Statement: Oxfam Stands with Bangladeshi Garment Workers

Oxfam stands in solidarity with the Bangladeshi garment workers, activists, trade unions and worker representatives who advocate for increasing the minimum wage to Tk. 23,000 per month. We strongly urge all international fashion brands that source from Bangladesh to support trade unions’ demands for an increased minimum wage, particularly Canadian fashion brands like Joe Fresh, Lululemon and Roots. 

We are deeply concerned about the violent attacks by police against peaceful worker protests in Bangladesh. The mounting violence is unfolding as garment workers rightfully demand fair negotiations to increase their minimum wage from Tk 8,000 to Tk 23,000, at this time of serious economic stress both nationally and globally. We mourn the loss of Rasel Howlader, a garment factory worker, who was shot dead by police earlier this week. Several labour organizers have been unjustly arrested and some union federation offices have been forced to shut down, while hundreds of garment workers have been injured.  

This year’s minimum wage revision is unfolding in a challenging environment for workers and the labour rights movement in Bangladesh, with tensions rising due to the upcoming national election. The tragic murder of trade unionist Shahidul Islam in June serves as a stark reminder of the oppressive conditions under which these wage negotiations are taking place. During the last round of minimum wage negotiations in 2018, one worker lost their life, dozens were injured and thousands lost their jobs.  

On October 22, 2023, the employer representatives submitted a proposal to the Minimum Wages Board to increase the minimum wage to only Tk. 10,400, less than half of what trade unions are calling for. Bangladesh trade unions, worker representatives and civil society organizations expressed their concern about this situation and have issued a public statement in response to the employer representatives’ proposal. The employers’ association, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), issued a warning that its members would temporarily close factories if the unrest continues. Oxfam perceives BGMEA’s ‘no work no pay’ position as a pressure tactic to weaken support for an increase in the minimum wage.   

Key Facts: 

  • The minimum wage for the women who make our clothes in Bangladesh has remained unchanged since 2019 at Tk. 8,000 per month (US $73). Meanwhile, the cost of living has significantly risen due to inflation, with food prices increasing by 21% to 50% between 2022 and 2023.  
  • The current minimum wage (Tk. 8,000) is only 35% of what workers should be paid to receive a living wage. A living wage, which should be earned within 48 hours/week, should at least cover nutritious food, housing, utilities, healthcare, childcare, education, clothing, transportation and other essential needs, including savings for unexpected events.  
  • Based on a thorough cost of living study conducted by the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies (BILS), any wage below Tk. 23,000 will not be enough to enable workers to support themselves and their dependents.  
  • The trade union demand closely aligns with the Global Living Wage Coalition
  • During the official visit of the UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to Bangladesh in May, he addressed the issue of poverty wages and highlighted all workers have a right to remuneration, which provides them, at a minimum, fair wages and a decent living for themselves and their families.  

Oxfam strongly urges fashion brands in Canada that are sourcing from Bangladesh to make a public statement supporting union demands to increase the minimum wage to Tk. 23,000 and calling on the government of Bangladesh to include all relevant stakeholders in minimum wage negotiations, ensuring the safety of all trade unionists, activists and garment workers.  

Stitch for Change: Uniting for Fair Fashion

By Mwangala Matakala

On a bright Friday in Vancouver, Oxfam Canada joined forces with youth-led organizations, Threading Change, Remake, and Stand.Earth, to organize the Stitch for Change Challenge. Our mission? To highlight the urgent need for transparency in the fashion industry. 

As the sun rose in the crisp blue sky after a week of rain and clouds, our dedicated volunteers and campaigners gathered at the iconic Aritzia flagship store on Robson Street. Dressed in our unmistakable “Reveal the Chain” t-shirts, we carried sewing kits, brochures, and an unwavering determination for economic fairness.

We kicked off the day with a clear sense of purpose. Stitching is, after all, an act of creation and connection, and we were here to connect the stories of the women who make clothes for top Canadian brands like Aritzia, Herschel, Joe Fresh, Lululemon, and Roots with the people who wear them. 

