The big story
As women in Bangladesh endure terrible working conditions in the hope of giving their children a better future, we look at the human cost of cheap clothing.
Her throat was sore from thirst and crying. She couldn’t feel her legs or move her toes and she was convinced she was going to die all alone, in the dark, crushed by a pillar that had fallen on her. One moment Moyna had been operating a sewing machine. The next the 30-year-old was buried under rubble as the eight-storey commercial building, Rana Plaza, near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, simply crumbled in April this year. It had collapsed when vibrations from a generator brought down the illegally built upper floors of the NewWave Style factory, where she worked, on to the workshops below.
Trapped for almost 36 hours without food, water or any human contact, Moyna had given up screaming for help after a few hours. It was the thought of her two children, her son Rabbi, eight, and three-year-old daughter Sumya, that kept her awake amid the darkness and choking dust. “I had always felt helpless living and working under such trying conditions here,” she said later after being rescued by workers who had broken through the concrete slabs that had held her captive. “But I had never felt such a sense of despair as I felt lying there.”
Today, Moyna still cannot walk. With her left thigh shattered and requiring expensive surgery that she cannot afford, she fears she may never be able to earn a living again. “I sent my children to live in the countryside with my mother because I had to work so many hours,” the single mother says. “Now I have no income. How will I raise my children? Our lives have collapsed like the building itself.”
Abandoned by her husband, Moyna had gone to work at the factory, hoping for a better life. She had earned about Dh142 a month,
The factory owners’ greed killed more than 1,100 people and seriously injured thousands more
which kept her and her family just above the poverty line. The factory she worked in, like the other five in the building, was worse than a sweatshop. “We had to work 16 hours a day, and were treated badly, but at least I was earning something and my children were going to school,” she says.
She hadn’t, however, expected the $20 billion garment industry she and 4 million Bangladeshi work in to almost kill her. She now realises that her bosses, and the world-famous fashion labels that had appeared as saviours when her family had been starving, had been exploiting her and the millions like her.
The owners’ greed killed more than 1,100 people, mainly female garment workers, and seriously injured thousands more when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka, on April 24 this year. The building housed four garment factories; New Wave Bottoms, NewWave Style, Phantom Apparels and Ether Tex. The building itself had been constructed illegally, four storeys higher than it had planning permission for. Bangladeshi media reported that inspectors had discovered cracks in the building the day before the collapse and had requested its evacuation and closure. The shops and a bank on the lower floors had closed immediately, but garment workers were told to return to work the following day. Managers at Ether Tex reportedly threatened to withhold a month’s pay from workers who refused to come to work.
Ironically, two of the factories – NewWave Style and Phantom Apparels – in the building had previously been audited by the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), a businessled audit organisation used by more than 1,000 retailers and brands. The BSCI inspects factories and textile units to analyse whether they follow international standards of safety and worker welfare measures. The retailers and brands who buy from such factories can look at their database to see if they comply with their standards.
Despite these audits the risks had not been identified and nothing was done to prevent the lack of safety measures in the Rana Plaza building.
It has taken a tragedy of this scale to finally strip away any remaining illusions that cheap clothes don’t come with a serious price-tag – violation of human rights. The Rana Plaza tragedy, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
A country where growth has stagnated
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries of the world – in excess of 150 million, according to a 2011 survey. It has multiple issues that stagnate its growth, such as endemic poverty, political instability, corruption, overpopulation and vulnerability to climate change. The worst among them is the lack of economic development in the country.
Added to this are an infrastructure that is underdeveloped, a transportation network that is inefficient, and floods and cyclones in the monsoon season that slow down and often reverse any progress made. The developed world had a good reason for wanting to write
it off, until the 1990s when foreign buyers in Europe, and later the United States realised the feasibility of sourcing the production of their goods, mainly clothes, there cheaply. International brands such as Primark, Walmart The Children’s Place, Hennes and H& M came in throngs, and soon most of their clothes had a ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag.
