Thank you for reading these posts from our trip to Bangladesh, a research trip for “The Price Of Our Clothes,” our project about the ways in which American consumers are tied to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the garment workers in Bangladesh. We would love to include your input as we move forward.
So here are a few questions for you. Please know that your answers may be included in our project.
What kinds of questions were raised for you about garment workers in Bangladesh?
Did reading our blog make you think differently at all about the clothes you wear?
If you could speak to garment workers and/or factory owners in Bangladesh, what would you say?
We also are interested in interviewing anyone who has relatives or ancestors who sewed clothing in a sweatshop or factory or anyone who works in any other aspect of the clothing industry today. Please let us know!
We’d love to hear any additional thoughts or questions you have about this project. We look forward to hearing from you.
By our third trip to Savar, many sights on the roadsides have become familiar: particular market stalls, smokestack-shaped brick kilns encircled by falcons, rice paddies, black and white skylarks (the national bird of Bangladesh) perched on electrical wires – and the garment factory scrap site, an area downhill from the road filled with huge white canvas bags stuffed with multi-colored bits of fabric. The scraps are leftovers from the thousands of surrounding garment factories. They spill out in multicolored heaps, bleed into the nearby river and overtake the surrounding land. This morning, we stop at the site. Women are crouching in the scrap piles and sorting through the material. They’re paid roughly ten cents an hour – about one dollar a day – to sift and sort, by color and size, the fabric remnants of our clothes before the scraps are sold off as mattress and pillow stuffing.
We get out of the car with Zaeed, who is our translator again, and walk slowly down the embankment. The women watch us. Surely this is the first time they’ve witnessed white women approaching them as they work. At the bottom of the hill, we can see colors and patterns carefully sorted in bags. Zaeed asks if it would be possible for us to collect a few scraps – Rachel wants to use them in her work. The owner willingly hands over a plastic bag. Rachel begins filling it. Immediately, all the women pitch in – choosing the “best” scraps for her. They each seem anxious to put a handful into the bag. All smile and wave when we leave. What do they really think of us?
Later this morning we arrive in Savar to visit a very small factory. The visit is arranged by Action Aid.
The factory is not more than 10 sewing machines, 7 workers who seem relaxed but work steadily, and a cutting table in a bright one-room building. Sun streams through the door and window, illuminating the parrot-yellow, turquoise and fuschia pants stacked on the work table, the white walls, white sewing machines and tired eyes of Nasir, one of the factory’s owners. He takes a break from measuring elastic for waistbands, answering workers’ questions and inspecting the clothes sewn by the other workers in the room to sit with us and talk.
Nasir is from Barisal, south of Dhaka, where most of the economy is based on farming and fishing. He stayed in school until the 10th grade then came to Dhaka to look for work. At twenty-two, he joined the garment industry and became a quality inspector at a factory in Dhaka. In 2011, New Wave Style, on the 7th floor of Rana Plaza, hired him as a quality inspector. Very soon, he was promoted to quality controller. His wife, Sonia, also worked for New Wave Style.
Both survived the Rana Plaza collapse but both sustained injuries. Nasir still has to take medication and Sonia, whose head, spine, and legs were severely injured, still receives therapy and still can’t work.
With compensation money that he and Sonia received, Nasir joined forces with friend and fellow survivor, Jahaugir, and invested in a new garment factory, which they aptly named New Life. He now co-owns and co-manages New Life with the help of Action Aid.
The owners and all six workers at New Life survived the Rana Plaza collapse. They work together in this one floor factory, initially producing stretch cotton pants, a product they knew they could produce quickly and well. Now that they’ve reached a higher level of expertise, they’ve gotten orders for shirts, blouses, polos, tee shirts and bags. Everything they make is sold locally.
At the question: how do you like being an owner, Nasir smiles. Now he has to think about his co-workers as well as himself. He works alongside them but has increased responsibilities too: the budget, ensuring the quality of the product, the payroll. “When I was just a worker, I could escape my duties sometimes. Now, I can’t.”
He makes sure that New Life is a different kind of workplace for everyone who works there. Where he used to work, managers verbally abused the workers, hurling insults that Nasir and Zaeed would not repeat out loud, words of hatred against women. Managers pressured the workers to fulfill targets, scolded them and even abused them physically if those targets were not met. Here, at New Life, there is ease. There are no targets. If there are any mistakes, Nasir talks to the workers but does not punish them. “Any mistake is correctable,” he says. The workers around us seem intent on accomplishing their work but in a relaxed way. An exciting new model of ownership is emerging.
In the late afternoon, caught in the clogged river of traffic in Dhaka, Zaeed and Sadek, our driver, point out some of the many garment factories housed in the city. These ordinary office buildings have no signage but sometimes we can spot workers walking up and down the fire escapes.
For hours, we continue to wind through traffic and narrow alleys filled with treacherous holes in our effort to meet with an organizer from the National Garment Workers Federation and a number of the women he works with at various Dhaka garment factories.
