DAVE JAMIESON, EMRAN HOSSAIN and KIM BHASIN
Like millions of other young women in
Sumi Abedin forged her place in the modern economy at a sewing machine inside
an urban garment factory. Bangladesh
The ready-made garment industry now accounts for a whopping 80 percent of
exports, making the country the of
garments in the world. The explosive growth in business over the past two
decades has helped create more than 3.5 million garment jobs in the country,
particularly for women like Abedin, who, just a generation ago, may have had no
formal position in Bangladesh 's
Until recently, Abedin, 24, worked sewing pockets onto pants in the factory known as Tazreen Fashions, outside
Dhaka. She earned meager
wages by global standards -- roughly $55 a month, comparable to what other
garment workers in her country make. This cash was critical for the survival of
her family. Her father works as a rickshaw puller, and his earnings alone did
not cover food and other basic necessities. Their combined income was just
enough to support themselves and Abedin's mother.
But such opportunity comes with steep costs. Abedin knows people who paid for it with their lives.
Abedin no longer has a job. Last November, her factory , killing 112 people. She leaped from the third floor, breaking her right leg and left hand in the process. The young man who landed beside her died.
As proponents of expanded global trade are quick to highlight,
's stratospheric rise in
the apparel world has helped alleviate the country's grinding poverty. But in
Abedin's case, the boom has taken more than it's given. After losing her job,
she said, she was left with a payment of $150 from her employer, to cover back
pay and severance, and another $1,200, from a fund supported by Li and Fung
Ltd., a retail giant that contracted to have its clothes made inside the doomed
factory. Medical bills have already swallowed about three-quarters of that
money, and her doctor has told her she needs a year to recover before she can
hope to work again. Bangladesh
Along with other hardships, she carries the knowledge that more factory disasters have happened since her own and that even more will almost certainly happen in the future.
"We want a safe workplace," Abedin recently told HuffPost, speaking Bengali. Even before the fire, "the working conditions were poor in my factory. We were verbally and physically abused."
Bangladesh suffered what has been called the
world’s most deadly garment industry disaster -- the collapse of a factory
complex inside the Rana Plaza building in a suburb of Dhaka.
The tragedy, which took the lives of more than 1,100 workers, focused global
attention on a reality that Abedin and other workers said they already knew too
well: The garment trade in
is a dangerous enterprise rife with factory fires and other deadly calamities.
The industry has grown so rapidly that it has outpaced the government’s ability
to monitor and enforce workplace safety standards. Indeed, the growth appears
fueled in part by the government’s willingness to look the other way. Bangladesh
The substandard working conditions that Abedin and other garment workers have confronted are the byproduct of a globalization success story.
has transformed itself
into one of the world's leading exporters of clothing, generating millions of
jobs that have financed housing, basic nutrition and education for some of the
poorest people on earth. But this refashioning has been engineered through
means that labor advocates portray as fundamentally exploitative, by courting
foreign investors with some of the globe’s cheapest, most disenfranchised
Bangladesh made it possible mainly because of
its cheap labor force," said Mohammad Giasuddin, whose father launched one
of the first modern export of garments in . "And our laborers
are industrious and good at it." Bangladesh
When Giasuddin's father, Mohammad Reazuddin, sent his first shipment to
France in 1977, his effort was lampooned in a
newspaper cartoon that suggested fashion-forward would return the clothes to their
sender. Leading Paris
businessmen mocked the very idea of the country producing garments primarily
for Westerners. But Reazuddin and a small group of factory owners had the
benefit of cheap labor -- the wage of a factory floor worker was about $2 a
month then, Giasuddin recalled -- as well as the backing of the Bangladesh
Plenty of other countries in Asia and
Latin America have
abundant workers willing to work for little money. But hardly any countries
have wage floors quite as low as 's, and few have courted
and fostered the garment industry with such strategic coherence. Bangladesh
In the 1980s, the government put a new emphasis on economic growth through exports and direct foreign investment, particularly with the establishment of export processing zones, like the ones that are now home to the country's thousands of garment factories. The government also allowed for the duty-free import of machinery and raw garment materials.
"The government and industry leaders made a judgment that they could compete globally in the garment industry," said Michael Posner, the former
secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President Barack
Obama. "The infrastructure is weak. The government's enforcement of both
labor laws and safety laws is weak -- or non-existent in many places. And the
sourcing model for big companies has encouraged them to go to places where they
can produce things as cheaply as possible." U.S.
The garment industry would bring needed jobs to the country, putting wages into the pockets of Bangladeshis struggling to survive through agriculture. Farms had been split into ever-smaller parcels, while farmers themselves felt increasingly squeezed by the rising costs of power and fertilizer. Garment jobs were seen as a crucial source of earnings for the poor.