Watch a video of our Stich for Change event in Vancouver on September 29, 2023

Secrecy in Numbers 

The garment industry is a lot more opaque than any of these brands let on, with major fashion brands outsourcing their production and often not disclosing their supply chain information. This lack of transparency restricts consumers’ knowledge about where and how garments are made and the wages paid to workers. 

Aritzia maintains an opaque sourcing system with no public information on who their suppliers are. Why is Aritzia keeping its supply chain and factory list such a big secret?

Nirvana Mujtaba, Women’s rights policy specialist, Oxfam Canada

The answer is in the numbers. In Asia, the women who make our clothes earn as little as $4-11 per day. The top executives of Canadian fashion brands? Over $27,000 per day. It takes a Cambodian garment worker over 100 years to earn what Aritzia’s CEO, Jennifer Wong, makes in just one month!

And so, the message we’re sending out with Stitch for Change is clear: it’s high time for transparency and fair wages.

The What She Makes Stitch for Change Challenge in Vancouver
Stitch for Change Challenge in Vancouver

Final Stitches and Future Threads

As the sun went down, we completed our final stitches of the day, but the thread of change we’ve woven continues to grow. The Stitch for Change Challenge in Vancouver vividly illustrated the power of unified voices.

Mwangala Matakala, Oxfam Canada campaigner for What She Makes
Mwangala Matakala, Oxfam Canada campaigner for What She Makes

What began as an idea has transformed into a movement driven by individuals who care, demand transparency, and believe that every stitch in a piece of clothing should be a stitch in the fabric of a fair and just fashion industry.

The Stitch for Change Challenge was a snapshot capturing what it means to stand up for what’s right. But our journey continues. The online petition remains live until November 10, 2023, and our determination to Reveal The Chain remains unshaken.

Please sign it here, and don’t forget to share it with your networks!

A huge THANK YOU to everyone who joined us on this journey and those who continue to do so. I look forward to a future where every stitch represents progress, every signature represents hope, and every garment worker is afforded a life of dignity and fairness. Together, we stitch for change.

What She Makes Campaign Brief

The fashion industry is huge and glamourous, but it is built on the backs of millions of women who live in poverty despite working countless hours making the clothes we wear. Canadian clothing brands take part in the systemic exploitation of workers by allowing poverty wages to be paid in many of their supplier factories. Canadian brands have a responsibility to pay enough for workers to live on – a living wage.

The women who make our clothes are paid such paltry wages – as little as 60 cents per hour in countries like Bangladesh – that they live in dismal conditions, fall into spiraling debt, and cannot afford the healthcare and education they and their families need. They are paid less than half of what they need to live a decent life.

Access to dignified work is a human right and a fundamental pathway out of poverty. Canadian brands must commit to paying a living wage to the women who make our clothes.

Download our campaign brief to learn more.

Milestone Two: Being Transparent

Our What She Makes campaign calls on Canadian fashion brands to ensure the women who make our clothes are paid a living wage. This backgrounder describes why supply chain transparency is an important step in the runway to paying living wages and improving labour practices in the fashion industry.

The brand tracker includes four milestones:

  1. Making a commitment: As a first step, brands should make a public commitment to pay a living wage in their supply chain within four years and publish it on their website. 
  2. Being transparent: Brands should be transparent, disclose their full supply chain and publish the following information on their website: full name of factories and processing facilities, site addresses, parent companies, types of products made and number of workers. 
  3. Publishing plans: Brands should develop and publish a step-by-step strategy outlining how and when it will achieve its commitment to pay workers a living wage and meet all requirements with clear milestones and targets. 
  4. Paying a living wage: Within four years of making a commitment, brands should be paying a living wage in their supply chains. This requires collaboration, consultation, and public reporting on their progress. 

Companies will score green, amber, or red depending on the actions they have taken concerning each milestone. We assess brands’ scores by considering a set of indicators outlined under each milestone. A green score on the brand tracker shows that the brand has fulfilled all elements outlined within a milestone. Amber shows that the brand has taken some action and red illustrates that the company has not taken any action. 

Download the guide below to learn more about milestone two, being transparent.

Leader Or Laggard?

By Lauren Ravon and Marty Warren

Adopting human rights and environmental due diligence legislation would help to advance Canada’s feminist foreign policy goals and gender equality measures in aid, trade, diplomacy, and defence.