Today, the garment industry in Bangladesh accounts for nearly four-fifths of its total export revenue, making it an indispensable part of the growing economy. There are 5,600 garment factories in the country. Women form more than 85 per cent of this workforce. In a highly patriarchal society it is also a big deal that they are allowed to work.
But there is nothing to celebrate. No glass ceilings are being broken here. Working conditions in these factories for the women and few men employed here are unthinkably inhumane. The buildings lack sufficient space, light or even clean drinking water. Working hours are excruciatingly long. Workers are forced to drudge for extra hours – either to meet the ruthless manufacturing demand or because they need the extra money.
In such horrendous circumstances, workers fall ill repeatedly. Physical, verbal and especially sexual harassment is rampant within the workforce.
With 86 to 92-hour weeks, workers earn just 21 to 25 cents (around 90 fils) an hour. They are prohibited from speaking during working hours, and if they do so, they are beaten. Supervisors throw garments in the women’s faces, cursing at them to work faster. Not only are these people abused, exploited and manhandled, but the factory owners are powerful enough to forbid them from organising labour unions, something commonly found in other industries in Bangladesh.
Such ironclad controls, and especially the utter disregard for basic safety, are exactly what prevent workers from escaping disasters such as tragic fires or the collapse of overstressed buildings – a common story in the country’s textile sector.
Often, workers are locked for endless hours inside the factories in order to prevent theft. Even when doors are not bolted, workers are under the strict dictates of factory managers and owners. They have no say in the decision regarding when they come in or go out.
Anti-poverty campaignerWar onWant says that Bangladesh is basically a “huge sweatshop for theWest”. The country’s garment factories cater to international conglomerates, which derive large profits by utilising an extremely cheap labour force. But they pay an absolute pittance for the high production figures that emanate from there.
A report from the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a US-based NGO that works for workers’ rights globally, accuses European and Australian retailers of a hands-off policy as women sewing their garments at the Northern Fashion factory, about 15km from the Rana Plaza disaster site, “are cheated of their maternity benefits, beaten, forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day for just 21 cents an hour, while being trapped in miserable and rat-infested slums”. The factory supplies to the Australian label, Forever New, and the UK’s New Look.
There are 1,300 workers in the Northern Fashion factory. One of them is Rina Begum. While Rina, 21, a sewing machine operator from Kashimpur, was pregnant, she was forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, leaving no time for prenatal care. She stopped working in her eighth month of pregnancy, requesting maternity leave. But she was fired, without being given any severance benefits. Her son arrived a month later, delivered by a midwife at her house.
“But Imran lived just two days and died on July 28, 2011,” says a grieving Rina. The child could not breathe properly, cried constantly and was bleeding from his navel. “If we had the money from my maternity benefits, we could have possibly saved him,” she says.
When Rina’s husband Sayad Jamal, who also worked at Northern Fashion, pleaded with management for his wife’s maternity leave and benefits, he too was fired and thrown out without any of his back wages.
Such stories are all too common in Bangladesh’s sweatshops. Not surprising then that disasters occur at regular intervals. In November last year, there was a fire at the
Tazreen Garments factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. The casualties went up to 112 in that incident. Then, too, international stakeholders were identified, as burnt labels were found bearing names ofWestern brands, such as Walmart and the Dutch company C& A.
In 2006, a fire at a garment factory in Chittagong, about five-and-a-half hour drive south from Dhaka, caused the loss of 83 workers, some of them girls barely in their teens.
Moral corporate responsibility, if there is such a thing, simply does not figure here, with the lives and livelihoods of Bangladeshi workers left in the hands of callous, ruthless factory owners, sub-contractors and other middlemen.
Quintessentially, this lack of empathy from all sides has meant that the cost of the cheap clothing we buy is actually the suffering of those who consumers never see. They are nothing more than a figure that is quoted in the news when a catastrophic tragedy hits a garment factory in Bangladesh.