The factory owners' greatest asset was a largely untapped pool of labor -- rural women. For decades, women in predominantly Muslim areas outside of cities had been relegated to informal, indoor agricultural work that added modestly to their husbands’ monthly incomes. The new garment factories presented the opportunity for formal work that was religiously permissible for these women -- a marginalized and underprivileged class that happened to carry a long tradition of stitching and weaving. (It's likely that muslin, long a coveted fabric in European countries, originated in
With no labor organizations to contend with, the men who owned the factories could pay their workers very little, with only small concern for strikes or protests over working conditions. Even today, most supervisory roles in the factories are held by men. Women now make up of line workers.
"It was a classic situation of having all this surplus labor in rural areas," said Martha Chen, an expert on
at the .
"You had this huge pool of women who'd never done paid work, so they were
willing to work for nada. There was an extraordinary setup for it." Harvard Kennedy School
Even with such an abundance of low-wage labor, the furious growth of apparel-making in
over the past decade
would not have been possible without another element: The scrapping of a
complex system of trade quotas that effectively limited how much clothing any
one developing country could export to the wealthy world. Bangladesh
Exports of garments to the
and other Western countries used to be governed by something known as the Multi
Fibre Arrangement. Enforced by the World Trade Organization, the agreement
specified the number of polo shirts, blue jeans, blazers and other garments
that each developing country could send to the United States U.S.
The agreement was meant to function as a kind of aid, to poor countries like
But it also set production caps at a time when developed countries feared the
lower production costs of countries like Bangladesh Singapore
and South Korea, according
to Mark Anner, director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at . Penn State
The poorest countries, including
benefited from the arrangement. International companies manufacturing elsewhere
in the region, pressured by quota restrictions in their own countries,
gravitated toward nations like Bangladesh
because of the availability of cheaper labor. Bangladesh was also able to export
to the European Union duty-free and quota-free due to an exemption from the
World Trade Organization. Bangladesh
But that arrangement came to an end in 2004. Many observers assumed that the change would hurt
considered less competitive than other developing players at the time. By such
accounts, investment would exit nearly every country and rush into Bangladesh , which
presented its own low wages along with the largest workforce on the planet and
formidable infrastructure for trade, from modern ports, to highways and rail.
As the thinking went, poor countries like China would lose millions of
jobs and wind up even poorer. Bangladesh
China was under very tight constraints up until
the beginning of 2005,” said Pietra Rivoli, a professor of finance and
international business at , and author of
the book . “Everyone
was wondering if you take the constraints off of Georgetown
University , who's going to lose?“ China
But the end of the global quota system wound up proving a great boon for
Once the quota system was phased out, "it allowed for tremendous concentration in the industry," said Anner. "It just allowed companies to pick winners and losers."
But, over time, other winners emerged as well -- low-wage nations, such as
Pakistan, Vietnam and . Bangladesh
Production in the apparel industry tends to flow toward lower-wage countries because labor is such a large part of the process, and each worker requires only a low level of skill. It also requires basic infrastructure from reliable power supplies to transport facilities. While the fundamental industrial structure in
isn’t very efficient, it’s better than many of the other countries capable of
providing comparably low wages, said Rivoli. Bangladesh
Back in 1994, Bangladeshi workers had gained a hard-won minimum wage of roughly $11 per month, but that level remained in place for more than a decade. In 2006, workers took to the streets to demand an increase. Police mounted a bloody crackdown, arresting, beating and even killing workers. The result was a doubling of the official minimum wage to $22 per month. Against a backdrop of double-digit inflation, that increase did not go far. Three years ago,
again lifted the minimum wage, this time to about $37 a month. That’s where it
remains today, constituting one of the lowest minimum wages in the world. Bangladesh
"Talk to people in
China or India, and their perspective is that the pay
are abysmally low," said Alice Tepper Marlin, the head of Social
Accountability International, a non-profit that helps monitor overseas
factories in the garment industry. Bangladesh
"Desperately poor people are willing to work for wages that are way below the prevalent in neighboring countries.
"But without the apparel industry," Tepper Marlin added, "things would be worse."
Indeed, the rise of the garment industry has made many lives in
less miserable than they were previously, and not just in the growing urban
industrial hubs. Rural areas, too, have benefited from the growth in jobs,
particularly through the remittance of wages from the factories back to the
country, leading to what Chen described as "a revolution of a kind in the
The export boom has given rise to a new uber-wealthy class of
garment industry businessmen estimated at about 2,000, who collectively now
wield enormous influence over the national economy, policymaking and the media. Bangladesh
A prime example is Sohel Rana, the owner of the building that crumbled. Before his arrest, he was a local ruling-party political figure who loomed , as The New York Times reported. Despite the obvious structural cracks, Rana had claimed his building would stand "for a century."
Most businessmen-turned-politicians in the
parliament hail from the
garment industry, partly explaining the government's laissez-faire regulation
of factories. Their coziness with the country's newspaper owners also means
that worker discontent in garment plants goes largely unreported. The Bangladesh
collapse and its attendant protests were ultimately too large to ignore. Yet
even as the death toll rose to unprecedented numbers, accounts were buried
deeper and deeper inside domestic newspapers. Rana Plaza
The industry's fast rise has led to widespread corruption, evident in scandals like the . In that case, the owner of the garment-producing Hallmark Group siphoned more than $300 million from the state-owned Sonali Bank. By the time the scandal became public, Hallmark had already been formally honored by government officials for outstanding service to the country.