By the time we arrive, it is dark. We are at least an hour late and worry that the women might be upset about having to wait for us after a full day of work in front of sewing machines. But the 22 women and children who are here greet us with smiles. A bed has been taken out of a house and put into the middle of a muddy yard to create a place for us to sit. A light from a single bulb attached to the outside of a house illuminates our gathering. People bring us tea and cookies and place a chair in front of us for each worker to sit in when it’s her turn to talk. The rest of the group listens patiently as four workers answer our questions and tell their stories. The city chaos disappears; car horns, bicycle bells, crowd shouts, even evening prayers broadcast through loudspeakers, become white noise.
Shahida has been working in the garment industry for over 20 years – since she was a young teenager. She has been at her new job almost a year and a half, working 12 hour days or longer with no holiday breaks when under pressure to finish a job. She says the job is a good one. The factory is fairly safe, with 3 exits and pots of sand to extinguish fires; it also has a proper sanitation system. Workers have a space to eat their lunch and another space for praying. The management doesn’t intimidate them when they go for a drink of water or to go to the bathroom.
But she does have complaints about the way garment workers are paid.
In 2013, the government declared an increase in garment workers’ wages, but as soon as this policy was put in place, factory owners created a new quota system. If a worker sewed 80 pockets per day, after the increase in the salary, her quota was increased to 120 pockets. She could take time to got to the toilet or eat her lunch, but if she failed to meet the quota then she had to stay at work to meet it – without getting paid.
The factory where Shahida works now follows this system. The management also tries to make up reasons to fire older, more experienced workers so they don’t have to increase their salaries. She did not start her new job with the salary she deserved based on her years of experience. Over a year later, she has not had a raise. She says it’s not fair. We agree. And yet, when we ask if she might join the garment workers’ union, she says she is “almost new” at her job and avoids the subject.
Pamina, who has worked in the industry for 7 years, says she has not been involved in the union. She tells us that most of the factories have their own committee in the factory called the “Welfare Council.” The organizers are selected by the management and go to the workers to “preach what the factory authority tells them to say.”
When we ask if she thinks it’s important for the workers to have a voice about their working conditions, she says she is not earning enough but she hasn’t learned to do anything other than work in the garment industry. “I have no way out.” She and her husband both have to work so her children can go to school.
Her daughter is completing the 10th grade this year. Pamina wants her to continue her studies so that she can become competent and self-reliant – but not by finding work in the garment sector.
Amina, a very shy and tired-sound young woman of 25, has a similar outlook on her life. She has to work in the garment industry. She doesn’t know anything else and does not have the education to do anything else.
Whenever she thinks of Rana Plaza and Tazreen she is overcome by fear. Then she thinks: “I have to survive.” There are cracks in the building in which her garment factory is housed. “But I have no other option than to continue my work.”
The issue of personal betterment seems almost absurd to her because she has been working for 4 years at the same factory and is still getting the 5300 taka per month – 68.73 U.S. dollars – salary of a starter and no overtime pay.
She joined the union in the hope that she would get paid for holidays, but that has not happened. But she does admit that the union has brought positive changes to the factory where she works. Before the union, intimidation was frequent. Now it is difficult for management to fire workers on false pretenses and verbal abuse has been significantly reduced.
Khadija, Amina’s younger sister, tells us about a factory where she used to work, where there were 2 unions: one established by the owner, the other, by the workers. In order to quash dissent by the worker’s union, factory owners cut the workers’ palms with knives and tore apart their outfits at the factory. She left without receiving her salary and moved to another factory where, she says, conditions are better.
The labor union movement in Bangladesh is quite nascent, but is more important than ever because it is the only collective voice for these women and the only clear way to empower them to address unfair wages and working conditions.
After spending the morning in Savar with Rana Plaza survivors, we go to the town of Ashulia, about 7 kilometers north, to meet with survivors of the Tazreen Factory Fire. Mohamed Ibrahim, from Kalpona Akter’s organization, the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity, organized the meeting. Again, Zaeed translates for us.
In Ashulia, roughly 14 workers and their children are gathered outside their home, a series of rooms linked by a common porch. They give us seats on the porch, leave one chair for a survivor to sit in as she or he speaks to us, and form a semi-circle of listeners behind the speaker.
One at a time, four people take the chair to tell the story of where they were and what they did on November 24th, 2012, when the management of the Tazreen Fashion Factory locked the doors and left the building. A fire started inside the factory–which had no fire security measures, no fire extinguishers, and no sand. At least 112 garment workers died and 300 were injured. Despite the fact that the fire occurred before the Rana Plaza collapse, the deceased workers’ families and those injured in the fire have yet to be compensated. There is hope that because of Rana Plaza there will be at least some compensation, but nothing has materialized yet. It’s hard to believe that a garment factory fire that killed over 112 workers in part, because of locked doors, did not garner international rage and action when it happened. It is also stunning that only a workplace disaster as devastating as the Rana Plaza collapse, that took 1,134 lives, could do so.
