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Inside Bangladeshi Factories: The Real Story

A new report goes beyond the sanitized inspection regimes to hear from the workers themselves.

Bangladesh garment workers hold a demonstration in Dhaka on September 17, 2015.,AP/Mehedi Hasan

A congressional briefing to be chaired by Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky later this month will contest the claims that the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers have improved since the Rana Plaza building collapse of April 2013, which killed at least 1,138 workers. The briefing will feature a new report authored by Bjorn Claeson and released by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), which documents the violence, intimidation, danger, and degredation that industry workers still face.

What makes this report different from the other accounts of work in the Global South is the testimony of the workers themselves. Conversation in North America and Western Europe about labor abuses and factory tragedies like the Rana Plaza collapse most usually comes around to what the conscientious consumer or reputation-vulnerable brands and retailers can do to meliorate conditions. By contrast, “Our Voices Our Safety” listens to workers who “report they will not be safe without a voice at work.” The report poignantly tells the story from the point of view of women garment workers—80 percent of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment workforce.

Among the tough topics and conversation-changing dimensions of the report is the direct challenge it poses to the narrative that argues that “garment sweatshops liberate women because they can now earn wages.”

Factory safety reforms are advancing in Bangladesh, where the study was conducted in 2014 and 2015, but these reforms and repairs, the report shows, “must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety. A next phase of reforms must instill the lessons that respect for workers is as important to safety as are fire exits.” Among the tough topics and conversation-changing dimensions of the report is the direct challenge it poses to the narrative that argues that “garment sweatshops liberate women because they can now earn wages.”

Under the sponsorship of a labor NGO and a Bangladeshi union, Claeson directed the work of Bengali-speaking interviewers. Able to speak out of view of their often threatening employers, and trusting the interviewers endorsed by these worker-friendly organizations, 57 workers and 13 union and NGO staffers told their stories, which Claeson knits into well-edited selections around the topics of safety, freedom of association, gender, wages, and social compliance. (Only three informants are identified by their real names.) One section directly addresses the problem of violence and the connivance of authorities to ignore it:

“What happened when you formed the union?” asked the interviewer from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Aleya Akter, the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), employed at Lufa Garments, responded:

I was severely beaten when I tried to bring together workers to make them understand why it’s necessary to form a union. I was beaten on three separate occasions from 2006 to 2007, once inside the factory conference hall, once in a meeting room with the presence of the police, who observed and did nothing, and once in front of the factory.

Shobita Byapari, a sewing machine operator, 28 years old was asked, “What do you think stands in the way of progress for Bangladeshi garment workers?” Her answer: “Police, thugs.”

Ritu Khan, a helper, 40 years old, was asked the same question, and responded, “Police, thugs, the supervisor, the line chief. These are the biggest problems.” The exchange continued:

What does the police do?

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Suppose the owner got a cop to harass me, or they got a thug to beat me.

How about the supervisor?

Suppose if I did something. In the office, they…

Do they lay a hand on the girls?


So the girls don’t say anything about that?

What will they say? For the fear of losing our job, no one says anything.

Sabina Ara, a sewing-machine operator, who believes she is 25 or 26 years old, was asked “Suppose you asked for a salary increase. What would happen?” She answered:

They threaten us with many things. They threaten us with the police. Then there are local politicians; they threaten us with them. There are landlords; they threaten us with them.

Back in the day, social science graduate students learned that when Marx referred to class relations in capitalism, he used the phrase “the social relations of production.” Claeson refers to these stories as evidence of the “social relations of intimidation.”

The conventional story of the “progress” that has come to Bangladesh with the arrival of low-wage manufacturing touts the growth that has made the country the world’s second-largest exporter of clothing, employing up to four million workers, has reduced poverty and infant mortality, and increased life expectancy and literacy. Bangladesh government ministers, garment-industry leaders (that is, factory owners), and Ellen Tauscher, the head of the U.S. firms’ voluntary safety initiative, known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, are all on record—and quoted in Claeson’s report—hailing the Bangladeshi rag trade as the great liberator of women.