These industry captains' connections with government often shield them from consequences in deadly disasters. After 54 workers were burned alive at a factory overseen by garment company KTS in 2006, company managers were of culpable homicide, even though they admitted in court that they'd locked the factory gates from the outside after the fire had started to prevent worker theft.
No one was held to account after the Spectrum Sweaters factory , killing more than 60 workers, even though the company was in violation of its building permit.
"There's a lot of collusion between the government and the factory owners and the building owners," said Chen. "There are lots of layers of really cynical exploitation of these women."
Chen generally ascribed to the Nicholas Kristof on sweatshops -- that they're mostly a good thing, offering what Kristof described in a controversial column as "an escalator out of poverty."
"They aren't really desirable, but it's better than what they had," Chen said. "I can say 'two cheers' for everything but the lack of safety. That's just egregious."
Many of the workers themselves, however, have a hard time recognizing the garment boom as a great fortune, especially when they risk their lives extracting poverty wages from it.
"The garment business is profitable only for the owners," said Abu Bakar, a laborer who works in the dye department of a factory in the industrial zone of Gazipur. "You cannot imagine how we maintain a life on these earnings. We get nothing in comparison to what the [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] or the buyers or the owners get. We toil over eight hours, six days a week, only to make ends meet."
The recent disasters, combined with paltry wages and substandard working conditions, have crystallized deep resentment among Bangladeshi laborers, threatening social stability. Angry workers have filled the streets, calling for the deaths of both negligent factory owners and their political allies.
American and European apparel labels are weighing their options, cognizant that their brands are increasingly vulnerable to public relations debacles when their goods turn up inside factories that prove to be deadly workplaces.
This represents a new development in the relationship between the global companies and the factories that produce their wares in Bangladesh, said Daniel Diermeier, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University, and author of When retailers first established supplier relationships inside the country, he said, they were chiefly concerned with finding factories that could make what they needed on time and at the lowest prices.
“The whole issue of human labor practices and justice issues were not part of the decision process.” Diermeier said. “It wasn't on the radar.”
At first, retailers treated deadly events in
as isolated incidents, Diermeier said. But that has changed in recent years, as
their customers have gained awareness about the provenance of their products. Bangladesh
When public opinion turned on Nike in the 1990s after revelations of adolescents working in sweatshops, much of the industry instituted checks for child labor. New requirements for building standards never made it into those codes.
Now, in the aftermath of the
disaster, global apparel labels
are devoting substantial energy to protecting their reputations. A group of
major European brands has pledged to abide by a legally binding package of
factory standards aimed at improving workplace safety in Rana Plaza .
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has declined to participate in that
effort while announcing its own program to boost worker safety. Bangladesh
But labor rights groups have questioned the efficacy of these efforts. If American and European retailers come to view the “Made in Bangladesh” label as emblem of exploitation, that may prompt global brands to pursue a simpler course: They may leave the country altogether, shifting their orders to factories in other low-wage countries that -- at least for now -- lack the taint of headline-capturing industrial catastrophes.
“It’s easy to move,” explained Rivoli. “All you really need is sewing machines. It's not as if you're building an auto factory.”
If the industry does uproot, that would be a significant setback for
, said Rivoli. In the
traditional pattern of industrial development, the textile industry tends to be
first, followed by the expansion into other industries. Once the industry booms
and the nation advances to more complex endeavors, such as electronics and
automobiles, the apparel industry shrinks, as it did in China. Bangladesh
hasn’t reached that point yet. Bangladesh
Posner said he believes leaving the country is a mistake for retailers as well. If companies search the globe for comparably cheap labor, they'll end up in regions where human rights records or government safety enforcement are just as dubious, such as
He said he'd prefer that large apparel players remain in Burma
while committing themselves to making the factories safe and the wages
"They're kind of running out of road," Posner said of the Western brands. "But I can guarantee you, someone is looking right now."
Many people in
fear the exit of Western brands, from factory owners down to line workers.
Though the conditions may be oppressive, for many laborers the garment business
provides their only hope of a nominal wage. They would rather see the industry
stay and raise its standards. Bangladesh
Bakar, the dye worker, understands this trade-off all too well. After several years toiling in the garment industry without a raise, he quit his job in 2008 in quiet protest.
But after six hopeless months of looking for work, he was back inside a garment factory in order to survive. He may feel exploited by the system, but he prefers it to the alternative.
"Without the garment business,” Bakar said, “thousands and thousands of poor people would be jobless."
First appeared in The Huffington Post, May 23, 2013
Dave Jamieson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Emran Hossain, email@example.com
Kim Bhasin, Kim.Bhasin@huffingtonpost.com