Canada is facing a major test of its human rights and feminist credentials. Will the government put effective safeguards in place to ensure Canadian companies proactively respect human rights and the environment abroad?

Our friend and colleague Kalpona Akter, a lifelong labour activist in the Bangladesh garment sector, has told us, “If my mum had received a wage we could live on, I wouldn’t have had to toil in a factory from the age of 12.”

Akter’s story is not unique, and living-wage violations are not the only human rights violations to occur in the fashion world. When the women who make our clothes try to form a union or ask for a raise, their jobs are at risk. Nine out of 10 workers in Bangladesh don’t make enough money to live on or afford food for their families. The women who make our clothes make poverty wages while the profits of Canadian fashion brands soar.

It’s promising that Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan’s mandate letter commits to “introduce legislation to eradicate forced labour from Canadian supply chains and ensure that Canadian businesses operating abroad do not contribute to human rights abuses.” The minister has made supply chain legislation his priority and is currently studying existing private members’ bills tabled in Parliament.

The question is: what kind of legislation will stop the abuse? Learning from other jurisdictions provides some insights.

Robust and comprehensive legislation must include the full range of human rights and have clear consequences for bad behaviour. Effective due diligence is not achieved through voluntary measures, reporting-only laws, or box-ticking compliance exercises. Canadian companies operating or sourcing abroad must be legally obligated to identify, prevent, mitigate, and provide remedies for all human rights violations and environmental damage caused by their operations.

Bill C-262, the Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights Act, currently before Parliament, meets global standards on mandatory human rights due diligence. It would ensure that Canadian companies across economic sectors proactively respect human rights and would help create a level playing field for business.

Another bill is Senate public bill S-211 on modern slavery reporting, which just passed second reading in the House with government support. Forced and child labour are deplorable and evidence has shown that progress on their elimination has stalled. This modern slavery reporting bill taps into the abhorrence Canadians have for such exploitation, but unfortunately does not create the legislative framework or tools to combat it.

Incredulously, S-211 requires companies to report on whether forced or child labour exist in their supply chains, but does not actually create a legal obligation on companies to stop the practice or to remedy the situation if found. S-211 is modelled on a similar law in the U.K. The experience of other jurisdictions shows that legislation centred on reporting has proven ineffective in addressing egregious labour abuses in global supply chains.

Some might suggest to “not let perfect be the enemy of good.” But is S-211 good? Modern slavery acts and their reporting-only requirements have not brought the change they promised to bring. Adopting S-211 would be like buying a train ticket to nowhere and expecting to arrive at your destination.

If the government is serious on stopping human rights abuses, a bill must include all human rights, robust accountability, and pathways to remedy. As Akter demonstrated in the introduction, her rights as a child were intimately connected to the labour rights of her mother. We will not protect children and eliminate forced labour by ignoring the indivisibility of human rights or adopting measures that do not enforce accountability.

A country’s foreign policy is not limited to the actions of state institutions, such as its embassies and armed forces, but also includes the international operations and business dealings of the private sector. Adopting human rights and environmental due diligence legislation would help to advance Canada’s feminist foreign policy goals and gender equality measures in aid, trade, diplomacy, and defence.

Canada’s mining sector is active in at least 100 countries and Canadian retailers import apparel from every continent, depending on a workforce largely dominated by women. Without oversight of the private sector, the Canadian government risks harming some of its bilateral relationships and setting back its feminist foreign policy objectives.

We are entering a critical moment for corporate accountability in Canada. After years of failed half measures, it is high time we deal meaningfully with the conduct of Canadian business abroad. Let this be Canada’s coming of age and let us learn from the European Union, France, Germany, and Norway with ambition, urgency, and pride.

Our organizations and global partners, representing millions of workers and feminists, believe Canada can and must do the right thing. We need mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation in Canada. The time is now.

Human rights and accountability are non-negotiable.

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill Times on June 15, 2022.

Lauren Ravon is the executive director of Oxfam Canada. Marty Warren is the Canadian national director of the United Steelworkers.

Statement Of Solidarity

Oxfam stands in solidarity with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), trade union leaders and all human rights defenders who stand up for workers’ rights and protect human rights.