The chapter on “Factory Managers and Husbands” is a salutary vaccination against this Panglossian virus. The report notes that 65 percent of the nation’s married women, according to a Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics survey of over 12,000 women, suffer physical abuse from their husbands.

Despite the nation’s economic dependence on female factory labor, Babul Akhter, president of the BGIWF union federation, says: “Many people still think, ‘Oh, you are a woman so you should not work, you should stay in the home.’ Or if you go to work, then you should go home immediately after work and make food for your husband. You should not go to a union federation office or join protests after work.” Women’s pay reflects their subordinate status: “None of the 39 workers we interviewed about incomes and expenses report that they are able to cover their household’s expenses without overtime pay despite their modest living.” The report goes on to note that the only ones who can meet their expenses even when overtime pay is included are single women or men with no children or dependents.

The Garment Liberation Theory of Global Development and Women not only misses the harsh reality of inadequate wages.

The Garment Liberation Theory of Global Development and Women not only misses the harsh reality of inadequate wages. It also overlooks the grim interaction among the culture of the nation, the factory, and the household. Claeson notes that 79 percent of a sample of women studied by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity “reported giving their husbands their wages every month.” Sixty-three percent of the 27 unmarried women in the study “lived with their parents and reported giving their earnings to their father or mother. The rest of the unmarried women reported sending 2,000 to 2,500 taka (US$ 25-32) to their parents in the countryside every month. Only the single mothers retained full ownership of their earnings, being solely responsible for their own and their children’s livelihood.”

The regime of gender subordination also works on the factory floor. The testimony of Taslima Sultana, sewing-machine operator, 31 years old, typifies much of the testimony in the report:

Inside the factory no one can really abuse a male operator the way they do to women. We don’t protest very much so that’s why they do that to us. And besides, they don’t even hire men very much anymore. And this is why they don’t take men. For example, the end of the workday is supposed to be at 7 p.m., but they don’t give us leave until 8 or 9 or 10 p.m. They wouldn’t do that with a man, would they?  

The report spears at least one other bloated myth—the validity of the audits conducted in the name of corporate social responsibility. (The social compliance auditing business has grown into a profitable global propaganda machine.) The Bangladeshi workers tell a very different tale from the one the audits convey. An exchange with Rabequl Barua, an iron operator who is more than 40 years old:

Do you participate in inspections?

No, no, no. We are not even called.

Do they ever come to talk to the workers, or do they only talk to the management?

No. They only talk to the management. They never talk to workers.

And with Tareq Islam, a 23-year-old quality controller:

In the fourth floor ladies toilet, water drips from the roof. The men’s doesn’t leak, but the women’s leaks from the roof.

Have you ever informed things like this to the people who come?

We don’t get any opportunity to inform them about this. We are always the victim of the situation. We are here. We have to stay like this. Otherwise, we fear losing our jobs.

The Alliance, run and funded by 26 U.S. firms led by Walmart and The Gap, conducts audits such as those the workers described, and compliance with the Alliance’s recommendations is voluntary. By contrast, the recommendations of a rival group, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, are contractually binding on its more than 200 (largely European) members and the manufacturers with whom they contract, and its governance is shared with local and international labor unions. It makes a careful practice of informing unions (when they are present) and worker-safety committees (which it is organizing) when it does inspections. It is based on a principle of worker voice in safety and employees’ right to refuse dangerous work.

What policy recommendations might emerge from Schakowsky’s briefing? One possibility is a directive to the armed services to join with and comply with the Accord in the clothing purchases made by the 1,100 PX retail stores on military bases, which sell about $1.5 billion worth of clothing a year. (The Marine Corps has such a policy but only weakly enforces it, Claeson reports in another document.) The report also raises the question of whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact currently before the Congress contains adequate worker safeguards: Will interference with workers’ associational rights to form a union, for instance, be enforced with the same vigor as intellectual property rights or the strictures on trade dumping?

The report concludes by making unmistakably clear that the power to improve the workers’ lives resides at the top of the supply chain, with the Walmarts and the Gaps, should they truly choose to exercise it. As Aleya Akter of the BGIWF puts it, “If the buyer says, ‘I will not give work if there is no union,’ even the government’s Dad doesn’t have power to stop it.”