With each story told, there is an air of giving testimony. We listen with respect and humility to a mother who worked in the garment industry to be able to bring up her children–particularly her daughter–with a proper education, but now has a traumatic brain injury that gives her such severe headaches that she can no longer work, a father and experienced tailor who now, because of spinal and hand injuries, ekes out a living running a tea stall, a sewing supervisor who once supported his parents, his brother, his wife and himself but is now so severely injured that he that will never be able to do manual labor and cannot support anyone, and a frail, middle-aged woman, a sweeper in the factory, whose injuries were so devastating that her husband had to quit his job as a rickshaw puller to care for her. They had to send their youngest children to their extended family’s rural home to be looked after by relatives.
Each person describes the mounting terror of watching the factory slowly fill up with smoke, the fear felt trying to figure out how to escape and the wild panic of attempting to pull the grills off windows in order to get out. All talk of losing consciousness after hurling themselves out of windows and hitting the roofs or walls of nearby buildings.
With no fire extinguishers, no fire trucks coming to the rescue and locked doors, it is almost inconceivable that the Tazreen Factory fire happened in the year 2012. Walmart and Sears were two of the main American companies whose clothes were made in this factory. These companies have given no compensation to workers injured in the fire or to the families of workers who lost their lives. Tazreen, and other similar Bangladesh garment factory fires caused by poor fire safety standards and no fire safety education for garment workers, are the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire all over again.
Masud Rana, the former tailor and current tea stall owner, cries when he tells us how difficult life is for him now. He is not earning enough to support his wife and children and can’t ask for support from his father, a poor peasant farmer. His wife, who was pregnant when the fire happened, has to remain in the house with their youngest child. “But the cause of my agony is, I couldn’t save the lives of those who burned to ashes in front of my eyes.”
He also says he is utterly happy that we are here with the Tazreen workers. “You will let other people know about the conditions we are living in.”
“Write, so that the process of getting compensation might get momentum,” says Hassan Mian, the former sewing supervisor and family breadwinner who now has to collect old garments from other people to clothe his children.
One week after our first trip to Savar, we return for another visit, organized this time by activist and artist Taslima Akhter. She has set up appointments for us with four garment workers who survived the Rana Plaza collapse and know her well. Taslima has also secured a translator for us, her friend Zaeed Aziz, a filmmaker who also knows the people we are about to meet.
Getting to know the people who make our clothes feels like a vital part of our trip here. Many of them have been interviewed over and over by journalists and researchers—to the point where many feel exploited for the benefit of “news,” not support—but part of our mission is to connect with these garment workers as human beings, not statistics and not exotic abstractions.
We meet Mili Khatun, who takes us to the one room apartment she shares with friends. She sits on the bed, and gives us chairs facing her. Zaeed says we are allowed to ask her anything; she can decide to answer–or not. Mili is shy with us, and often looks away, but as soon as she starts speaking with Zaeed, her face and hands become animated, her voice, firm, her gaze, steady. We don’t know Bangla, but by watching Zaeed’s gentle, respectful body language, listening to the soothing tones in his voice and observing Mili’s reactions, it is obvious that Zaeed is a brilliant, empathetic interviewer, interpreting our questions with sensitivity, giving us uncensored answers. We are so lucky to be working with him.
We sit with Mili for a couple of hours. Here are a few details from the interview.
Mili, who is now 23, grew up in a village in Northeast Bangladesh. As a teenager, she met Matiur Rahman, a boy from another village, and fell in love. They got married two months later, angering her parents, who did not accept the marriage. Forced to leave her village, Mili and Matiur tried unsuccessfully to make ends meet until they moved to Savar to join the garment industry. They both took jobs on the 4th floor of Rana Plaza, at the Phantom Apparel factory. Matiur became a cutting master. Mili, who was 16, got her first job as a sewing helper and quickly rose to the position of sewing operator. On their combined income, they could finally make a living.
When Mili and her husband began working in Rana Plaza, it was a 5-story building, but Rana, the owner, bribed Dhaka’s engineering department to give him permission to build another 4 stories and place 2 16-ton generators on the roof.
April 22, 2013, two days before the collapse, the factory operators noticed a crack in the building. They asked their employees to stop working and closed the factory. The next day, they insisted that the workers return. The evening of April 23rd, Matiur went to the factory and prepared cloth for sewing until 3 a.m. He returned home to Mili, slept a bit, then went back to work. Mili woke up with an upset stomach. She couldn’t eat. The night before, Matiur had told her about the crack in the building. He had a hunch that the building might collapse.
Mili’s eyes, encircled with shadows of tiredness, remain dry as she recounts the events of April 24th, 2013.
At 8 a.m. she went to her workplace on the 4th floor of Rana Plaza. Her husband was already there, working nearby. Neither had eaten breakfast. He said he would arrange snacks with the sweeper. Then the electricity went out. The 16 ton generators began to hum. They were almost immediately silenced by a deafening blast. The area where Matiur had been working was now swirling dust. Other workers were running around her, heading toward the staircase. Mili was confused. She stayed beside her machine and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she saw light through the dust emitted from a window that her supervisor had just broken. He said it was the only way to escape. She fell on her knees, grabbed his legs and said: “please find my husband.” He advised her to leave the factory first.
Her whole body bruised and her head injured, Mili went back to the house in search of Matiur, sure that he had gone home to find her. But he wasn’t there.
