So, what’s up with Bangladesh, anyways? It shows up time and time again on this blog as well as in sources on global clothing supply chains. The country seems to be a constant culprit in the world of labor ethics, though moderate sized and sandwiched between Burma and India. Landing top five on the world’s rankings of highest garment exporting countries, Bangladesh contends in this massive industry despite its size in comparison.
Bangladesh is well known in the industry for their particularly abominable treatment of laborers in clothing factories. They sad thing is, many of the worst factories produce clothes for very, very high-end, high-fashion brands. But why is Bangladesh so infamous? It did, in fact, rightfully earn its reputation in human rights circles.
Dhaka, Bangladesh: in 2012, a factory fire occurred in one of the country’s hubs for the garment industry. One hundred and twelve lives ended as a result of poor conditions and lack of fire safety precautions. The unfortunate thing is, these are only one hundred and twelve out of hundreds of deaths inside the 4,500 Bangladesh garment factories since 2006. This fire, and other fires like it in Bangladesh factories, drew a lot of attention to the tiny-but-mighty country.
The truth is, Bangladesh’s economy is sustained on the foreign currency poured in from the garment industry. In fact, four fifths of the country’s export economy is clothing, and this percentage is still growing. Just as Bangladesh is sustained by the garment industry, the garment industry in Bangladesh is sustained by unfair wages and restricted worker rights. Unions in Bangladesh are virtually non-existent, asserting the idea that the workers aren’t receiving the benefits from their employees, nor are they receiving a fair wage for the hours they put in. The first fire in Dhaka occurred at 7 pm, after regular working hours had ended. The workers who died were victims of a number of managers forcing them to keep working through the fire alarms while others were free to escape.
Another great tragedy in 2013 drew even more attention to the inner workings of garment factories in Bangladesh. Though the 8-story building that collapsed had visible cracks in all the walls and foundation, the 5 garment factories inside it forced workers to continue production. Its collapse killed over one thousand laborers. Following this collapse, the country shut down eighteen other factories for fear of safety violations that could cause more tragedies.
How could all this happen to a smaller country? It just goes to show that each country runs their industries differently, though with the same motivation: to use their resources to keep the economy afloat. Bangladesh has remained in the spotlight recently as deep issues of labor rights have come up. Laborers at several factories held weeklong protests, shutting down factories for the time, against unfair wages. As a result, producers fired fifteen hundred workers, stating their protesting was illegal. Companies such as Zara, GAP, and H&M were involved. These workers currently earn the equivalent of $67 per month.
Retailers we all know, such as Puma and H&M, continue to produce out of Bangladesh, even considering the imminent risk and ugly track record of Bangladesh factories. Though many of them assert they are calling for compliance on labor ethics, these factory fires and tragedies give an alternative conclusion.
What does all this mean? It means that we need to check our clothing tags, folks. As we research brands, some of them are transparent with where they make their clothes and what efforts they are putting forth to be just in that process. Others do not. However, both cases demand our awareness. In either case, it is complicated by the fact that some companies can have excellent workers rights in their supply chains, but countries like Bangladesh ensue corrupt practices under the table. Being aware of the severity and heightened rights violations in Bangladesh requires us to think beyond just the brands we buy from.
We have to check our tags. We have to be aware of countries that have patterns of horrendous practices, and avoid them with a vengeance. Countries who hold such a deep dependence on the garment exports will go to any length they can to stay up with the competition. In small, economically homogeneous, poor countries, this often means ignoring safety and ignoring human rights. This doesn’t mean we need to check the tag on every piece of article of clothing we buy – that’s a bit ridiculous. But, we can effectively gain awareness on the patterns we see between countries and labor rights. Let us be aware of what brands continue to partner with such countries and encourage these practices, and not partner our dollars with them.
Written By: Madeleine Williams