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The Cost of Safety: Examining Economics Behind Bangladeshi Factory Conditions

May 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh last month has raised questions about what responsibility international companies have to victims and their families. Those companies include Walmart and The gap in the U.S. and Primark and Premier in the U.K.

Laura Kuenssberg of Independent Television News has that story.

LAURA KUENSSBERG, Independent Television News: They came not in hope of finding their loved ones. They know they are gone under the factory’s rubble.

But they come in each day still in hope of help, that companies who promised support will do as they said. But nearly a month on, nothing has come.

Her granddaughter, Kanchun Mala, was 15, under the law, too young to have been working here at all. I asked if the Western firms who bought the clothes she made had offered anything to help. 3,000 workers used to cram into what was this building. But the labels in the dust show who was here, companies like Primark, who vowed to help the families of the dead, their orphans and the injured, and Premier Clothing, among others, who said they would provide practical and financial help.

The firms claim they have started the process, but that’s not what many here believe.

WOMAN: Still today, there is no compensation are getting to workers.

LAURA KUENSSBERG: No compensation and not enough principles, a union leader told me.

WOMAN: The multinational and fashion retailer created this problem, low wages, low working conditions back. Then they can get the cheap price always.

LAURA KUENSSBERG: But even she wouldn’t take this trade away. The garment business has grown at a frantic pace, providing jobs for more than four million people. Bangladesh is a desperately poor country and can’t afford for it to disappear.

Eight people who lived in this tiny alleyway were killed in the collapse. Two-year-old Siam will be brought up by his grandparents now. His mother and father never came home from work the day the factory fell. They say they can’t bear the sorrow, but have to survive in their home of just one room. They have heard compensation could be due, but no sign of anything yet.

Have you had any help from the Western companies who promised to do so?

MAN: No, nothing yet.

LAURA KUENSSBERG: Whether compensation ever comes through, no manufacturer here would ever want to turn down Western work. This factory makes as many as 4,000 pairs of jeans every day six days a week, 52 weeks a year. And so many of us will have bought what’s made here, often at bargain prices.

We might want cheap clothes, and this factory manager wants to protect his workers, but safety doesn’t come for free.

MAN: If I have more money than I — I have the ability to spend a lot of things for my workers and make the factory condition good.

LAURA KUENSSBERG: So if buyers were prepared to pay more, you would be able to make your factory safer?

MAN: Definitely, I believe.

LAURA KUENSSBERG: But as new factories are rushed up to meet demand, it’s plain that cost is key. People are being prosecuted for what happened here. It’s hard therefore to draw a straight line between this disaster and our hunger for cheap clothes.

Behind so many of this city’s walls, workers are making clothes, but rarely do we see what is going on, behind the factory gates, in this place where cloth is king. We took our cameras secretly into a building we had been told houses some of the worst sweatshops in Dhaka. They had good reason to try to keep the conditions out of sight.

The deafening rattle of sewing machines, row after row, hundreds and hundreds of young workers, many appearing under 18, the legal age for work — there are more than 1,000 workers in this one building. It’s cramped, crowded, sweltering hot, and factory managers have told us they know the conditions here are illegal.

The industry claims it’s clamping down, but appalling sweatshops are an entirely open secret. Even the president of the country’s wealthy factory owners, himself the boss of 21,000 people, says as much.

MOHAMMED ATIQUE ISLAM, President, Garment Manufacturers Association: Of course it’s very true that they can break the rules.

LAURA KUENSSBERG: So, you admit that some factory owners think they can break the rules?

MOHAMMED ATIQUE ISLAM: We are not policemen, but we can say from our association or from the government as well, please don’t break the rules. If you break the rules, this kind of incidents will happen.

LAURA KUENSSBERG: This is an industry worth billions of dollars. There are factory owners making a lot of money and paying workers hardly anything.

MOHAMMED ATIQUE ISLAM: The retailer, they are making the money. But the factory is not that.

LAURA KUENSSBERG: Only morsels of any money find their way here. This warren of slums, Begunbari, is where garment workers live. After six days, often with 12 hours of work, this is where they spend what little rest they have.

There is no running water. But rain drenches everything when it comes. Children growing up in a maze of ramshackle corrugated iron, their homes are hardly buildings at all. 12-year-old Khalida left her parents in the countryside to make a living, but at the minimum wage, 25 pounds a month.

You have seen cracks in the building where you work?

She likes her job, but is scared after the factory disaster. She saw cracks in the wall of her workplace, but could never afford to leave. Bangladesh has 5,000 factories stitching clothes. They are not all like this, but how you can prevent the problems of the future if you ignore the desperate present?