She took his ID card with his photo on it back to Rana Plaza and spoke to a journalist from a big daily newspaper. Then she fell unconscious.
Her relatives came to Dhaka and continued the search for her husband in hospitals, police stations, the rubble of Rana Plaza, the local schoolyard where most of the dead bodies were taken. On the 13th day, a body was found wearing jeans. In his pocket was a moneybag, on which was written: OK. Mili claimed that the body was her husband. He had that kind of moneybag. But another woman claimed that the corpse was her brother. The police gave the body to the sister.
The search continued. No bodies were found that matched her husband’s DNA. Government and NGO officials told her, “It might have happened that your husband escaped and is hiding somewhere. We have to ensure that he’s dead.” She and her relatives persisted until they finally got papers from the police station certifying that Matiur was missing.
The monetary compensation for Rana Plaza survivors and families of the dead has been a huge confusing conflict. According to Mili, everyone expected to get the same amount but the government gave some people more than others, even within families, and treated everyone like beggars.
Zaeed adds that there have been different agencies involved and disbursement has not been coordinated.
Mili speaks more quickly. She is visibly agitated. “Compensation is a problematic word,” she says. “No compensation is enough for one who is dead.” No one can give back her husband, bring solace, restore her peace of mind.
And she is not optimistic that those who committed the crime will be punished. Rana will remain behind bars for a few years then come out. This is what the system is.
Even after Rana Plaza, the garment sector has not changed a lot. There’s still torture, irregularities. An accident like Rana Plaza should have changed everything. Mili insists that those from abroad should exert pressure to improve conditions and ensure the punishment of perpetrators. And consumers from abroad should pay more for their clothes.
“We have to work hard, toil hard. Labor here is very cheap. With hard toil we can hardly get money to subsist. The garments are cheap. Buyers sell at half price. If prices increase, workers’ lives can be eased a bit. Better prices equal better wages.”
Taslima Ahkter has been working with Mili and others from Rana Plaza, giving essential advice to improve their own lives. She always stands beside them and collaborates with their efforts.
Taslima has also helped Mili find a new job, as a senior sewing operator in the small garment factory, Oparajeyo (undefeated), a concept of Kazi Monir Hossain Rintu.
For the most part, the environment in garment factories is still not friendly to workers. If they get a drink of water or go to the toilet, officials rebuke them, saying “It hampers production.” They work under a tight, busy schedule, can rarely take time for lunch or meet a visitor.
But Oparajeyo is different. The owner is nice and most of the workers are Rana Plaza survivors. Mili can a rest whenever she feels the need; if she’s sick she can go home. She can even borrow money from the owner. If she works regularly she receives 8000 taka per month (approximately $100 US dollars). If she works overtime she gets more.
There was no union at Phantom Apparel when Mili worked there. Now, at a factory with only 15 workers, they’re talking about joining a union, and she’s been in contact with Taslima Akter about becoming a member of her organization, Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity.
We talk with 3 more Rana Plaza survivors: Asma, who was trapped in the rubble for 4 days before she was freed, Siraj Mian, who lost his wife Selina in the collapse, and Beauty, who was trapped for 3 days before she was rescued. All sustained long-term psychological pain, if not physical pain. We plan to tell their stories in more depth down the road.
We meet with each person in their home, which means, for each one, one room located in some kind of communal housing arrangement, each with a shared toilet, a shared water source outside their room, and a shared fire source, like some kind of outdoor communal fire pit. No one has a fridge but all have a bed, where, for the most part, we sit when we talk. Each person, too, has some kind of metal cabinet where food is kept and some kind of shelving unit where a few dishes, pots and glasses are stored.
These homes, on average, cost between 800 to 1600 taka per month, an average of $10 to $20 US dollars. Their salaries vary somewhat depending on the work they do, but on average, they make about $68 US dollars a month. This must cover rent, food, clothes and money that needs to be sent to help parents and sometimes children who are often living in their home village. $100 US dollars a month is considered minimum wage in Bangladesh.
Their lives are not easy. After the Rana Plaza collapse, Mili Khatun’s parents asked her to go back to her village. She didn’t go. She wanted to be independent, stay in Savar and work in a factory, despite the difficulties. But she was still trying to get over the trauma of Rana Plaza so she decided to work at Oparajeyo, a factory with one story and a tin roof.The factory’s owner is not getting enough work but he is trying his best.
If the factory flourishes she will continue to work there and stay in Savar. She says: “when someone earns and lives on it, it has a pleasure of its own.” She is living with friends but she is alone and the job is not secure. They don’t get work on a regular basis. In spite of this she is striving. Striving and fighting give her energy.
In reference to our presence today and our project, Mili says: “it is better to let people know more.” We are striving to let people know.
On Feb. 11th we visited lawyer Sara Hossain at her office at BLAST, the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust. Sara is the daughter of Kamal Hossain, a very liberal and well-known jurist who is considered the father of Bangladesh’s constitution. Bangladesh has a thriving intellectual and progressive vanguard and Sara is certainly a member of it.
