Reza Mazumder explores how recent ISIS attacks and delayed court case hearings are jeopardising the safety of Bangladesh’s garment industry and prolonging injustice for its workers.
His breathing was ragged. His fingers jotting down numbers in centimetres were grey. The other men had similar fingers which they worked to stitch together lapels onto coat pieces of a suit. I realised the grey was hardened dust, dirt and glue.
‘Something’s wrong,’ said someone beside us. The small man turned. He slammed his foot onto the pedal of a sewing machine that stopped working. The needle shot back to life.
The small man wheezed.
He went back to measuring me. My uncle brought my family and I here claiming this was the best place to get tailor-made suits half the price those retailed at designer stores.
The walls of the small room were sickly green under blaring Linestra lights. Every space was filled with machines, cloth or men.
Silent, thin men whose grey-crusted nimble fingers transformed beautiful dark fabrics into suits they could not afford.
It struck me when the small man struck the pedal.
This was a sweatshop.
Bangladesh’s garment industry is notorious for its use of sweatshops – hundreds of people are crammed into squalid factories making clothes for international buyers for less than a dollar a day.
In April 2013 Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building – home to this type of garment factory – collapsed, killing 113. More than three years later the victims and their loved ones are still in search of justice.
The court case of 18 people accused of construction code violations at Rana Plaza was postponed from its scheduled August 24 hearing.
This comes after ISIS attacks in July that targeted upmarket eateries popular with foreigners, several of whom were Italian garment entrepreneurs.
Now Bangladesh’s garment industry faces uncertainty as its foreign stakeholders pull back from trade in fear of terrorist attacks. Along with the delayed court case, Bangladesh’s garment industry is suffering a lack of justice.
The delayed hearing has pushed back testimonies from 130 witnesses against those in charge of Rana Plaza. The owners had illegally built three extra storeys within a six storey structure. This overwhelmed the standing of the building and resulted in the collapse that killed 1000 workers’ lives.
The factory owner, Mohammad Sohel Rana, and former chief engineer are in custody while five of the accused 18 are on the run.
Despite custody of owners, delayed court cases and lack of support from the government have sustained the use of sweatshop production methods in Bangladesh’s garment factories.
This apathy from authorities is induced by the riches that sweatshops and their cheap labour earn for the poor state’s economy.
The efficiency of Bangladesh’s ready-made garments sector has doubled the country’s world market share between 1995 and 2012. Bangladesh has become the world’s industry hotspot for clothes manufacturing. It’s soon expected to top China as the world’s largest exporter of clothes. The government parades the industry as the greatest asset to the economy.
Yet the workers fuelling this asset are only paid a $68 monthly wage. That’s less than a quarter of what workers in to mainland China earn. Subject to deadly working conditions as the Rana Plaza incident tragically proved, gross human rights abuses are common and sustained.
The Rana Plaza Donor Trust fund was set by the UN’s International Labour Organisation in response to the tragedy. The fund independently assesses money owed to victims and families for medical costs and income loss. Some, but not all companies have paid contributions.
Efforts like these are well received. The rise of Islamic extremism in the country however makes future prospects for raising the labour rights of garment workers unlikely.
The ISIS attacks on July 1 bring into question the job security of garment workers. Foreign companies have begun to request less production from Bangladesh factories due to fears of becoming the terrorist targets.
Any shock to Bangladesh’s garment industry is likely to trip the country into recession. The country relies on garments for around 80 per cent of exports and 4 million jobs. The continued attacks on foreign diplomats, queer rights activist and religious minorities is turning off overseas investors from doing business in Bangladesh.
The attacks have begun to slow income for the industry. Any substantial halt could jeopardise the entire livelihood of the country. This includes the livelihood of garment workers who are repeatedly failed by the legal justice system.
It’s failing people like Hasina, a young woman who worked for 10 years at my grandmother’s house as an in-house maid and now works at a garment factory making men’s jeans for American retailer GAP.
One night she’d visited my grandmother’s at 11pm. Her skin sunk below her collarbone. Her ribs rose into her dress each time she breathed in.
I’d asked her about work.
‘It’s tiring but it gives me money. I’m not good enough to get married but I’m supporting my whole family. Women like me have nothing to look forward to but marriage because our husbands are meant to earn money. But now I can earn my own. I don’t want to marry anymore. My job is dangerous but I’m not elite like you or Sheikh Hasina (the Prime Minister). I don’t have many choices. I must take pride where I can find it, no matter how bad it is for my body.’
She stayed over that night. She left for work at 6am the next morning.
Reza Mazumder is a second year Asian Studies student at the Australian National University