Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest producer of fashion and garments. It is an industry that crashed into the media spotlight in 2013 when a factory complex just outside the capital Dhaka collapsed in on itself killing 1,138 people and injuring thousands more.
Rana Plaza brought negative attention not just to Bangladesh’s factories but to the entire fashion industry, leaving serious questions about how our clothes are made and whether we have been guilty of placing more value on our clothes than on the people who make them.
Since Rana Plaza, campaigners, trade unions, and brands have been working together to try and make factories structurally safe and equipped with basic necessities like fire escapes. However recent unrest involving thousands of garment workers shows there is more to ethical fashion in Bangladesh than just safer factories.
Bangladeshi garment workers are paid $68 a month, a tiny salary that is scarcely enough to live on. This salary is not scheduled to change until 2018. But whilst worker’s wages might be fixed the cost of living is not, and garment workers say they have found the price of everything from rent to food rising beyond their means.
Nazma Akter began working in a garment factory when she was just eleven years old, she went on to found a trade union to represent the rights of women garment workers and is now the President of the SGSF union. “Bangladesh has some of the lowest wages in the world,” she explained. “It is shameful when people are treated as cheap labour. In Ashulia the workers asked for more. They are hungry, they have malnutrition, their children have no proper food or education.”
Ashulia is a factory district on the outskirts of Dhaka previously known as the site of the 2012 Tazreen factory fire that killed at least 117 people. Tens of thousands of workers stream in and out of Ashulia’s factories every day. It is because of districts like this one that the Bangladeshi garment industry is worth a staggering $26 billion.
In early December 2016, workers in one factory reportedly decided they’d had enough of being paid so little and decided to stop working. The news of this strike is said to have spread to the factory next door where workers did the same. This continued until approximately 50 factories shut down for 14 days.
Then came a backlash by the Government and factory owners who were furious at the strikes and at the threat to Bangladesh’s most profitable export industry. Thousands of people were sacked from their jobs and the police began arresting workers considered to be ‘trouble makers’.
In most democratic countries people have the right to form trade unions – collective groups where you can all work together to get better pay and conditions at work. Whilst on paper Bangladesh has progressive labour laws, in practice trade unions are very restricted.
Bangladeshi garment workers are paid $68 a month. This salary is not scheduled to change until 2018. But whilst worker’s wages might be fixed the cost of living is not.
Since the December strikes, garment industry trade unions have become targets for the police with people describing severe repression. One trade union report seen by i-D says that: “more than 50 local goons came and attacked our office at Ashulia, and broke the lock on the shutters. After that they vandalized our office and burned our office documents; such as Membership forms, Receipt books, leaflets, and banners. They also took our office equipment, such as Chairs, Tables and Racks from the office. Our local offices are totally shutdown from that day.”
“We are scared,” says Nazma Akter. “We cannot open our office, or do any activities, or talk with the workers, or move in this area, there are huge numbers of police, including special branch, it is very difficult for us.”
Christina Hajagos-Clausen is from IndustriALL, a huge global organistation that groups together hundreds of trade unions from across the world and now represents 50 million workers. She believes Ashulia shows how much unhappiness still exists in the industry: “When you don’t have a mechanism for workers to express how they are feeling to their managers or to the industry, then you get situations like Ashulia where the steam valve opens up and then quickly gets shut down.”
In Bangladesh factory owners are very powerful and often interlinked with the government. “The scale is really tipped to the employer’s side, the employers are very well organised, they act like their own union pushing for their specific interests.” Hajagos-Clausen continues. “On the other hand you have a fragmented labour movement that anytime it tries to make some strides, really gets pushed back.”
i-D contacted the President of the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) – an industry club for the factory owners. He said that the events of the past month were ‘not a big issue,’ and that only people who had done something bad had been arrested. “I guarantee to you that labour rights are always protected here,” Md. Siddiqur Rahman said. “You have to understand, we the owners lost 14 days of production… We are losing, the factory owners are losing. You have to think about industry also.”
But even if factory owners want to downplay events in Ashulia, the crackdown has even worried some major clothing brands who rely on Bangladesh as a major, and very profitable, manufacturing hub.
More than 20 brands, including H&M, Gap, and Inditex wrote a joint letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. A spokesperson for H&M told i-D the letter asks the Government of Bangladesh to take steps “to ensure the protection of the workers’ rights, with special attention to the legitimate representatives of the workers who were arrested. We also made clear that while we do not support any illegal strikes or violent protests, we do recognise that the root cause of the unrest must be addressed through social dialogue; improving the dialogue on the labour market.”
This letter is an important step in acknowledging that there is a problem, however these brands are major stakeholders in factories where hundreds of people have been summarily sacked and campaigners are likely to call on them to do more to protect basic rights. “We want multinational corporations to have fair and ethical buying practices,” says Nazma Akter. “Our workers are making lots of money for Tesco, Walmart, and so on, but our workers are in prison and they’ve lost their jobs just for asking for a wage increase.”
There are now four main demands from trade unions in Bangladesh 1) A new and higher wage for Bangladeshi garment workers 2) Full rights for trade unions 3) The dropping of cases against arrested workers and trade union leaders 4) A new and fair method to negotiate a living wage in the future.
Campaigners say it is possible to support these aims by questioning brands on social media by asking #whomademyclothes and whether the brand uses any of the factories that have sacked workers. Another option is to write to your MP and MEP asking the UK Government and the EU to ensure the Government of Bangladesh uphold labour rights.
From high-street to high-end, brands and shoppers are all linked to Bangladesh. Our clothes carry not only the scars of Rana Plaza but the ongoing struggle for more than just poverty wages.
Photography still from The True Cost film