Steps to reduce Bangladeshi footprint
But since the Rana Plaza devastation, pressure on international stakeholders has mounted. Bad publicity has resulted in calls to abandon these factories altogether. Companies such as Nike have backed down, seeking to ‘reduce the Bangladesh footprint’, according to its president of sustainable business.
TheWall Street Journal has reported on a new deal being finalised byWalmart, Gap and some other retailers such as Macy’s Inc and Sears Holdings Corp, for doing business in Bangladesh. This will include a $50 million (Dh183-million approximately) fund to boost safety measures at garment factories in Bangladesh, the newspaper said.
The Rana Plaza tragedy has turned the heat on the Bangladeshi government, with mounting calls for a revision of the minimum wage. According to labour organisations in the country, the living wage should be $60 (Dh220) per month but factory workers are paid as little as $36 per month.
There are promises of an increase in the minimum wage, with the Bangladeshi government said to have formed a committee to study the proposal. Factory owners, who say they cannot pay up, oppose the initiative. They claim the cost of this pay rise will ultimately be transferred to the consumer, who is accustomed to the ‘buy one, get one free’ culture. “But a minute price increase of 2-3 per cent cannot be a reason that justifies the loss of even a single life,” says War on Want.
Trade activists have been calling for wages in ThirdWorld countries, and specifically Bangladesh, to be raised to meet those in theWest. But it might not be in the workers’ best interests, causing Western companies to rethink the profitability of sourcing their products from there. This would mean a return for many of the workers to subsistence agriculture, or work as household help – jobs that pay far less than even $1 per day.
The answer does not lie in boycotting products from Bangladesh. “Multinationals can play an instrumental role in pressuring Bangladesh to make its garment industry more transparent and accountable,” says an Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights report. “The government will not risk losing the foreign earnings derived from global textile exports. Regulatory bodies must be coaxed into forging changes that bring local laws on par with those of the ILO (International Labour Organisation). These must include laws pertaining to minimum wages, working conditions, and the design and infrastructure of the buildings where these factories are housed.”
The outcome can only be positive, if the garment industry of Bangladesh is based on a fair governance model.
At present the workers have no such hope. Twenty-year–old Jasmine Sultana, who worked as a sewing machine operator for NewWave Style on the sixth floor of the Rana Plaza building, was trapped under rubble for more than nine hours before being rescued.
“We were rushing down as the building started collapsing when a huge iron bar came crashing on my back and rendered me immobile,” she says. “I thought the nine hours in the pitch dark of the rubble I was buried under without human contact or water were the worst of my life. But now when I still can’t walk after initial treatment for my broken back and can’t go to work, it is even worse. I have my parents to look after in the village. I wonder if I will ever be able to lead a normal life.”
Twenty four-year-old Bilkees Begum, a sewing machine operator in the same company, was relatively lucky. She hurt her left leg. “It will take time for my wounds to heal, especially without any medical aid,” she says. “I have a five-year-old daughter to look after. Both of us live on the income that I make working at New Wave Style. How will we survive? How will I send my daughter to school?
“I hope nobody meets such a dangerous suffocating moment in life. I could have died like many of my colleagues. But Allah gave me a new life. The government, management and buyers should seriously look to the safety of the workers. We make clothes for foreigners with our sweat and blood. They should think of our security and safety. We are human beings, and we have the right to have a safe workplace for our future and for our children.”
Beneath this mountain of mangled steel and concrete were the bodies of 1,100 people. The building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, housed garment factories when it collapsed in April this year. Army personnel, the fire service and volunteers hunted for survivors, as desperate families waited for news of loved ones
Cheap clothes cost lives, as these families know to their cost. A victim’s mother and sister, top left, grieve for their loved one, who perished in the Rana Plaza collapse, (centre top). Women form 85 per cent of the garment factory workforce, meaning grandmothers care for babies as mothers work, and poverty is endemic
Missing, presumed dead – the depth of despair these three words bring is seen in the faces of these women, who lost a relative in the collapse of Rana Plaza