Dispatches: Who Makes the Clothes on Our Backs?

In 2010, I travelled to Bangladesh with the rest of my graduate school cohort to study various developmental approaches implemented in the country. Bangladesh, in many ways, is a prime example of the success that locally pioneered methods of just and sustainable development can achieve. And yet, this development is accompanied by its own set of problems, particularly with regard to the country’s massive garment industry.

Bangladesh is the world’s second largest exporter of readymade apparel, second only to China. Garments constitute 80% of the nation’s earnings from exports, and in 2018, Bangladesh exported clothing worth over $32 billion, mainly to Europe and the United States.

The garment industry has revolutionized Bangladesh’s economy and significantly impacted its society. A large majority of its workers are female; increased economic freedom has led to women bearing fewer children, thus contributing to declining fertility rates and tackling the dilemma of overpopulation. From the looks of it, it seemed like a win-win situation: the garment industry employed numerous people in developing countries, increased foreign investment and was responsible for an increase in the annual GDP growth rate. International brands now paid a fraction of the production costs that they used to, while oblivious buyers continued shopping at Zara, Forever 21, Russell Europe and Walmart, unaware that they were paying starkly different prices for clothes that had all been manufactured under the roof of the same factory.

A garment factory in Bangladesh © Yamuna Matheswaran

But the entire world got a reality check with the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, which claimed 1,134 lives and was termed a “mass industrial homicide”. But long before that horrifying incident, workers had already been calling for liveable wages and safer work environments, and other deadly incidents had led to periodic loss of lives.

On 12 December 2010, on our way to the airport, my classmates and I drove past one of Bangladesh’s export processing zones and caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a peaceful protest against delays in the implementation of a wage hike. We would later come to learn that the protest had turned violent, claiming at least three lives and leaving dozens of people injured.

The factory we visited at the time, Knit Asia Ltd., boasted good working conditions and facilities including a free childcare centre and regular fire drills. It was one of Bangladesh’s leading garment manufacturers, and also owned the largest biological effluent treatment plant in the country.  However, this is the exception rather than the norm.

Back then, in 2010, Bangladesh’s garment workers received the lowest wages in the world – as little as $45 per month. That amounted to a measly $0.25 an hour, when compared to the hourly wages of $0.48 and $0.57 earned by workers in China and India at the time, respectively. From what I garnered, it cost Russell Europe $3 to manufacture a polo shirt in 2010, which was then sold for approximately $7.

The profit made from the sale of a single polo shirt exceeded the factory worker’s daily wage.

In 2019, minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is approximately $95 (or 8,000Tk) a month. It was not enough to make a decent living then, and it still isn’t today, and workers are still fighting to be paid a living wage. Since consumer demand dictates how the garment industry functions, we as buyers have a responsibility to generate awareness and take a stand against unfair practices by choosing ethical brands over fast fashion.

When we buy a shirt, we aren’t just buying a shirt—depending on where and how the shirt is made, we might be enabling the perpetuation of inhumane labour practices.

This is an excerpt from the piece ‘Then & Now: A Reflective Study of Development Initiatives in Bangladesh’ published by The Peninsula Foundation.

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