Sifting through the rubble of a sweatshop

First published: May 6, 2013, 3:42 pm

I was at the hospital with my ailing father, when news of the eight-story Rana Plaza collapse in Savar, Bangladesh first flashed on the television. While the doctors were writing a prescription as a process of discharging my father, I went for a quick visit to Shahbag (Mancha), in front of the hospital. Hundreds had gathered there to donate blood for the victims, but at the time, I couldn’t yet fully grasp the magnitude of the accident. The following morning, I tried to piece together the latest updates online on the Savar tragedy. What I read and saw was gut-wrenching. So my husband and I rushed to Savar to assess the situation firsthand and planned immediate relief for the victims.

We had to park our car near Enam Hospital, where the rescued workers were being treated, almost a mile away from ground zero. The sun was at its worst and it was difficult to walk for an extended period. When we reached Rana Plaza, all I saw was rubble, bricks, slabs and pillars stacked on each other; spools of clothes and threads scattered everywhere. I was walking toward the back of the building for a closer view, when I suddenly fumbled and almost fell, seeing a woman on the ground, her head face down on the rubble. Her lower body was under a huge slab and the rescue workers were trying to pull her corpse from the rubble. I decided to call her Mohamaya, even though I didn’t see her bleeding, mutilated face. But ever since that day, I have trouble sleeping. The image of her blue, printed kameez and curly hair gives me shivers every night when I close my eyes.

Later, I went to the school field where the dead bodies were being kept. A woman was walking from one corpse to the next, removing the sheet to take a glimpse at each face. She was looking for her precious, baby girl. “I let my daughter come to Dhaka to earn for our entire family. The last time I saw her was eight months ago, during the Eid holidays,” she said. I watched as she checked each lifeless face and breathed a sigh of relief when she didn’t see a familiar one. But fate was not kind after all. Suddenly, she uncovered a body and closed her eyes. “At least I found her,” she said as tears rolled down her wrinkled dark skin. Pulling the corpse close to her chest, she kissed her daughter’s forehead and wailed loudly. I desperately wanted to run out of the place. The field smelled of rotten corpses and blood. There were hundreds of dead bodies, lined up for claim.

Even now, after a week, I hesitate to take a deep breath. I fear I might again smell the stench of the rotten corpses, see Mohamaya, or face the old lady looking for her daughter in the queue of the dead.

Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry is vibrant, and is its biggest money-maker. Since the ‘70s, garment factory owners have generated employment for the poor and have given a much-needed lift to the entire economy. The industry also gave a boost to women’s empowerment and economic freedom, as almost 80 percent of the workers are female. Garment workers of Bangladesh are skilled and labor here is the cheapest. Thus big brands from around the globe get Bangladesh to make their 10-dollar shirts, paying each worker an average of 3,200 BDT. If only they put in some extra 10-15 cents, it would be financially feasible to run fire safety measures and training, maintain standard working conditions for workers and also increase their minimum wages.

After the Savar Tragedy, Robert Reich, an American political economist, professor, author and political commentator said, “Walmart buys more than $1 billion worth of apparel from Bangladesh each year, making it the second-largest global purchaser. In April 2011, after the Tazreen fire, major global retailers considered requiring their Bangladeshi suppliers to make safety improvements in a system they knew to be highly dangerous. The retailers would have to pay 10 cents more per garment to ensure factory safety. Two participants in the meeting told the New York Times that Walmart played the lead role in rejecting the effort on the grounds it was not “financially feasible.” Walmart’s profit that year was $15 billion. Does Walmart have any responsibility here? Would you be willing to pay an additional 10 or 15 cents per garment you buy from Walmart or any other big-box retailer to help assure factory safety around the world?”

Bangladesh exports mainly ready-made garments including knit wear and hosiery (75% of exports revenue). According to information published by the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), Bangladesh garment exports increased by 8.8 percent over the year to US $1.36 billion in November 2012. Extracted woven garment exports earned US $71,004 million, while knits earned US $65,396 million. Bangladesh’s garment industry has developed due to enormous support from Western buyers in the US and Europe. The Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) from the European Commission and the quota from the US till 2004, gave this sector a huge boom. However, since the quota system was removed, Bangladesh is negotiating to gain the preferential tariff privilege from the United States. As the US still doesn’t allow these preferential tariff demands, we cannot afford a high mark up and thus, we push the variable cost factors down to the society and to the laborer.

I know it will be difficult to read through the lines. After all, at the end of the day in business, each dollar counts. No matter how much blood and flesh goes into building business empires, workers come in millions. If millions die, millions more will replace them. Few charity and eyewash social welfare agreements can save the image in the market.
But next time you buy a shirt from H&M or GAP worth 10 dollars, think well. Would you be willing to pay 10 cents more for that shirt? It just might save hundreds of workers from becoming faceless, rotten corpses.


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