Nothing will erase from my mind's eye the picture of long lines of young women, snaking along the road, in rain or shine going to work in the many, many garment factories to be found all over Dhaka, crammed into every kind of structure, from one time apartments, to tenements to sheds.
Every now and then, colour coded plastic raincoats spoke to the small largesse of some factory management, but on the whole, if it rained they walked soaking. Quietly. Purposively.
This amazing fortitude was also demonstrated in the survival in the recent Rana Plaza tragedy -- which was particularly horrific because it was avoidable.
The fact that a bank in that building had pulled their white collar staff out, while the ready-made garment factory blatantly disregarded the situation, speaks volumes about the differential value placed on lives of people: garment workers come pretty close to the bottom of the teeming heap.
But before we all put on our indignant faces, consider this: the economics of the international garment business are cut throat, margins razor thin and the buyers want both the lowest prices and higher standards.
Something has to give and what gives does so with devastating impacts on the lives of the workers.
As consumers, we too are implicated in the web of factors that drive countries like Bangladesh in a race to the bottom.
Yet the industry, which has grown exponentially since the mid '90s, does offer some 3.6 million workers, a majority of them women, out-of-the home employment and for many an income, albeit very small.
Poor ventilation and toilets that were 'gag inducing'
In my time in Bangladesh, from 1997 to 2001, I had, as part of my then work with a multilateral agency, a chance to closely observe and work with segments of the garment industry and the Bangaldesh Garment Manufacturers' and Exporters' Association, as we addressed the then hot button issue of child labour.
That work took me to many, many factories. Suffice to say, that for every factory that had reasonable standards of health, security and work conditions, there were ten that were on a descending ladder.
I have visited factories where senior members of the management team personally vetted the lunch served to the workers, but these were rare. In many others, conditions were hazardous, with exposed wires, poor lighting, terrible ventilation and toilets that were medieval and gag inducing.
While some of the major buyers had groups that monitored social and work conditions, others sub-contracted this to companies that specialized in this area.
Conspicuous by their absence were state entities. At that time the number of inspectors available to monitor the largely Dhaka based industry was minuscule and even when they did so, a brown envelope usually sufficed in many cases, not all, to deflect any negative observations.
Once one got to know the owners, this was common knowledge, as was the hyper politicized environment in which the political allegiances of the factory owners influenced enforcement – such as it was.
In short, this made for a culture of impunity, which was by no means limited to just this sector.
A strong reaction then back to business as usual
There is usually a pattern to the reaction to events such as factory fires -- the wiring in most places is an open invitation to disaster -- where workers are often burned as they face padlocked and grated gates.
First, there is shrill indignation in country, including wildfire demonstrations. Then there are expressions of regret from the usual quarters, among them the nervous buyers.
That is followed by calls for a boycott from some labour and human rights groups, a quick passing of the collection plate, and then silence as business as usual descends on the scene.
Lives must go on. With almost no savings, garment workers can ill afford to strike, and the media gets absorbed in another disaster du jour.
It now appears that the current uproar in Bangladesh is of an order of magnitude that may see, at least in this case, prosecution of some of the guilty.
But the larger issue is the fact that many, not just the owners, were negligent or derelict in this case, so the trial will be a useful indicator of damage control.
Something can be done
A pragmatic approach post-Rana Plaza would seek to make root and branch reforms.
With 3.6 million jobs affected, the Bangladeshi government and other stakeholders need to:
1. Set up a transparent mechanism to assist the families of those affected, the post Bhopal experience has a lot of lessons for all.
2. Convene a high level committee with standing, such as a respected retired judge, to review the current Rana PLaza incident as well as the whole issue of workplace hazards and exploitation.
3. Ensure that that those responsible for the Rana Plaza incident, not just the owners, are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
4. Work with third parties, with no material interest in the industry, and with buyers to create a grading system for factories, with the aim of ensuring that the best are rewarded in terms of volume of contracts -- multilateral agencies such as the International Labour Organization and UNICEF as well as World Health Organization could be part of this formation.
5. Linked to this, there should be an obligatory standards certification program that obliges garment factory accompanied by a fee that will pay for monitoring and enforcement, at a charge of say 25 cents U.S. per garment. Out of this fee there could also be a social fund that sets up health and life insurance for the workers.
6. Support reputable NGOs to undertake education programs in the factories to advance literacy, health, rights, credit and other information for the workers. Such a program will, incidentally, also have a knock-on effect on the acquisition of higher order skills. At the moment, training and development is highly catch-as-catch-can.
This sort of approach, while serving social justice ends, will also ensure that consumers, retailers, producers, governments and most of all the workers can reap longer term benefits of their work.
The workers' whose value added makes it possible for Bangladesh to export some $17 billion (U.S.) in garments annually, and that figure will continue to grow.
Getting the country higher up the value chain will also help, as workers will be higher skilled and therefore in a position to demand more, with better conditions.
In this increasingly globalized world, capital flows easily from one economy to another, so it is important that social norms around the dignity of labour are also globalized.
Humanity demands that those who make our shirts are not, so to speak, shirtless themselves.
Alex S. Dorj is a development specialist who worked closely with the garment industry, and was based in Bangladesh for four years, from 1997 to 2001.
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