By Tanwi Nandini Islam
April 24th marks the one-year anniversary of the deadliest garment industry accident in human history—the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Watching the horror unfold, by way of graphic, heartbreaking photographs, made me rethink everything I thought about Bangladesh’s robust garments economy, and my own relationship to fashion. For many of us, buying fast fashion is an easy way to look good for less, do a little retail therapy without breaking the bank.
Yet, after Rana Plaza, we had a lot of hard thinking to do. How could we possibly worry about the value of our clothes, when such a glaring disregard for the value of human life happened? "Made in Bangladesh," a phrase that should be a source of pride, of economic growth, has now become cause for a collective shudder. In the face of rubble and death, the resounding aftermath has been a call to unionize, compensate and ensure workplace safety.
Western brands’ connection to the tragedy was inextricable. To date, many of the retailers who were producing their garments at Rana Plaza have deposited a mere $17 million of the pledged $40 million relief fund, a.k.a. The Arrangement, to pay medical bills and lost wages to the survivors and families of the dead. Brands that have yet to pay the pledged amount include The Children’s Place, Walmart and JC Penney.
It's just one year later, and it seems as though Western interest is already diminishing.
This March, I had the chance to visit a garment factory in Badda, a neighborhood in Dhaka that felt more like a strip of nondescript businesses than a garment industry zone like Savar, where Rana Plaza once stood. I had little idea what to expect. Images of destruction, underage child labor and dilapidated structures are what we imagine—like Rana Plaza or the burnt remains of Tazreen.
Along with my sister and the head of operations, a man named Suleiman who reminded us of a Bangladeshi Chris Farley, I toured the nine-story garment factory. We enter through a loading dock, where a group of men listen to the radio, waiting for the next shipment of fabric to come in. Just to the right of the freight elevator, we see a childcare room, with a simple assortment of toys and toddler chairs, and no children. (It certainly seems like a bad idea to leave a child downstairs right by the freight elevator and building’s entrance…)
Suleiman leads us through the maze that is his factory, with a sense of pride in their standards of compliance. We enter a darkened room, where huge bolts of fabric, imported from India and China, are stored.
"Kohl’s Inspection Room" reads the sign on the door. I remember that Kohl’s is one of the companies that has refused to sign The Accord, a European agreement that legally binds retailers “to establish a fire and building safety program in Bangladesh for a period of five years.” Many brands, including H&M, as well as some U.S. retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch, Sean John Apparel and Scoop NYC, have signed The Accord. Companies who have signed this measure are signing on to ensure workplace safety and accountability.
Kohl’s, as well as Gap and Walmart, have instead created The Alliance, a group of North American companies. Why did they opt out of The Accord? The European agreement features a binding arbitration process, which means companies may be legally responsible in their respective national courts if they fail to deliver on the terms of The Accord. There are no binding terms for The Alliance, and the responsibility is up to local factory owners to fix their workplaces. If these sub-contractors don’t do their part, they will lose the company’s business.
The Arrangement, The Accord and The Alliance all sound like post-apocalyptic factions, rather than real organizing for change.
Suleiman leads us upstairs to the fabric inspection room, where a male worker runs the bolt of fabric through a machine to catch any irregularities or tears. The sound of fabric weaving through the machine is almost meditative, and like every worker in the factory, this young man must own his sole production task. Throughout our walk in the factory, each person’s role is intrinsic to the making of every shirt.
There’s the fabric-cutter, who wears a protective glove reminiscent of Michael Jackson, or the collar-maker, who pricks the pointy-ends of a collar to make them sharp. Most everyone seated at a sewing machine wears a mini-surgical mask for their nose, to prevent loose threads from flying in. There is a vivid strangeness to the whole scene. All of the women wear brightly colored salwaar kameez, and saris—florals, polka dots, batik—the pure opposite of the boring sleeveless shirts they make for the end buyers. One or two workers smile at us, and we wave. Yet most cannot look up from what they are doing because a misstep means a lost shirt.
And we aren’t allowed to pull them aside to ask questions.
Suleiman takes us through the making of one sleeveless button-down shirt, which he will later give us at the end of the visit. He holds up one worker’s task—attaching the collar—for our examination.
“See?” he says, holding up the shirt. “I feel proud when I see this. This is made in Bangladesh.” He gestures to the empty aisle between sewing stations, the path covered with arrows moving in one direction. “See? This is compliance. No one can stand in these rows. If there is a fire, they must follow this path to exit.”
“How much do your workers make per month?” I ask.
“We pay them 11,000 taka per month,” says Suleiman.
I do a quick calculation; that’s about $141 per month. Divided by 30 days, 11 hours a day, that’s about 42 cents per hour. My sister and I share a glance. From a few conversations with friends and family, the average domestic worker (who cooks, cleans, raises children and supports the very basis of middle- and upper-class life in urban Bangladesh) makes about 2,000 to 4,000 BDT, or Bangladesh taka, per month. As evident from Bangladeshi photographer Jannatul Mawa’s series on domestic workers and their bosses, these workers remain separate from the families that employ them. Within Bangladesh’s social and economic class context, the garment industry has been a boon for young female workers who want to earn more than work formerly available to them.
Right? As we walk up to the final stage of production, where hundreds of shirts hang on racks, waiting to be steamed, we pass by a film crew and a man furiously blasting a fire hose outside of the window.
“What’s he doing?”
“We’re making a fire safety video for our buyers,” Suleiman says.
“Ah, so you have sprinklers?” I ask.
“Oh, no, not yet. We are working on that.”
While I learned a lot about a factory attempting to be compliant in a post-Rana Plaza garment industry, there is still much work to be done. In a country of 154.7 million people living in land the size of Wisconsin, we know change will not happen overnight. But we have to continue to put pressure on retailers to not back down on workplace safety. In retrospect, I’m wondering if the lack of sprinklers would’ve been solved had Kohl’s been a part of The Accord. If legally bound to reckon with infrastructure issues, I want to believe that workplace safety could become a reality in Bangladesh.
The garment industry has transformed Bangladesh’s economy, and it’s worth making the industry a fair, safe and empowering space for Bangladeshi workers. The answer lies in change, not in shutting down factories.
So, what can we do from here? I’ve joined a collective of activists and artists of Bangladeshi descent to organize actions in front of two locations in New York City: Union Square in Manhattan (6 p.m.) and Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens (8 p.m.) to commemorate the workers who died, and the survivors who rebuild their lives after trauma. We will shout for Western companies to take responsibility for compliance and workplace safety. We will raise placards etched with phrases like, “Who Are You Wearing?” and photographs of the dead and the living. And we will light candles, holding vigil for the changes we demand, until they burn out.
For more information about April 24th Rana Plaza actions in your city, check out the International Labor Rights Forum: http://www.laborrights.org/events.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a novelist, journalist and youth educator living in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel, Bright Lines, will be published by Viking/Penguin in 2015. Follow her @tanwinandini.