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 grad school cohort 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 piece of the 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.

Notes from Mostar

This piece was originally published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine.

Final Mostar-20

The bus rolls slowly into the central station in eastern Mostar, the familiar crunching sound of gravel under the tires signalling the end of the ride. The journey from Sarajevo had taken just a little over two and a half hours, and we’d got to enjoy the sight of the enticing emerald-green waters of the Neretva river along the way. Continue reading “Notes from Mostar”

Summertime Madness

Ah, summer. How I loathe you.

I grew up in Chennai, a city that witnesses summer year-round – the heat a sort of clingy, constant companion that you can never evade. We dealt with it using artificial, environmentally unfriendly methods to ease our suffering, shuffling from one air-conditioned environment to the next in an air-conditioned car.

A decade later, I found myself living and studying in Germany. But alas, my hope of gaining respite from the heat for a good portion of the year was not realized. The last few winters were barely cold let alone freezing, but the summers were relatively brutal for the region. The Germans all reacted the same way when the sun came out – they stepped outside in minimal clothing to soak it all in, frolicking as they developed the perfect tan. Meanwhile, I remained indoors until at least 5 pm, when I could be certain that the worst of the heat had passed and it was safe to venture out.

I’m very sensitive to heat, more so than the average person. It’s an actual condition and not mere dramatics on my part, as I often tell my dismissive friends. On warmer days in Germany, I carried multiple handkerchiefs (which I’d brought over in bundles from Chennai) with me to soak up the sweat while I saw other people sauntering about, dry as a bone.

But despite my all bemoaning, I’m aware that as far as real-life problems go, this is a relatively trivial one. Over the years I’ve devised ingenious coping mechanisms to make summer just a little easier to handle. For one, my productivity seems to be directly proportional to rising temperatures as I spend 9 am to 5 pm indoors, writing or painting. And that still leaves enough time to spend the milder evenings taking a stroll or catching up with friends and not feeling like a total recluse. I also take full advantage of indoor activities during the afternoons- hitting up museums, the cinema, even sweating it out at the gym (now that kind of climate-controlled perspiration I don’t mind).

But always, the hardest part is grappling with the dreaded FOMO (or Fear of Missing Out) that inevitably strikes. Convincing yourself that you’re having a good time indoors while the entire world seems to be living it up without you can feel like a useless endeavour sometimes. I picture endless summer clichés – piña coladas, inflatable pools, shirtless lifeguards running in slow motion – until I remind myself that all I’m really missing out on is feeling like a polar bear trapped in a sauna. Besides, I live in Delhi now and the likelihood of those things happening in my neighbourhood is close to zero.

As always in life, there are some things you can control and others that you’ve simply got to roll with. And so, as we hurtle towards the hottest months of the year, I put away my favourite trench coat wistfully. Until next time!

A slightly modified version of this piece was originally featured on The Hindu’s Open Page.

Dispatches: Delhi’s Neglected Urban Villages

The area beneath the Barapullah flyover, just behind South Delhi’s INA metro station, is congested, with vehicles, cows and pedestrians colliding as they make their way through the chaos. The honking is incessant; cows are sprawled on the middle of the road, with motorists often pushing them out of their way. Nearby, a sea of bricks and an excavator marks ongoing construction, while the air is pungent with the smell of sewage. Continue reading “Dispatches: Delhi’s Neglected Urban Villages”