“We Are Nothing but Machines to Them”

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by Anjali Kamat

On the morning of Oct. 13, Taslima Aktar arrived at the gates of a Bangladeshi factory called Windy Apparels, in the industrial suburb of Ashulia, where she had been employed as a sewing operator for a year. For two weeks, the 23-year-old had complained of a fever and a hacking cough; her supervisor had refused her repeated requests for time off. Ten years in the garment industry had taught Taslima the costs of missing a day’s work without permission—especially before a big order had to be shipped out. As a young woman from the countryside, this job, at a large garment factory, was her only ticket out of rural poverty. Getting fired was simply not an option.

When she walked onto the factory floor that day, she already felt faint, but when she approached her line manager about going home early, he refused her again. Shortly afterward, she passed out and was rushed to the factory clinic, only to be sent back to her sewing machine. As the floor emptied out for lunch, she collapsed again. This time, she couldn’t be revived. Taslima was taken to the nearest hospital, where she was pronounced dead 10 minutes after being admitted. Her death certificate notes that she died of cardiac failure following “severe respiratory distress.”

Later that evening, her co-workers found her body stowed near the factory gates. They were told management was waiting for her husband to finish work at a nearby factory and pick up her corpse, one explained to me. “This is how little they value our lives,” said a colleague, who, along with a local labor advocate, Taslima’s mother, and other co-workers, reconstructed the events of the day. “We know the same thing can happen any day, to any of us.”

I visited Ashulia, just outside Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, in October—three and a half years after the deadliest industrial accident in the history of the global garment industry. The Rana Plaza collapse fatally buried more than 1,100 workers beneath piles of rubble, and I wanted to learn whether Bangladesh’s garment factories had become any safer in the years since. Ashulia is at the beating heart of the country’s garment industry and lies not far from where Rana Plaza once stood. I spoke to Taslima’s colleagues and acquaintances, as well as others who had not known her, on a Friday, workers’ weekly day off here, and the dirt roads running along the traffic-choked highway to Dhaka were buzzing with activity. That day, I met with more than a dozen workers from a few large factories. To a person, they all spoke about what had just happened to Taslima.

They were angry about the circumstances of her death. Many said supervisors had routinely denied requests for sick leave for anyone who wasn’t violently ill. One described a co-worker being warned she would be fired if she didn’t return from sick leave after a single day. None of them wanted me to use their names; they were all scared of losing their jobs. When I asked about the new safety regimes implemented after the Rana Plaza collapse, they didn’t want to talk about the structural improvements or the new fire safety measures. Taslima’s death had shattered their illusions of safety.

“The building is safer, but as workers in the factory we still don’t have any security in our lives,” one woman who worked at a factory called Ayesha Clothing Co. Ltd. told me. “Even if I am on my death bed, they will ask me to finish making two more pieces before I die,” she added. “We are nothing but machines to them.”

* * *

Bangladesh is one of the cheapest places in the world to make clothes, and its plentiful supply of inexpensive labor has made it second only to China in global apparel exports. The garment industry employs nearly 5 million people. Since rural migrants began pouring into the city in the early 1990s seeking work in the burgeoning industry, the population of Dhaka and the industrial zones that encircle it has grown threefold. With nearly a third of the country’s population living below the national poverty line, the $23 billion ready-made garments sector (which accounts for more than 80 percent of the country’s exports and roughly 15 percent of the GDP) is widely seen as an economic lifeline for the nation.

On April 24, 2013, the dreams of a sweatshop-led path out of poverty got a rude jolt. That morning, an eight-story building housing five garment factories collapsed, killing 1,134 men and women, most of whom were crushed to death under concrete and iron as they were making clothes for dozens of international brands. Reporters and labor activists sifting through the debris found links to Benetton, JCPenney, Joe Fresh, and The Children’s Place, among others; records later connected other major brands to the plant, including Walmart. The carnage at Rana Plaza made headlines around the world and finally forced the estimated $3 trillion global apparel industry to contend with the deadly costs of cheap fashion.

The disaster inspired what hundreds of factory fire deaths since the 1990s had not: the adoption in 2013 by more than 70 signatories—mainly European retailers and apparel brands, led by Swedish giant H&M—of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a compact developed by international and Bangladeshi labor unions. Signatories—now more than 200—are bound to a five-year agreement that requires factories producing clothing for them to undergo independent safety inspections and make upgrades to adhere to uniform standards. Reluctant to sign on over concerns about legal liability, North American retailers including Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Gap Inc. (which includes Old Navy and Banana Republic) signed onto a separate, industry-influenced safety plan called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which now includes 29 U.S. and Canadian companies.

Today the Accord and the Alliance say that together they have inspected roughly 2,000 factories in Bangladesh for structural, electrical, and fire safety, most of which have at least begun a process of remediation. Buyers that are part of the agreements are expected to stop sourcing from factories that fail to make the required improvements. Another approximately 1,500 factories make clothes for buyers that are part of neither compact and fall under a separate regime of government-led safety inspections known as the National Tripartite Action Plan.

