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Dying to Compete: Inside Bangladesh's garment industry

Shafiqul Islam.

Shafiqul Islam lies in the paraplegic ward of a hospital in Dhaka.

Shafiqul Islam, a 20-year-old garment worker in Savar, Bangladesh, was about to finish his shift at 1 a.m. He handed a stack of sweaters to his manager and was heading back to his workstation when the floor underneath him ripped open, casting him into darkness. He woke up three hours later lying under a pile of rubble, his legs crushed by the machines he'd been working at 13 hours a day, six days a week.

That was back in April. Now, Islam lies paralyzed with a broken back, his body a devastated monument to the worst garment factory accident in the history of Bangladesh. It killed 61 people and left more than 100 wounded.

I had come to Dhaka, the capital, a few months before the Savar collapse to help improve the English at The Daily Star, the country's largest English language newspaper. I'd also come hoping to learn more about the country's 1.8 million garment workers and what conditions were like for them.

"There are approximately 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, which together account for 75 percent of the country's exports."

There are approximately 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, most of them clustered in and around the capital. Together they produce $5 billion worth of clothing every year, accounting for 75 percent of the country's exports.

The afternoon of the accident, I caught a taxi, as usual, to go from my apartment in the crowded shopping district of Elephant Road to the offices of The Daily Star. The newspaper's offices are in a smart four-story building crammed into the middle of the country's largest vegetable market. It's typical of the chaotic mix of commerce and street life that fuses the capital together. My taxi dodged the usual flow of rickshaws and pedestrians, and I looked up at the new luxury high-rises inching skyward, being built by orderly lines of thin-muscled men balancing piles of brick on their heads. It seemed like any other day in Dhaka.

As a sub-editor for the paper, I was used to editing front-page stories filled with calamity: floods, ferry sinkings, political assassinations -- all a reminder that fortunes and fates can shift in seconds here. Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in South Asia, indeed in the world, and it is considered one of the most dangerous places in the region to work as a journalist. Nevertheless, the news people I work with always manage to keep the paper ablaze with good humor until around midnight, when we go to press.

When word of the garment factory collapse reached the paper, everyone crowded into the newsroom, listening as the first reports poured in. Reporters started to race back and forth from the scene -- which was about 20 miles away -- on motorbikes, thundering out dispatches as more details emerged.

Site of factory collapse.

The site of the factory collapse in Savar is about 20 miles outside of the capital, Dhaka.

Some 400 people, working the nightshift, were inside when the building collapsed. It was owned by Spectrum Sweaters Ltd., which produces sweaters for major European companies, including the French company Carrefour -- the world's second-largest clothing retailer -- and Intidex, the Spanish parent company of Zara, another large European clothing line. Many of the sweaters produced are eventually shipped to the United States (38 percent of all Bangladesh's garment exports end up in the U.S.).

As the rescue efforts continued, reporters pieced together a chilling anatomy of the collapse. The four-story factory had been built, illegally, on marshland. Then, because overseas orders had grown to such an extent, the owner, an influential businessman, added five more levels -- again, illegally -- to step up production. These additional floors were loaded down with so much heavy machinery that the vibrations eventually cracked the support beams, sending nine stories crashing down in a flash pancake collapse.

The disaster came at a critical time for the country's garment industry. At the beginning of 2005, the World Trade Organization phased out a 30-year-old textile quota system that gave countries like Bangladesh a guaranteed portion of the global garment trade. Without these protections, Bangladesh must now openly compete against juggernauts like China and India, who are expected to thrash Bangladesh and other smaller countries in this increasingly global marketplace. The last thing Bangladesh needed was a crisis inviting international scrutiny.

But that's precisely what it got. In early June, a delegation of international buyers, including representatives of Gap, came to Dhaka to deliver a stiff warning: Clean up the industry or we will shift orders elsewhere.

For 30 years, the garment industry has been a central engine of the Bangladesh economy, employing nearly 2 million people each year and supporting another 10 million to 15 million, or roughly 10 percent of the population. Apparel and textiles account for nearly everything Bangladesh exports -- if this source of income dries up, there's no other industry to take its place. Millions of people suddenly thrust out of work and foreign exchanges evaporating is a nightmare scenario for Bangladesh. The country's unemployment rate is already at 40 percent, and nearly half the population lives below the poverty line.

Daily Star newsroom.

