Emerging Voices

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The Inhumanity of Bangladeshi Garment Factories

At the break of dawn, 10-year-old Arifa Aktar prepares for a long and intensive day of labor. She no longer can afford to attend school, so she must work at a factory to make ends meet. Her unsafe, dangerous job takes a toll on her physical and mental health, and she knows she’ll be at the factory well past dusk. Still, she has no choice. With her father out of a job, her family is managing with what little money Arifa can bring home.

Arifa is one of the 3.5 million garment factory workers in Bangladesh. Forced to grow up too fast, millions of children across the country sacrifice their education to work in cramped and unsafe areas for the rest of their lives. Though garment factories make up 80% of the government’s total export revenue, working conditions are incredibly poor: employees are on the clock for up to 18 hours per day, often arriving early in the morning and leaving past midnight. Working in small chairs that stress their backs and necks, employees face an elevated risk of illness because areas are so congested. Due to the spread of COVID-19, matters are only getting worse. Cracks deck the building walls, posing the constant threat of collapse— and it’s not like the workers haven’t heard of buildings crashing down before. For example, on April 24th, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza collapsed on itself just a day after workers were told to evacuate due to large, threatening splits in the walls. Many workers still showed up on the day of its eventual collapse because their employers gave them no choice; they needed to earn money, and the only way to avoid dismissal was to put their lives in the hands of a building that was bound to crumble to pieces. Dubbed by Human Rights Watch as “the biggest disaster ever to hit Bangladesh’s garment export industry,” the collapse of the Rana Plaza was one of the greatest preventable tragedies in the nation, caused entirely by negligence.

Violence and assault also happen often in the workplace, typically caused by employers that want to maximize profits and sacrifice workers’ rights to do so. Furthermore, sexual harassment and discrimination are commonplace for millions of female employees. In 2014, a survey conducted by Democracy International on 1,508 workers at 150 factories exposed some of these widespread counts of harassment: 34% of all respondents said they’d been harassed by their employers, and 25% said they’d been sexually harassed. Still, not nearly enough is being done to prevent harassment or assault in these factories. Additionally, the stigma of discussing sexual harassment and assault with others in countries like Bangladesh prevents women from receiving any sort of justice. Workers are expected to just stand by and watch these tragedies happen, since they can’t complain without risking their jobs and—indirectly—their families’ lives.

By far, the most disastrous threats in these workplaces are factory fires. Since 1990, thousands have died in over 50 major fires. Of these, the 2012 Dhaka garment factory fire had the most devastating and long-lasting impact. On November 24th, a major fire broke out in the Tazreen Fashion factory and quickly spread up the building’s nine floors. Workers on higher levels were trapped by the fire, and workers on lower levels didn’t have the chance to escape. At least 117 were confirmed dead, and over 200 were injured. Prior to this event, the Tazreen Fashion factory was criticized for its unsafe atmosphere and was required to improve its safety standards. According to the New York Times, reforms were initially planned to fund factory safety by raising the price retailers would pay for apparel. However, Sridevi Kalavakolanu, the Walmart director of ethical sourcing, did not comply, arguing that “it is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.” Had these modifications been made, this entire event could have been prevented— unfortunately, the safety of Bangladeshi workers was once again overlooked for monetary profit.

For all this risk and effort, the wage workers receive is appalling. 5,000 takas per month (around $59) is considered a living wage, but workers can earn as little as 3,000 takas per month (around $35). The money employees earn can sustain them for another day, but it’s not enough to allow workers to do anything else except work more. They can’t leave or stay home, so they have no choice but to continue laboring through their struggle.

These factories are indisputably inhumane. Workers must endure so much for such a low salary; once they enter the loophole of work, they can’t afford to escape it. Hunger and starvation are rampant, and people can’t do anything about it. Stories like Arifa’s, though, generate awareness of all the suffering workers go through. The National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), headquartered in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, began with the mission of ensuring the humane treatment of employees. Working to prevent sexual assault and harassment, enforce maternity leave and weekend holidays, and provide general basic rights to the average worker, the NGWF is making a real difference in many lives.

Still, there is a lot more work to do. It is extremely unfair to workers that more regulations on factories or wages aren’t being imposed and enforced; these workers need to be effectively protected by the law. These employers aim for profit; sweatshops like these mainly continue to stay in operation because of consumers who turn a blind eye and purchase products of brutal labor. The best way to defund these corporations is for the average consumer to pay attention and research what they buy. Only then can people like Arifa receive the treatment they deserve.