She is also the executive director of BLAST, whose mission is “to make the legal system accessible to the poor and the marginalized.” BLAST has provided a number of services to Rana Plaza survivors and families of victims, and continues to work on legal aspects of the case.
Sara is also a member of a law firm and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh as well as BLAST’s director. To say she has a hectic schedule is a huge understatement. Our interview was periodically interrupted by phone calls and visits from other BLAST staff members asking for her counsel. She invited a young lawyer, Ishita Dutta, to join our meeting and cover for her when she was too busy to talk to us.
Sara was very frank about the immediate effects of Rana Plaza on Bangladesh’s garment industry. “The law protecting workers’ rights is O.K., it’s the implementation that’s the problem.” The government is more concerned about keeping the ready-made garment industry strong, allowing private factories free reign to keep up with the demands of multinational companies.
“The people who would be coalescing behind Rana Plaza have fractured,” she says, due to the country’s political climate, in which the two major parties are battling for power with violent ferocity.
“The justice table is a little bit empty,” says Sara.
Little has changed in the almost two years since the Rana Plaza collapse. The government has “washed its hands” of the survivors and victims’ families, leaving their compensation and rehabilitation to the “voluntary scheme” of the Arrangement.
“On the other hand,” Sara adds, “the glass is half full.”
Thanks to the work of activists and NGOs, there are initiatives in place for the workers of Rana Plaza. They’ve had some level of counseling; they did have solidarity from the rest of the country—at least immediately after the collapse.
And the collapse did change “the game” with the Alliance–Accord. Inspections and protection in factories have improved. There is now a more organized frame of reference, more debate and discussion. A lot could still happen.
We couldn’t help but think about how long it took for the shock and outrage after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to translate into labor laws and building codes and a strong garment workers union. Although the owners of the Triangle factory did go to trial, they were acquitted, and not held responsible for the tragedy.
Sara’s message for American consumers: “please support the workers here. This is not a situation where you can look away. There has been incredible change. The world buys things we make. It makes a big difference in the conversations we can have here, the comparisons we can make.”
What should happen next, we ask. Multinational companies and factory owners should have some understanding of what their responsibilities are. And there should also be clarity on building codes and safety inspections. Bangladesh is a fast-changing industrialized society. Every day, larger, taller buildings are built on sandy soil that can’t accommodate so much weight. And all the new development occurs in Dhaka, which is already the 19th most densely populated city in the world.
And of course, the voluntary funds need to get to the Rana Plaza survivors and the victims’ families.
Sara is concerned about the difficult issue of compensation, an issue that we’ve also discussed with other NGOs that work on the Rana Plaza case and with the Rana Plaza survivors we’ve met. According to Bangladesh Law, if your family member dies in a workplace accident, you are entitled to the equivalent of $1,000 US dollars. If you are a permanently injured survivor, $1,200 US dollars. In the case of the Rana Plaza collapse, money is being distributed in a variety of ways and based on a range of criteria, but the amount of compensation remains shockingly low. Of course it is impossible to put a price on a loved one and many survivors and family members who lost loved ones in the Rana Plaza collapse talked about this with us. Moreover, they emphasized the unfairness of the equation. On the other hand, the amount families are receiving is more than what any victim of any factory accident in Bangladesh has ever received, and some people see this as progress.
For Sara, our discussion opens up a larger and critical question about how we conceive of justice. She told us that many people think of justice as something that happens at the end – punishment or rehabilitation. She is much more interested in seeing it in different ways and especially in seeing it as a process. We find this to be a potent context for both the story of garment workers and the current political climate in Bangladesh, which is challenging at best.
Sara discussed the current culture of impunity that exists, that may be changing because of Rana Plaza. A case in point is a factory fire that occurred in the town of Ashuria on November 24, 2012 in the Tazreen Fashion Factory. At least 117 people were confirmed dead and over 200 were injured. It was extraordinarily similar to the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire in that the reason so many people died is that the doors to the factory were locked. The survivors of this fire have yet to receive any compensation. The owner of this factory was not arrested until 11 months after the fire. Though in prison, he has yet to be tried.
The owner of the Rana Plaza building, Sohel Rana, was apprehended just 24 hours after the collapse, close to the Indian border, apparently intending to flee the country.
Sara also sees memorialization as part of the justice process. She encouraged us to visit the many important memorials in Bangladesh, the Liberation War memorial, the Martyred Intellectuals Memorial, the Memorial to the Mother Language and even the cemetery of the unidentified and unclaimed bodies from the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse – of which there are 154, of 1,134.
With our interest in linking the Rana Plaza Collapse to the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire, we especially appreciated her sense of the importance of history.
We are so impressed by Sara and the other women we’ve met in Dhaka who are working on behalf of garment workers here. Like Clara Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman and Frances Perkins, women from diverse classes and cultures who were instrumental in changing working conditions in America’s garment industry after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Sara Hossain, Kalpona Akter and Taslima Akhter are spearheading change in Bangladesh at a time when the majority of women in the country are just beginning to find their economic and political power. The challenges for Bangladesh’s women leaders, according to Sara, are working together with a common voice that speaks to all classes of women. “Religious extremism affects us severely,” she says; so does nationalist extremism, polarization, dogmatism and insularity. “People need to cross bridges to build a culture respecting rights.”