Oxfam learned of the horrific news of the brutal murder of Shahidul Islam, a union leader who was beaten to death on June 25th for his labour rights activism in Gazipur, a major garment industry hub on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He was an organizer of the BGIWF for 25 years advocating for workers’ rights as a trade union organizer, and was attacked and killed for standing up for basic human rights. We mourn not only the loss of an individual but also the loss of a powerful voice that championed the rights and well-being of workers, including the right to a living wage. We extend our sincere condolences to the grieving family, friends, colleagues and allies mourning his loss.

Kalpona Akter, the president of BGIWF, said: “Shahidul mobilised thousands of workers to join unions, empowering them to become solid factory-level trade union leaders. Throughout his life, he assisted thousands of workers in receiving arrears and severance pay wrongfully denied by their employers. With workers’ needs always in mind, Shahidul and three other union leaders met on the evening of his death to discuss a peaceful resolution to a wage dispute and the Eid-ul-Azha festival bonus. He met his fate due to the industry’s ill practice to promote yellow unionism for years and the neglect of workers’ voices. This needs to stop. Let our workers be free to organize and join unions. Shahid’s contributions to the labour movement were remarkable and will be sorely missed.”

Ahmed Sharif, a union organizer who was wounded in the attack, told the Guardian “As soon as we came out of the gate, a group of assailants grabbed Islam and separated him from us. They started cursing and randomly beating us, particularly Islam, some of them were kicking him mercilessly.”

As an organization dedicated to the fight to end poverty and injustice, we are deeply concerned by the murder of Shahidul Islam. This tragic incident highlights the vulnerability of union leaders and activists fighting for workers’ rights. Oxfam joins BGIWF in demanding a thorough investigation and ensure justice is served for the death of Islam. We further call on all brands and stakeholders to conduct ethical purchasing practices upholding human rights within their supply chain and paying a living wage. We call on the government of Bangladesh to step up their protection of trade unionists who are exercising their fundamental human rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Oxfam stands in solidarity with BGIWF, raising a resounding call for justice in the case of Shahidul Islam and demanding the unwavering safety of workers, union members and human rights defenders. We stand united in their relentless struggle to defend workers’ rights at Prince Jacquard Sweaters Ltd factory and in workplaces across Bangladesh. Together we demand accountability and an end to the systemic violations that perpetuate injustice.



Shahidul and his colleagues were attacked after leaving the meeting with the management of a factory named Price Jacquard Sweaters Ltd to help the workers collect their due bonuses and wages. The factory management refused to comply despite being directed by the Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) office of Gazipur District to pay the workers’ salaries.

This is not the first time BGIWF has been the victim of such a fatal attack. Eleven years ago, in April 2012, another worker leader, Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered. Aminul was also an organizer with BGIWF, a vital contributor to the nation’s striving movement to advance workers’ rights. The murders of human rights defenders exemplify the extreme measures employed to suppress freedom of association in Bangladesh.

The tragic death of Shahidul, along with countless incidents of other workers being silenced by violence and fear, highlight the urgent need for change. Brands are responsible for ethical business practices and need to ensure that their purchasing practices are not leading to exploitation and deprivation of human rights. Brands must guarantee the right to a living wage and just, safe and healthy working conditions for garment workers.

Despite legal provisions, union leaders and activists face many challenges and restrictions such as anti-union discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against union leaders and members. Additionally, labour activists have raised concerns about the composition and independence of worker participation committees in factories. Labour activists argue that these ‘yellow unions’ are established by factory owners to exert control on workers raising concerns of workers’ rights to collective bargaining and discriminatory power dynamics.

Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Australia and Oxfam Aotearoa’s What She Makes campaign aims to transform the fashion industry into a more just and equitable space by holding brands accountable for their purchasing practices and advocating for a living wage. A living wage is the minimum amount that a worker should earn in a 48-hour work week and adequately covers workers’ and their family’s basic needs, including food, water, housing, energy, healthcare, clothing, childcare, education, transportation and savings for unexpected events. We stand united with the women who make our clothes, advocating for their right to living wages, freedom of association and labour rights.