|Photo Saleem Samad: Women work at a garment factory in|
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Cheap clothes have helped fuel social revolution in Bangladesh
STEPHANIE NOLEN in
The news that Joe Fresh sourced clothes from a factory in a building that collapsed outside
Dhaka this week – killing at least 300
workers and injuring as many as 1,000 more – brought the price of cheap fashion
into sharp focus for Canadians.
The immediate reaction of many was to vow to boycott the store, an understandable response.
But I’m not sure it’s the best one.
garment industry is ridden with appalling labour practices. The fire at the
Tazreen Fashion factory in November that left charred piles of young women’s
bodies heaped at the fire exits – which were locked – reminded us of that. I’ve
visited factories that were so dimly lit the workers stitched Gap-bound shorts
hunched over, squinting at the seams. I’ve seen factories where the windows
were sealed and the industrial fumes were strangulating. The workers, mostly
women, sewing clothes for H&M and Nautica and all the other stores in the
West make a few dollars a day, working 12-hour days. A despairing friend who
says she struggles to pay the price of Canadian-made clothes, or shop only at
the Maritime second-hand chain Frenchy’s, asked me this week if she had to “go
naked” in order not to feel guilty. Bangladesh
But our cheap clothes have helped fuel a social and economic revolution in
Bangladeshis do not want that to end. Bangladesh
Pressure from buyers works. Clients have pushed factories in Dhaka – and in
and other places where I’ve reported on the garment industry – to improve
labour and safety standards. Not great – they wouldn’t meet Canadian standards.
But they’re safer, and factory owners are constantly forced to reexamine. Maseru
Companies such as Nike and the Gap, high-profile bands that have been targets of movements like the Clean Clothes Campaign, have been forced to take an active interest in how their clothes are produced, and the factories that make them are correspondingly better than the ones that sew for brands that do not audit.
Two European brands that sourced from the building that collapsed this week were subject to close monitoring. The auditors had approved the working conditions – but it was not part of their brief to check the building. And the structure, we now know, was built without permits or inspections and on unstable ground. So this needs to be factored into expanded audit parameters.
The Bangladeshi state is weak – so is any state that has to rely such poorly paid jobs to build its economy – and the building owner is wealthy and politically connected. Of course, he didn’t have to have the factories inspected. The state will not enforce safety, but you as a consumer can demand it.
Is that better than boycotting the “Made in
” label? In Bangladesh Dhaka not long ago, I spent the day in a slum called
Korail, where I met many young women who work in the factories. Mini Akhtan
makes $65 a month working 72 hours a week, sewing shorts and pyjamas bound for
malls in Canada and the .
She hates the fact that her mother is raising her five-year-old son, whom she
sees only on Friday afternoons. United States
But Ms. Akhtan and her friends gave off a palpable sense that their life is different than it was five years ago – and a certainty that it will be quite different five years from now than it is today. Will they be rich? No. But maybe their kids will be at the private school. They will have saved enough from working at the garment factory to move back to the village and start a small shop. Or to buy a plane ticket to Bahrain to spend a few hard years doing construction work – and come back with savings to really shake things up. Ms. Akhtan is the first person in her family ever to have a formal job; her son, she said with total confidence, will be an engineer.
I asked her to show me the room she shares with her husband – it was small and wickedly hot. But it had electricity to power their one bulb and their fan. They share a piped water stand with six other families, and a latrine and a shower stand too.
And that’s another thing about the garment factories. They account for 75 per cent of
exports. And Bangladesh
is making massive inroads against poverty. It started from the nadir, so it
still has low literacy, poor health indicators, high corruption. But maternal
mortality has been cut in half in a decade. Ninety-five per cent of kids get
their vaccinations. Bangladesh
On every development indicator,
is trouncing India – even
though India’s economy is
growing twice as fast – and a big part of the reason is that women are driving ’s
growth. The garment factories have a mostly female work force (out of the
sexist conviction that they are more biddable and better with fine handiwork
like sewing.) Women with jobs and income get a bigger voice in their family
decisions; their children go to school, get vaccinated. In Bangladesh ’s boom,
almost no women have joined the work force – and you do not see as much social
progress as you do across the border. India
And get involved with Clean Clothes or a similar campaign working to shed light on that consumer chain. You don’t have to go naked. You can do more for Mini Akhtan and her family by buying “Made in
and finding out how much the worker who made your shorts was paid. Bangladesh