Heeding Sara’s recommendation, we go to the cemetery where the 154 unclaimed and unidentified Rana Plaza dead are buried. As it turns out, the 51 unclaimed and unidentified Tazreen fire dead are buried in the same cemetery. This cemetery is difficult to find, even for our incredibly experienced and talented driver, Sadek, who seems to know every back road in Dhaka, and more than once has gotten us out of traffic jams by skillfully navigating narrow alleys. He has to stop and ask people at every turn how to get to the public cemetery, a place where people with no money to buy a plot are buried. Eventually, we have to get out of the car and walk for ten minutes to get there because our vehicle cannot go in the narrow alleys along the way.
These are the kinds of streets and alleys where foreigners don’t usually travel. Stares and open mouths greet us as we walk with our extraordinary translator and guide, Zaeed.
The cemetery is large and individual plots have thin bamboo fencing surrounding them. Children play and families walk among the graves. We finally come to a long expanse of grass where the 154 bodies are buried–like all the bodies buried here–in cloth, not coffins, which causes them to disintegrate fairly rapidly. Most heart wrenching are the individual labels by each burial plot. Handwritten on metal, lashed to a small wooden post is a DNA number and…and that is it.
Garbage litters the area. The man who showed us the location of the plots begins to collect some of the garbage and attempts to straighten the signposts, obviously something that doesn’t happen very often. These are plots for bodies that no one was able to claim, or perhaps they belonged to families that could not afford to transport them back to their villages of origin. A few of the plots had been claimed after the bodies had already been buried and these were identified by the bamboo fencing placed around the plots, some painted and with more formal signs that showed the names and village of the victim.
The graves of the Tazreen victims are even more decrepit. The cemetery manager has a hard time finding even one signpost designating any DNA markers, though eventually he does find one.
At these gravesites, Sara Hossain’s words: “The justice table is a little bit empty,” are aptly illustrated.
On February 8th, we went to the Bangladesh branch of the Action Aid office, a six-story building in the upscale, relatively quiet Gulshan area. Here we met Action Aid’s country director, Farah Kabir, an elegant woman with an easy wit (her take on Dhaka’s traffic jams: a great time to get your work done if you have the proper office equipment in your car) who oversees a staff of 150 at work on issues ranging from water rights, development, microfinance, education and the welfare of workers in a variety of trades.
Action Aid has also been of enormous help to us, organizing the majority of our interviews and our first trip to Savar. We thanked Farah profusely. She was interested in the goals of our project and was relieved to hear that we are not advocating a boycott of multinational companies.
We are hearing this from many people we speak to. The concern is that 4 million Bangladeshi workers are employed in the garment industry. No one wants these jobs to leave. Everyone wants the jobs to stay, but they want those jobs with FAIR WAGES, SAFE WORKING CONDITIONS AND THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE WITH UNIONS.
Farah invited us to lunch at the Action Aid cafeteria, a kitchen, dining area and terrace; sits on the top floor of the building. Every day, Action Aid’s workers get freshly made, delicious Bengali food for lunch. They sit together at large tables like an extended family, eat and either talk business or relax. The atmosphere is welcoming and informal.
Next, we went to the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS). We met Kalpona Akter, BCWS’s director, in one of the inner offices. Her down-to-earth friendliness belied her status as a well-known spokesperson for Bangladeshi garment workers who tours the world demanding workers rights in garment factories and accountability from the multinational companies that profit from their labor. She remembered speaking at the University of Minnesota, and joked about how cold Minneapolis was. She has also been interviewed by the New York Times and Salon.com and has spoken to 14,000 Walmart shareholders at their headquarters in Arkansas, but before becoming such a public figure, she was a garment worker. She knows what she’s talking about because this is where she came from. She is not only eloquent but she is honest.
At fourteen, the same age as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire’s youngest victims, she worked as a sewing machine helper in a Bangladeshi factory. Her father had fallen ill. She needed to help her family. Sweatshop conditions in the tiny, crowded, dirty residential building where she worked 450 hours a month for $6 evoked Triangle Shirtwaist Factory era New York City for us. Unfair changes in overtime wages pushed workers to strike. She was the only female among them. After the strike was unsuccessful, she trained with the AFL-CIO backed Bangladesh Solidarity Center, learning about labor laws, what proper working hours and fair wages should be. She was so successful at organizing her fellow workers that she was fired and black-listed from the garment industry—then immediately hired by the union. Eventually, she wanted to reach out to other workers beyond the garment industry, so she formed BC WS. Read more about BC WS here.
Kalpona has been campaigning internationally for the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and tells heartbreaking stories of Bangladesh garment factories that collapsed like fallen cakes and workers who jumped out of windows well above the ground floor to escape factory fires because the management kept all exits locked and the factories had no fire extinguishers. Rana Plaza and the Tazreen Factory Fire of 2012 are only the worst and most famous workplace disasters in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire rings loudly in these stories. Bangladesh has good safety laws but to enforce them in the private garment industry, workers need the support of multi-national companies and factories.
