things.”
“We never do any extra overtime … or anything that is not in the law,” he said.
Workers, again, reported otherwise. One woman, who was working on an order of shirts for American Eagle Outfitters, reported working nearly 90 hours a week in May. She put in 10-hour days and 117 hours of overtime. Seven-day work weeks are also not uncommon, she said.
“I’ve had a very hard life. I’ve been working for [about] eight years, and I’ve worked nearly every day,” she said. “Here in Dhaka and in the future, life is only for work.”
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com, 916-320-4034 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Bangladesh-based journalists Mainul Islam Khan and Subir Das contributed.
This project was supported by the International Center for Journalists.