“In terms of fire and building safety, I can honestly say I feel a little more comfortable now,” labor activist Kalpona Akter told me in her bustling office at the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity in Dhaka. “It could be a lot faster, the brands should be helping more, and I still don't fully trust the government inspections, but there’s definitely been an improvement. At least now everyone is talking about safety.” She draws a sharp distinction between the Accord and the Alliance, charging that the latter is not transparent and less serious about safety.

Factory owners say the two agreements have something in common: an unfunded mandate when it comes to paying for safety upgrades. Syed Qamrul Huda, chairman of the Arunima Group, showed me around one of his Ashulia factories—Arunima Sports Wear—which supplies clothing to Gap, Target, Walmart, and Wrangler and is thus covered by the Alliance. An entire wing of the nine-story building, including elevators and the main stairway, was under repair. “It’s all part of what we have to do to make our factory compliant with the kind of safety the brands want,” he explained, pointing out shiny new fire doors, fire extinguishers, fire alarms, and prominent signs on every floor, announcing “Safety First.” Making these improvements has cost the company nearly $1.5 million, Huda told me. He said the cost would have pushed him into bankruptcy if the company wasn’t large and well-respected enough to secure a nearly $1 million loan from the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank. For smaller factories that lack access to large lines of credit, he said, remediation remains prohibitively expensive.

While both accords require participating brands to pay for inspections, neither requires companies to pay for the safety improvements themselves—which, according to the International Labor Organization, could total nearly a billion dollars nationwide. Under the Accord, brands and retailers are supposed to negotiate with suppliers to make it “financially feasible” for factories to upgrade. Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord, told me brands typically commit to maintaining their orders if factories upgrade, and might even pay for some orders in advance, but acknowledged that the “overwhelming majority” of the factories pay for their own remediation. Alliance country director and former U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh James F. Moriarty said by email that Alliance brands have helped negotiate $100 million in low-cost loans to upgrade supplier factories. He said the Alliance takes workers’ rights “very seriously” and runs safety trainings, reaching 55 plants so far, as well as a confidential worker help line, which captures issues of concern that are raised with factory managers or buyers. But a compliance manager at a large factory covered by both the Alliance and the Accord, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said the brands effectively hold factories hostage: “They are asking for gold” for repairs, “but only paying silver” for the garments themselves.

The attention to building and fire safety might indeed prevent yet another fatal factory fire or collapse, but little in the new agreements addresses the unfair labor practices that are endemic to the industry and endanger the safety of workers like Taslima Aktar. Windy Apparels, where she worked, did not respond to queries. But the plant is on the list of Accord suppliers, so I asked Wayss what protections the agreement offered workers like Taslima. He said denial of sick leave could be considered a health and safety violation: “If it were brought to our attention we would investigate it and at the very least we would forward it to all the parties, so the brands and the unions would be aware of it.” But he said no one filed a complaint about the prolonged denial of sick leave to Taslima. Possibly because there was nothing unusual about it.

* * *

Under Bangladeshi labor law, workers are entitled to 14 days of paid sick leave each year. That protection was codified in October 2006, after a wave of worker protests and wildcat strikes that summer brought garment production to a standstill. Bangladesh’s labor law was amended again in 2013, in the aftermath of Rana Plaza, to ease organizing and expand health and safety protections. As labor unions have noted, the amended law still has holes, especially when it comes to protecting workers’ freedom of association, and even the legal protections that do exist often go unenforced by the Ministry of Labor’s Department of Inspection. On the factory floor, the law is simply no match for the demands of the market—and the outsized power of the garment owners.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, is one of the most powerful trade bodies in the country. According to Transparency International, 10 percent of lawmakers are themselves directly involved in the garment industry, and some of them serve on government committees on labor and commerce. Labor activists in Bangladesh point out that an even greater number of lawmakers have indirect financial ties to the garment industry, through close relatives. The political clout garment factory owners wield, they argue, remains the main obstacle to enforcing labor rights.

One of the largest garment conglomerates in Bangladesh is the Palmal Group, which owns 19 factories and employs more than 25,000 workers. The founder, Nurul Haque Sikder, was a pioneer in the industry and served as vice president of the BGMEA in the 1990s. Earlier this year, Gap released a list of its suppliers around the world, including 52 in Bangladesh. At least five factories on the list are owned by the Palmal Group, including Ayesha Clothing in Ashulia.

“Taslima Aktar’s death,” a sewing operator at Ayesha Clothing told me, “is the logical outcome” of the way employees there are made to work. In October, she and her co-workers had just spent months working on a large order of hoodies for Old Navy. She told me they had to complete 120 to 150 pieces an hour, every hour, for 14 hours a day, until the order was complete. A soft-spoken 20-year-old man described the production pressure as “inhumane.” The women explained that if they came up short on their hourly targets—which, she said, they often did—they were verbally abused, publicly humiliated, or docked pay. Some supervisors, coaxing women to meet their targets, would touch them inappropriately. “We didn’t even have time to use the restroom because we had to meet our quota,” another woman said.

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