Her plea to consumers: If you feel that you’re just buying a tee shirt and can’t make a difference, it’s not true. Please know that we, the 4,000,000 young women in Bangladesh who work in the ready-made garment industry need our jobs. We are just starting to know what empowerment is, we want the jobs, but we want them with dignity: a living wage and safe working conditions. If you pay only 50-60 cents more for that tee shirt, you can help improve the lives of the workers who made it.
And you can raise your voices and use your buying power to demand that clothing brands sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
This cannot be said strongly enough. One of the (many) problems in the industry here is that the multinationals that have their clothes made in Bangladesh don’t own the factories where the clothes are made. They only “contract” with the factories here. With no investment, its easy for these companies to pick up and move to Sri Lanka or Cambodia or even some place where there aren’t yet any factories–a place where workers are more easily exploited and prices are kept low. They have no investment, commitment or legal responsibility in the communities where the garment workers work and live.
People here have told us that if prices were raised just ten cents on each clothing item it would be enough to raise the current monthly wage of $68 to $100, making a living wage possible. Are you willing to pay that extra ten cents?
The interview ended with a look at Kalpona’s new bicycle, which was leaning against a wall in her office. She was just learning to ride it. Mysteriously, printed on the bicycle was the word Minnesota. We definitely felt connected to Kalpona.
On Saturday we had the great pleasure of meeting Taslima Akter, an activist and artist. Taslima is an internationally recognized photographer known mainly for her photos documenting the lives and struggles of garment workers. Her portfolio includes portraits of survivors of the Rana Plaza Factory collapse and images from the collapse itself. Her work is intimate, vivid, and powerful. We were thrilled to meet her. You can see her works here: http://www.taslimaakhter.com/
One of the most striking things about her is how unassuming she is. Rather than beginning our talk by showing us her work, she starts by showing us a book titled Outcries of a Thousand Souls, created by a collective of Bangladeshi artists, that includes incredible information, stories and art about the Rana Plaza Collapse. The collective states: “We couldn’t accept that so many lives (and deaths) would simply disappear into nothingness. We want to keep the political significance and memories of the cruelty of 24 April alive in everyone’s minds. We don’t want to let these people die, or become just numbers; we cannot let them disappear into nothingness, or get erased from our memories.”
The book is in Bengali (they are hoping to translate the book into English) and contains stories of a number of dead and missing persons, why they left their villages and migrated to Dhaka, how they got involved in the garment industry, how they lost their lives, what their dreams were. Most of these writings have been transcribed from interviews or statements of affected family members, or were written by family members themselves.
The book also contains essays by activists, writers and intellectuals, Facebook posts, Tazreen and Rana Plaza related plays, poems, songs, cartoons and maps. It also features news of struggles and protests by activist-organizer-artists from different platforms with different methods against the atrocities of Rana Plaza.
The work to put this book together was quite extensive. What stands out to us is the range and variety of its contents – both factual and creative. The combination of the two is particularly fitting and powerful.
The factual information helps us to see the individuals who died, rather than just a big number. The book includes a map of where all the dead came from in Bangladesh and a chart that shows the ages of the dead; 39 were between the ages of 13 and 17 but most were between 18 and 34. And most were women.
Taslima also showed us photos and video from an exhibition titled “1134 ‘lives not numbers,’ the exhibition,” which included photography, installations, performance and sculpture about the Collapse. The work was both powerful and beautiful.
“The story of our people is not about the poverty behind the crisis,” says Taslima. “We show our poverty and crisis and have a tendency to think we cannot solve our problems. I like to show the strength of the people.” Taslima’s artwork and activism beautifully show this.
(If you’d like to see these photos larger, just click on them).
We arrived in Bangladesh on Wednesday, Feb. 4th. Coming from the U.S, it took Alison 2 days to get here. Coming from Rome Italy, it didn’t take Rachel quite as long. Leading up to our trip, we communicated with a number of contacts from different circles and e-mailed many people who have been responding to and are involved with the Rana Plaza factory collapse in some capacity. People have been open about helping us and willing to put us in touch with people we want to talk to.
On Feb. 5th, we woke to the daily 5:30 call to prayer projected from a nearby mosque then went for a walk together with eyes, ears, and noses wide open. We were rewarded with new, rich and colorful sights, many smells and sounds: traffic horns, grease frying in the open air, rickshaw bells, dust, smells of curry and roasted chickpeas, hellos, stares, sparkly saris and kurtas, beggars, barbed wire and concrete. All the buildings seem to be made from concrete here, as was the Rana Plaza Factory that collapsed on March 24th, 2013.
On February 6th, our driver took us to a small office to meet Sumon, managerial director of the Safety and Rights Society, which educates workers about their legal right to work in a healthy, safe environment and fights for workers’ compensation in the case of workplace accidents. He greeted us with warmth, offered tea and cookies and spoke with passion for his work. He said that the Safety and Rights Society is the only NGO of its kind in Bangladesh.
