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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

Bangladesh's garment workers brave deadly fires to make luxury American clothing

The country holds a commanding lead in the "race to the bottom" with the the lowest wages and some of the worst working conditions in the world.

Factory fires in Bangladesh are common. In March 2010, a fire at Garib & Garib Sweater Factory in Gazipur killed 21 workers.

Alam’s organization estimates that over 300 workers have been killed in work-related incidents since 2005 from all causes. The BGMEA says that ‘only’ 270 people have died in factory fires in the past 30 years.

Shefali Akhter, 25, survived one fire after a floor near the top of her factory was set ablaze, again from sparks due to poor wiring.

“Oh I was very scared,” she recalled, “if you see fire like that everyone gets scared. It felt so strange, I thought ‘I’m going to die’ and I just ran, I lost my senses. Everyone was just saying ‘quickly get out, there’s a fire, there’s a fire.’”

She remembers seeing four or five people fall down and hurt their heads in the dash down the stairs.

“We are poor people, we come here to provide our services. The owners should at least protect our lives,” she said.

Garment laborers in Bangladesh like 32-year-old Rabia Begum, who goes by the name Lovely, earn far less than $2 a day, the global poverty threshold. After two decades in the industry, Begum is paid Tk 4,200, or roughly $50 a month.

“You want to know when I started?” she asked. “Ok, I’ll tell you. I was 13.”

Begum makes an effort to stay composed but can’t.

“I’m sorry if I’m making you feel bad,” she said, and she begins to quietly cry.

“That was one life,” she continued after a while. “Now this is another life. But it’s ok, I’m doing fine.”

Except she isn’t. Workers rioted violently in 2010 for an increase in the minimum wage, which had been languishing at the equivalent of $20 a month for many years. Owners finally caved and raised it to $40 per month, but this was less than half the pay rise workers were demanding. Living costs in Bangladesh are cheap, but they’re not that cheap.

“Since they raised the minimum wage, our rent has gone up twice,” Begum said. “Price of rice has gone up, lentils, potatoes have almost doubled in price.”

Lovely, who works for Vision Group, says her employers treat her well, but this doesn’t save her from the endemic overtime plaguing the industry.

Even when given the choice to not work overtime, most workers are forced to because they cannot afford to survive otherwise.

“Is $40 a month enough?” asked Nur Mohammed Amin Rasel, a senior deputy director at BGMEA, the trade body representing garment manufacturers. “Well, are you talking as a garment worker, or as a Bangladeshi? When you get the job as a garment worker it seems like it’s not enough. But go ask a rickshaw-puller or a welder what they think about $40 a month.”

“But yes, on humanity grounds, no of course it’s not enough. You can’t live on that,” he added.

The garment manufacturing sector has been a trailblazer for industrialization in the developing country, which for the time being is still a primarily agrarian economy.

Exports leapt from $12.4 billion in 2010 to $17.9 billion in 2011. A McKinsey report branded Bangladesh ‘the next China,’ expecting garment exports to double by 2015 and triple by 2020.

In fact, Rasel noted, China recently asked Bangladesh’s labor minister to send over 80,000 workers to plug the shortage of unskilled labor in its factories.

“Productivity is higher in China and Vietnam. But China is no longer competitive,” said Rasel. “China is no longer willing to serve the clothing demands of the world at the expense of its own people.”

The problem is that Dhaka’s appeal as a sourcing destination for major brands relies almost entirely on its availability of cheap labor.

“In real terms, cost of garments has gone down 60 percent in Bangladesh since World War II,” noted Ahad, who has worked for Gap and Reebok. “How can you justify depressing living standards of workers to keep an inefficient industry afloat? Right now, low wages are subsidizing the industry.”

The trouble, Ahad said, is a failure of both buyers and suppliers to connect corporate social responsibility (CSR) with profits.

“If you go and ask any of them why they talk about CSR, for the most part they will not be able to give you a straight answer,” he said. “Buyers don’t see a business case for compliance. So when they come and make their compliance demands, how do you expect an understanding from suppliers? They see it as an imposition, a kind of fetish on the part of the buyers.”

“These days a code of conduct is almost like a joke,” he concluded.

And yet, said the labor rights advocate Khorshed Alam, it looks unlikely that the garment factories will leave Bangladesh anytime soon.

“Cambodia's entire workforce is less than the number of people we have working in the garments industry alone,” Alam said, dismissing the possibility. “Where would they go?”