Reporters in the newsroom at The Daily Star, the largest English-language newspaper in Bangladesh.

I had watched the Savar accident from the newsroom, but I wanted to know for myself what had become of these workers and what the tragedy said about the chances of the industry's surviving. So in late June 2005, I traveled by bus to Savar, a straight shot from the concrete crushes of the capital to the open pastures of the countryside.

The factory site was surrounded by rice fields, its nine floors reduced to a mess of rock, dust and twisted metal rods -- sprinkles of brightly colored garments the only clue as to what used to stand there. A security guard, Dulal Mia, showed me around, then described the accident to me as he stood on the remains of the first floor. "It was like a big club sandwich," he said. "Using flashlights, we pulled as many people as we could from the rubble, about 30."

Islam was among those eventually pulled out. I found him later in the paraplegic ward of a hospital in Dhaka. He was lying on his stomach, his ribs protruding through his skin, and his body was naked except for a cloth covering the small of his back where it had been broken.

Islam had worked at the factory for only five months, making sweaters for up to 13 hours a day, every day except Friday, when he was given half the day off. He was paid roughly $100 per month. Islam described how he waited, trapped beneath the rubble, terrified by the screams of dying men and women. The army finally rescued him at 5 p.m., 16 hours after the collapse. As Islam relayed these details, a medical student pointed out where the femur in Islam's right leg had been cracked. It pushed at his skin, and the student said he would need an operation.

It's not clear whether he will walk again, the medical student told me, as Islam lay frozen on his bed, his eyes the only part of him moving as he searched the room.

"Sharier Hussain, the factory owner, went into hiding immediately after the collapse, protected, many felt, by his wealth and privilege."

Islam is typical of many of the country's garment workers. He came to the factory in Savar from his rural home to escape poverty. He hoped the job would help feed his family. His father, who has slept by his hospital bed every night for two months, is a poor farmer.

Just as I sought answers, so too did a growing number of ordinary citizens, lawyers and garment workers, all bound by outrage and disbelief. They saw the tragedy as a larger parable of class and greed in their society.

Sharier Hussain, the factory owner, went into hiding immediately after the collapse, protected, many felt, by his wealth and privilege: His wife is a powerful judge, his father-in-law a member of parliament. For nearly a month, the police couldn't -- or didn't -- find him; he eventually turned himself in and has since been released on bail.

"When it comes to a person who represents a privileged class, and is related to politically influential people, and lives in comfort in Dhaka city, somehow the police have suddenly lost all their skills in finding this person," said Dr. Faustina Pereira, a lawyer of the Bangladesh Supreme Court and director of a legal aid organization helping victims and their families in a lawsuit against the government and the factory owner.

I asked Dr. Wazedul Islam Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Trade Union Centre in Dhaka, about factory conditions and if anything was being done to protect workers. "This building that they have made is a killing place for workers," he said, referring to the collapsed factory. According to national labor studies, there are only five inspectors for the entire industry -- the same number as in the 1970s, when the industry first sprouted. Khan told me that 90 percent of all garment factories in Bangladesh lack proper industrial approval. Thousands of buildings escape scrutiny because the building inspection system is as old and decrepit as the buildings themselves.

Woman at the site of the collapsed building.

Ninety percent of all garment factories in Bangladesh lack proper industrial approval.

I also went to visit Annisul Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the powerful heart and brains of the industry. "I cannot tell you if all the factories are OK," he told me. "Normally, buildings don't break down. This is the first case."

Huq denied that the factory owner had been shielded by his connections. "[We] did not back the owner. The owner virtually became a beggar. All his business is gone. We said, 'We don't care. You have to pay the workers.'"

The compensation the owner is supposed to pay comes to less than $2,000 per family of the dead, a sum grossly out of proportion to the accident. The lawsuit filed on behalf of the workers' families is asking for at least seven times that amount.

Many of the survivors, meanwhile, are still owed several months of pay, including overtime pay, and are struggling to pay rent and cover medical costs. The father of Islam, the paralyzed man I visited, doesn't know how he will pay for his son's treatment. He has received 21,000 taka, less than $400, which, he said, with an exasperated wave of his hand, is not enough to cover all the costs, including the operation on his son's femur.

Some believe that the accident at Savar could provide an opportunity for Bangladesh -- an opportunity to fix an industry on which it relies, making it more competitive by bringing it into compliance with international safety standards. They hope that the backlash of anger from many Bangladeshis after Savar will help drive change.

