In the backstreets of Dhaka’s Mirpur precinct, towards the end of lunchtime on a Friday, streams of garment workers make their way back towards the gates of the factories where they produce clothing for the Global North for as little as 39 cents an hour.
These workers are the unseen faces behind the ridiculously low price tags attached to clothing marked “Made in Bangladesh” in discount department stores around the world.
As they pass, the women’s colourful sarees are striking. The overwhelming majority of garment workers in Bangladesh are women. Most have no idea how much money the clothes they make sell for, how expensive they would be for them to buy, or how cheap they are in our stores.
This isn’t the first time Western corporations have betrayed the textile workers of this region, historically known as Bengal. In the late 18th century, the ruling British East India Company forced Bengal to deindustrialise to rid it of the threat that Dhaka's superior cloth posed to Manchester’s textile industry.
Grave tragedies and brave mobilisations have led to a bettering of working conditions for some garment workers in Bangladesh over recent years. Yet, they are still far below expectations in the North. Rights advocates are now asking Western consumers to consider the face behind the price tag.
'We want jobs with dignity'
“Still buy the clothes that were made in Bangladesh — or any other producing country — because we need these jobs”, Bangladeshi Centre for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) executive director Kalpona Akter told me.
“But we want these jobs with dignity. And, as a consumer, you can do a lot of things to get that dignity.” We were in a meeting room at the BCWS office in downtown Dhaka. “For us, a dignified job is when we have rights or we are free to exercise rights.”
Akter began working in the 1990s at the age of 12 in a Dhaka sweatshop. Decades later, she has played a major role in empowering the nation’s garment workers. These days, she is no longer allowed inside the factories, but when she enters a room, her demeanour conveys authority and defiance.
“Buy the clothes. But, at the same time, ask more questions of the brands”, Akter recommended. “Tell them you want to know about the human faces who made the clothes. Consumers can ask the brands directly. And that can start at the store.”
Lack of pay, long hours, abuse
“If you’re talking about a $3 shirt that consumers in Australia are buying, they need to assume that the workers at the bottom of the chain are not even receiving 10 cents of that”, Akter made clear. “So, if you’re getting cheap clothes, workers are starving down the chain.”
This is one aspect to consider at the checkout. Another is long working hours. As Akter explained, “from the designing room to a High Street, the lead time is really short”. To keep to deadlines, it is not unusual for women to work from 8am to 11pm, with no overtime pay.
Gender-based violence and harassment also factor into the everyday working conditions these women face, as they toil away making shirts, trousers and skirts that end up on racks beneath fluorescent lighting in suburban Australia.
Akter pointed to recent research that found that 80% of garment workers in Bangladesh have either seen or been subjected to sexual violence or harassment in the workplace. That is why organisations like hers are pushing for the Bangladesh government to adopt the International Labor Organisation (ILO) 2019 Convention 190, which aims to bring about an end to this scourge.
“Culturally, we have been taught not to talk about any violence. It’s taboo”, Akter explained. “We are living in a culture where, if a woman is raped, the blame goes to them. It’s like, why did that man come to you? It’s your fault, woman.”
And for the most part, there is no help available for those women who have experienced sexual abuse in the workplace, according to research.
Lives at the end of the chain
The April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza brought the plight of Dhaka’s garment workers to the world stage. It was no secret that the building, which housed numerous clothing factories and about 5000 workers, was structurally unsound.
In the tragedy, 1138 people lost their lives. Many more were stuck beneath the rubble for days waiting to be dragged out. It happened just five months after a blaze in the city’s Tazreen Fashions factory took the lives of another 112 workers.
These disasters revealed the human cost of the global market’s unquenchable desire for “fast fashion”. They sparked international acknowledgement that something needed to be done to prevent impoverished workers from losing their lives just so those in the West could buy cheap shirts.
Less than a month after Rana Plaza, global brands, retailers and unions joined together to produce the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This agreement has proven effective. Today, workers no longer have to continue working as a crack in the factory wall grows wider.
“The Accord has made a phenomenal change in the last six years”, Akter said. “Not with all of the factories, but with 1600, which have 2.2 million workers. Those factories are safe.” She told me the Accord not only made factories safer, but it also strengthened the voice of workers.
Benefits of organising
Akter, along with two other former garment workers, formed the BCWS back in 2000. Today, the workers’ rights organisation has 93,000 solidarity members. I met two of them at the organisation’s office in Dhaka’s Rampura precinct.
The two women — 50-year-old Hena and 42-year-old Parul — both work at factories in the local area run by the same company. The pair are lucky because, since Rana Plaza collapsed, their workforces have unionised.
“Previously, we had problems around salary. They didn't pay on time, and they didn't pay overtime”, Hena explained. “But now these problems are solved. This happened after we formed the union. After that, we've had good relationships with management.”
Both women have worked in the industry for more than a decade. Parul came from a rural area, like 99% of those working in the city’s garment factories. She explained that, at first, the factory bosses didn’t appreciate their organising, but they got used to it.
“There were also infrastructure and safety issues”, Parul said. “BCWS taught us how to identify and deal with these issues. They provided us with training, including what we should do if a fire happens.”
BCWS was instrumental in campaigning for a 70% increase in the minimum wage for the local garment sector. It also played a role in the establishment of the Accord and it successfully pushed for international brands to pay compensation to the Rana victims.
“We did not know about our rights at first. We did not know how to achieve our rights”, Hena said. She explained that, despite their initial misgivings about unionising, the factory owners “have come to the realisation that the union also benefits” them.
If you’re walking the streets wielding a camera in the vicinity of the garment factories in Mirpur, be warned, security doesn’t appreciate it. Each time I lifted my lens to take a shot, a uniformed man hurried towards me waving his hands.
Garment production is a key industry in Bangladesh. Many of those making policy decisions on behalf of the nation are also involved in the trade.
Akter told me that without organisations like BCWS, workers would still be completely deprived of their rights. She explained that there is “a strong collusion between the manufacturers and the government”.