"Made In Bangladesh": Gendered Injustice in the Garment Industry
If I pull out the tag of a shirt bought at H&M in Stockholm, chances are that I will find written there "Made in Bangladesh” - words so familiar they incur nothing more than mild curiosity and maybe a guilty twinge.
But the reality that the clothes I wear were made by human beings halfway across the world - of a different race, nationality, and social class - should trouble me. As activist Ali Hewson said: “We carry the lives of the people that make our clothes".
Who are these people? Whose hands stitched the shirt that now stretches across my skin? What is their quality of living, and how does my consumption help or hurt it?
We’ve all heard of the garment industry in Bangladesh, because in April 2013, it exploded onto global consciousness with a catastrophic tragedy: the collapse of an eight-story factory in Rana Plaza that killed 1,138 workers and injured over 2,500.
Instantaneously, Bangladesh’s garment production became a global issue, and as the tags of Walmart, Primark, and H&M emerged from the wreckage, one that hit close to home.
But this horrific story isn't unusual: production under unjust conditions is a story repeated in developing countries around the world. What makes Bangladesh unique, though, is its dependence on the industry, and that industry’s dependence on the labour of women.
Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of the apparel in the world; the production of the country’s 5,000 garment factories accounts for 80% of the coastal nation’s GDP. The cost of production in Bangladesh is half its nearest competitor China, and it doesn’t take an expert to figure out why the costs are so low. Bangladeshis earn the world’s lowest wages in the industry: the equivalent of $68 a month. Until November 2013, that number was only $37.
What makes Bangladesh even more unique is that fueling the engine of this critical industry is the labor of women: 85% of the work force – at least 2 million – are women. An overwhelming majority are illiterate, impoverished, rural migrants moving to the city for their first job, and living in slums with little or no land, food shortages, and no educated adult family members.
This isn’t a coincidence. The Harvard Journal of Law and Gender reported that “factory owners have deliberately feminized the industry, preferring to hire women for their very low wage expectations, their willingness to work longer hours than their male counterparts, and the ease of dismissing them”.
But what, you may be saying, is it really like to be a woman worker in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry? Is it really that much worse than being a man in the same job?
The truth is that, if you or I were a Bangladeshi female worker, our day would start and end in fear.
Women workers face the most harrassment in public places travelling to and from work. Waiting for the bus on a street with inadequate lighting, we would fear abduction or harassment; when we tried to board, we might be refused or charged higher than normal fares. If either of us made it on, we might be subject to suggestive comments or groped.
During our 14-16 hour work day, one study showed that one of us would be slapped or hit, at least one of us would be demeaned by obscene language, and one or both of us would be winked at, pinched, kissed, or threatened to undress.
In the factory, one of us would have no access to a toilet, most likely both of us would have no drinking water, and neither of would be able to rest.
Under the Bangladeshi Labor Law of 2006, we are guaranteed 16 weeks paid maternity leave, but if both of us were to get pregnant, one us would be made to work overtime, one of us sent home on leave without pay, and either of us fired.
Although illegal, most likely both of us would take a night shift under pressure or threat to meet quotas imposed by corporations. During these night shifts, there would be no doctor available in case of an accident, and we most likely wouldn’t receive any food or drink.
After working till 3 am, both of us would prefer to stay in the factory to avoid the danger of leaving and travelling home alone, but it is then that we face the greatest vulnerability of being raped. If we were though, we wouldn't reported it, because we have no legal protection and no job security.
In spite of all of this, we as women would earn on average 60% less than our male co-workers – nearly the same ratio as in America.
Research exposes a multiplicity of gendered injustices undergirding Bangladesh’s garment industry and by extension, global consumerism. In the wake of the publicized Rana Plaza disaster, the world has focused on building and fire safety – as they should – but they’ve failed to address everyday injustices leveled against the women sustaining the industry.
In the face of such numbing statistics, the temptation is to despair. But in a capitalistic system driven by profits, we as consumers are equally culpable in perpetuating the system and powerful in the possibility of changing it. We're held responsible to take action to right these wrongs.
Based upon this research, my project partner Kyra Drescher and I brainstormed recommendations for each of the three key culprits implicated in this complex system.
Corporations and factory owners:
Compensation for ill conduct
Accountability to ensure safety and livable wages for workers
Transparency about where our clothes come from, how they’re made, and where the money goes – for instance, why does the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, Michael Jeffries, get paid over $8,000,000 – the same salary as nearly 10,000 of the Bangladeshi workers making the clothes he sells?
Enforce already existing labour laws
Increase initiatives to diversify employment options for women
Provide protection and safe transportation for female workers
Gain awareness: learn how, where, and by whom our clothes are made
Hold organized boycotts: not just isolated individual protests
Change culture: transform standards and demands of globalized industry to value quality over quantity, ethics over consumption, human beings over profits
As I reflect on a system seeped in injustice, I'm buoyed by the hope of change that's possible, and already taking place, at the grassroot level.
Bangladeshi workers are unionizing with increasing power. In September 2013, the United Garment Workers’ Federation (UGWF) held a protest with over 50,000 employees to demand an increase in wages; over 300 factories were forced to shut down for the day. Women workers are realizing the power and value of their voices. As UGWF’s President that day declared:
“We will not hesitate to do anything to realize our demand. We are not the object of mercy, the economy moves with our toil."
Research conducted and original report co-authored with Kyra Drescher