Others at the heart of the industry aren't so sure. From his modern steel and granite president's office, Huq sees a darker future. "Last year, I thought business would develop a lot. But now business is getting very tough," he said, looking out of the window at his own factory across the river. "Prices are increasing every day. Compliance is getting tougher. These days are very tough, and the future will be even tougher. Most factories are small and will perish by 2006, 2007."

David Montero, a frequent contributor to the FRONTLINE/World Web site, is a freelance journalist currently based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, Mother Jones and others.

IMAGES: Syed Zakir Hossain

REACTIONS

Rajshahi, Bangladesh
It is very bad news for Bangladesh

Tampa, FL
This article lacks some important facts about the Bangladesh garment industry and how it affects women. Women are hired to do these types of jobs much more often than men because of the stereotype that they have "nimble" fingers; that garment-making comes naturally to them (which of course is untrue -- women are more productive than men in garment factories because they are more likely to know how to use a sewing machine before they are hired). Of the three million garment workers in Bangladesh, NINETY PERCENT ARE WOMEN. Incomes for these jobs are meager -- companies get away with it because the income is viewed as supplemental to the garment worker's husband's income. So from day to day, not to mention when tragedies like this occur, it's affecting women to a much greater degree than men. Strange that the word "women" is only in this article once.

Millbrae, CA
It is hard for us to escape being a part of this problem. I make couture garments. Most people cannot afford what I do and see it as an extravagance .
I often ask myself what can I do as a one person business since I know that the fabric , threads and trims I purchase are probably made under these same conditions described in the article. Abandoning purchase of the clothes and fabric is not nessesarily the answer, plummeting these poor people back into poverty. It must be dealt with in a bigger more global way by governments. They can agree to let in the imports. But by defining the manufacturing conditions it will force the prices to be higher and therefore will be fairer competition once they arrive in the west. Companies contracting sewing in USA are forced by competition from imports to keep their pay down. Recently in San Francisco a lot of factories went out of business because the minimum wage went up. A sewing business was no longer viable because we have strict working condition laws.

Zak Mir - New York, NY
I was on a two weeks vacation in Dhaka when it happened. The real life images were gruesome and heart throbbing. They were painful. This kind of social injustice and modern day atrocity is a clear indication of the corruption and exploitation we live under. However, the only hope is that the buyers from the West put unconditional emphasis on safety otherwise put take business elsewhere. The government must also work on reforms and strict policies and enforce them and not fall prey to the evils of bribery and other corruptions.

(anonymous)
I am only 12, and have to do a homework project about the Bangladesh garment factories and how they are treated. Like everyone else, this article made me really sad, and I never realized how terrible some people were treated. People should give them all the help they can give.

(anonymous)
I was on the verge of crying, but i still feel bad for what had happened, so many things go on and we don't even know about it. It's like we are isolated from the rest of the world and there is only so much that we as humans can do about it. I pray for Islam and his recovery and the many families that have lost someone in this tragedy.

Biswajit Biswas - Durgapur, West Bengal
I am drowning in an ocean of tears on reading this article by Mr.David Montero. This is happening in Bangladesh more often than it is reaveled from this article. The steps should be towards improving the working conditions of Bangladesh garment workers.The people concerned with this industry have to do something to improve the situation. Hope it will happen soon.

(anonymous)
This article is extremely touching and thought-provoking. How many of the clothes I wear are made by someone in this sort of situation? I am only 16 years old and was born in India but I now live in the U.S., so it is horrible to think this is happening in the country I was born in by people in the country I live in. I also note that the privileged in such countries as Bangladesh and India play a major role in this horrible situation.

Glasgow, Scotland
My heart goes out to all the Bangladeshi people that have been affected by this incident. I hope that the culprit is brought to justice, which is very unlikely in a country so beautiful yet so corrupt.I am an importer trying to promote my country's textiles industry yet finding it very difficult to buy customer confidence in my country.

Suzie Anderson - Leavenworth, WA
I cried when I read this article. My heart goes out to Islam, his family, and the millions that are victims of greed and usery. When will everyone learn that we are brothers and sisters and we are inter-connected and the world is so small. We with the buying power must take responsibility for letting the world know that situations like this are totally unacceptable. Brand names are becoming suspect to me. Thank you to David Montero for such articulate reporting.