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Women Working Dangerously In Bangladesh’s Garment Factories: Who Will Make It Stop?

A year ago, on November 24, 2012, the garment industry’s dirty little safety secret was thrust into the global spotlight: 112 people jumped to their deaths or were burned alive in a fire inside an apparel factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Most were women and girls who worked inside the factory; 1800 more were injured. A follow-up report in the Wall Street Journal in December showed that clothing bearing the Wal-Mart brand Faded Glory was found in the factory after the fire. This suggests the factory had been making clothes destined for the retail giant even after a 2011 safety inspection carried out for a Wal-Mart supplier showed that “exits and stairwells at the factory were blocked, workers were unaware of evacuation routes and the factory lacked some firefighting equipment.” Though it has tried to distance itself from the facility, a WalMart spokesperson had to admit that controlling safety conditions for workers throughout the supply chain was “a challenge.” But now, garment workers are speaking out to demand that their workplaces be made safer.

In the year since the deadly fire (with its eerie resemblance to New York City’s 1912 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which killed over 100 women and girls), and in the seven months since the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, a schism has emerged between two groups of Western clothing retailers. There are European-based retailers—including Primark and the Dutch-German C&A— who are willing to pay restitution and work to fix the broken system of workplace protections; and those based in the US—including Walmart, Sears, and Childrens Place— who refuse to sign on to an enforceable international workplace safety accord and who will not pay into the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s fund to compensate injured Bangladeshi workers. “Compensation is so important because so many families are suffering — many families don’t have anyone left to support them,” Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told the New York Times Nov. 22.

In a Nov. 7 interview with Salon’s Josh Eidelson, Akter explained that the garment industry so dominates Bangladesh’s economy that her own experience going to work in the factories as a young girl is typical of what many Bangladeshis face. “When I started working at the factory, at age 12,” she told Eidelson, “it was because my dad was the primary earner in the family, and he got a stroke and was paralyzed, so there was no one in the family who could put food on the table. So, me and my mom started working first, in two different factories.” Akter went on to explain that her mother had another baby and couldn’t work for a while, so she and her 10-year-old brother became the family’s breadwinners.

Another Bangladeshi woman who was her family’s primary breadwinner and who worked inside the Tazreen factory is 25-year-old Aferza. (Aferza’s story is one of a group of workers’ stories collected by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center to commemorate the fire and publicize the workers’ plight.) “Like nearly all workers who escaped the blaze,” the report states, “she was forced to jump from a window because the building had no fire escapes. Her husband found her lying unconscious among dead bodies near the burning building.” Aferza survived with a fractured skull and a punctured lung, but she remains unable to work or even feed herself. ‘My husband is a rickshaw puller whose poor income cannot cover all these costs. Almost all of his earnings are spent on the cost of my medicine,’ she said. As a result, Aferza says she and her children do not get enough to eat. Compensation from the retailers who used the Tazreen factory would enable Aferza’s family to survive and figure out what happens next.

In addition to the need for compensating surviving workers and families, there is an urgent need for enforcement of Bangladesh’s building and fire safety codes, as well as standards for workplace safety throughout the supply chain. Over 60 brands have slowly come together to sign a binding international accord on Bangladesh workplace safety, but as disasters like the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza collapse have faded from the news cycle, the biggest American brands like Walmart and The Gap are resisting.

Something has to change in order to force the American brands to do the right thing. The global, complex nature of the industry means that no central governing body can compel these companies to ensure their workers’ welfare. Let’s consider the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1912 once more: as sad and terrible as that disaster was, women working in the US garment industry a century ago had the good fortune to have a few champions like President Franklin Roosevelt and his Labor secretary Frances Perkins, who had the power to institute and enforce new workplace safety standards. Bangladesh’s women and girls, it appears, have no champions but themselves. Akter recognizes that change will only come through women workers organizing to demand safety throughout the industry.

To that end, Akter has reached out to an unlikely group of potential allies who might be better able to bring the workers’ message to Western consumers and thereby put pressure on retailers: models. Enter Sara Ziff, a model and activist who runs the workers’ advocacy group Models’ Alliance. Together, Ziff and Akter have found a common cause: making the garment industry safer for both the factory workers and the models, who are often young and vulnerable to exploitative working conditions. “It is just happening in two parts of the world — you know, a poor country and a rich country — but you know, exploitations are the same,” Akter told Eidelson. During September Fashion Week in New York, Ziff’s group staged demonstrations to publicly shame clothing brands like Nautica who have refused to sign the international safety accord on Bangladesh.

With their glamour and celebrity cachet, the image of models standing in solidarity with women workers from Bangladesh carries a powerful impact that is virtually unprecedented in popular culture. Rather than sounding a plaintive call for charitable donations or sympathy from consumers, the women of the Models’ Alliance are tying their fate to that of the garment workers, directly holding the brands that hire them accountable for endangering women in Bangladesh. It is this sort of grassroots organizing that packs a heavyweight punch in the fight against corporate intransigence on workplace safety in the supply chain. If the glamorous young women who model the clothes are outraged enough to pressure Walmart and the Gap to sign the international safety accord, the hope is that eventually shoppers will be, too.

Photo by Kelly Hogaboom, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.