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.

Friday - - Contents -

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

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