Cheap clothes have helped fuel social revolution in Bangladesh

NEW DELHI — The Globe and Mail

Women work at a garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, earning about $37.50 per month. (ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS)

The news that Joe Fresh sourced clothes from a factory in a building that collapsed outside Dhaka this week – killing at least 300 workers and injuring as many as 1,000 more – brought the price of cheap fashion into sharp focus for Canadians.

The immediate reaction of many was to vow to boycott the store, an understandable response.

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But I’m not sure it’s the best one.

Yes, Bangladesh’s garment industry is ridden with appalling labour practices. The fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in November that left charred piles of young women’s bodies heaped at the fire exits – which were locked – reminded us of that. I’ve visited factories that were so dimly lit the workers stitched Gap-bound shorts hunched over, squinting at the seams. I’ve seen factories where the windows were sealed and the industrial fumes were strangulating. The workers, mostly women, sewing clothes for H&M and Nautica and all the other stores in the West make a few dollars a day, working 12-hour days. A despairing friend who says she struggles to pay the price of Canadian-made clothes, or shop only at the Maritime second-hand chain Frenchy’s, asked me this week if she had to “go naked” in order not to feel guilty.

But our cheap clothes have helped fuel a social and economic revolution in Bangladesh, and Bangladeshis do not want that to end.

Pressure from buyers works. Clients have pushed factories in Dhaka – and in Kampala and Maseru and other places where I’ve reported on the garment industry – to improve labour and safety standards. Not great – they wouldn’t meet Canadian standards. But they’re safer, and factory owners are constantly forced to reexamine.

Companies such as Nike and the Gap, high-profile brands that have been targets of movements like the Clean Clothes Campaign, have been forced to take an active interest in how their clothes are produced, and the factories that make them are correspondingly better than the ones that sew for brands that do not audit.

Two European brands that sourced from the building that collapsed this week were subject to close monitoring. The auditors had approved the working conditions – but it was not part of their brief to check the building. And the structure, we now know, was built without permits or inspections and on unstable ground. So this needs to be factored into expanded audit parameters.

The Bangladeshi state is weak – so is any state that has to rely on such poorly paid jobs to build its economy – and the building owner is wealthy and politically connected. Of course, he didn’t have to have the factories inspected. The state will not enforce safety, but you as a consumer can demand it.

Is that better than boycotting the “Made in Bangladesh” label? In Dhaka not long ago, I spent the day in a slum called Korail, where I met many young women who work in the factories. Mini Akhtan makes $65 a month working 72 hours a week, sewing shorts and pyjamas bound for malls in Canada and the United States. She hates the fact that her mother is raising her five-year-old son, whom she sees only on Friday afternoons.

But Ms. Akhtan and her friends gave off a palpable sense that their life is different than it was five years ago – and a certainty that it will be quite different five years from now than it is today. Will they be rich? No. But maybe their kids will be at the private school. They will have saved enough from working at the garment factory to move back to the village and start a small shop. Or to buy a plane ticket to Bahrain to spend a few hard years doing construction work – and come back with savings to really shake things up. Ms. Akhtan is the first person in her family ever to have a formal job; her son, she said with total confidence, will be an engineer.

I asked her to show me the room she shares with her husband – it was small and wickedly hot. But it had electricity to power their one bulb and their fan. They share a piped water stand with six other families, and a latrine and a shower stand too.

And that’s another thing about the garment factories. They account for 75 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports. And Bangladesh is making massive inroads against poverty. It started from the nadir, so it still has low literacy, poor health indicators, high corruption. But maternal mortality has been cut in half in a decade. Ninety-five per cent of kids get their vaccinations.

On every development indicator, Bangladesh is trouncing India – even though India’s economy is growing twice as fast – and a big part of the reason is that women are driving Bangladesh’s growth. The garment factories have a mostly female work force (out of the sexist conviction that they are more biddable and better with fine handiwork like sewing.) Women with jobs and income get a bigger voice in their family decisions; their children go to school, get vaccinated. In India’s boom, almost no women have joined the work force – and you do not see as much social progress as you do across the border.

Bangladesh’s garment zone can seem like a hellhole, and no one who shops at Joe Fresh would want Mini Akhtan’s job for five minutes. But you can call Joe Fresh today and demand that they audit their producers for safety and for working conditions. You can demand to know what their producers’ relations are with Bangladesh’s struggling labour unions. You can tell Joe Fresh that if they are going after your business, they need to have a direct relationship with a supplier – not outsource to a third party so they get plausible deniability. Demand to see those safety audits, every quarter, posted on their website, right beside the sale on $6 shorts.

And get involved with Clean Clothes or a similar campaign working to shed light on that consumer chain. You don’t have to go naked. You can do more for Mini Akhtan and her family by buying “Made in Bangladesh,” and finding out how much the worker who made your shorts was paid.

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