Sumon is working in tandem with garment workers unions, workers’ rights organizations and other NGOs on compensation for Rana Plaza victims. He told us that Bangladesh’s garment workers used to be reluctant to fight for their rights in the work place. If a problem occurred, they lived with it—it was their fate. Only God could save them. They did not want to make a case; they were afraid they’d lose their jobs.
International attention on the Rana Plaza collapse has changed them, prompted them to consider that a healthy, safe work environment might be their right. And if they are killed or injured on the job, their families have the right to be compensated.
But what kind of compensation do the families of disabled survivors or the dead of Rana Plaza receive? How much is a person worth? The government of Bangladesh, International Labor laws, and people working on behalf of victims and survivors all have different answers to that question.
What Sumon asks of American consumers: don’t think about “helping” the garment workers of Bangladesh. Your relationship with them is one of mutual support. By making your clothes, garment workers are saving your time, improving your life; in turn, you are responsible for insisting that international clothing companies contracting with garment factories in Bangladesh ensure those garment workers basic rights to a living wage, a safe, healthy environment and proper compensation when accidents occur.
We drove next to the National Garments Workers Federation. On the way we passed the National Assembly Building, known as the largest legislative complex in the entire world. The building was designed by architect Louis Kahn.
Next we passed the National Press Club, where a demonstration was being held. Down a narrow muddy alley we came to a small building with a ground floor office whose walls were covered with photos of protests, meetings and the Rana Plaza Factory collapse. We talked with Lopa, who had experience training garment workers about their rights. She told us that many workers don’t know what work place conditions might be dangerous so she trains workers to be aware of situations that might be unsafe. Unfortunately, Rana Plaza has made them more aware of the need to protect their own safety.
As we were talking, we heard shouting. The protest we had passed on our way to the office was coming to the NGWF for their rally. These workers had not been paid for two months and the factory had suddenly closed its doors, leaving the workers with no pay. They were understandably angry and upset. The President of the NGWF, Amirul Haque Amin, gave a rousing speech and there was much cheering. It was powerful to feel the sense of solidarity amongst the workers. In a simple office, over ginger tea, we had the chance to talk with Amir afterwards and when we asked him what he would like to say to American consumers he said that he would like for us to understand “the high cost of low prices”. He mentioned a number of action steps he feels are important, and he also provided a new insight for us.
Bangladesh is a Muslim country. But here, women work and in fact, 70% of the 4 million garment workers here are female. These women are becoming empowered as earners in their families and as workers who are increasingly learning about their rights in the workplace. This is a good reason for the United States to be working harder to insure that workplaces here are safe and places of dignity, and the workers are paid fairly.
Next, our driver picked up Shubhomoy, from the NGO Action Aid, which organized this entire day for us, and took us to Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka city. The one-lane highway was crammed with cars, trucks, cycle rickshaws and tuk-tuks. People with baskets of food on their heads or towels on their arms interrupted already the slow-going traffic to sell their wares.
Closer to Savar, the panorama of new and old, multi-level concrete buildings, billboards, roadside stands and green trees changed to yellow green swamps, landfills, smokestacks sticking out of the ground circled by crows, gardens of brick, outdoor markets crowded with people and the occasional goat or sheep.
Garment factories guarded the entrance to Savar. They were non-descript high-rise commercial buildings, converted for convenience with no regulations. The highway has become Savar’s Main Street.
Then we drove off the highway onto narrow dirt roads with open sewers by close-knit tin-roofed homes. This is where many of the workers at Savar’s garment factories live. Here we interviewed three injured Rana Plaza survivors whose re-entry into the workforce is supported by Action Aid. Shubhomoy translated for us.
Rashida, 24 years old, took a seat on the edge of the bed and held the edge of her headscarf to her mouth. Her friends stood by the door of the one room home she shared with her husband. She was working on the 2nd floor of Rana Plaza for New Wave Bottoms when the building collapsed, injuring her back, head and hands. She will not be able to return to factory work but she is still a skilled seamstress. After nearly two years of rehabilitation and re-integration work, she is preparing to make her own clothes and sell them, to become an entrepreneur.
Khokon, 38, has his own small shop. He sells candy, juice, rice and other dry goods. He seemed calm when he talked about his new job, proud. He worked on the 6th floor of Rana Plaza at New Wave Bottoms. When the building collapsed, he suffered a head injury. Khokon made more money a garment worker than as a shop owner. Now he earns barely enough to support his wife and child. But he is safe and in charge of his work.
Our third visit is with Aduri, a 35 year-old survivor of the collapse. She had been working on the 5th floor and was bruised on her waist and head from falling concrete. Rather than re-enter the garment industry she also became an entrepreneur, working with other family members. They receive printed paper and fold, glue, punch holes and lace ribbon through the holes to create bags which they sell to local stores. They make about 1000 bags a day for which they receive the equivalent of 2 US dollars. We were told this is not bad, extreme poverty is closer to one US dollar a day.
Our last stop was the actual site of the Rana Plaza Collapse on Savar’s main street, now a pit filled with lime green water, next to it, gray concrete rubble dotted with colorful clothing left from the garment factories.
The site is sandwiched between buildings under construction. A small concrete sculpture of two fists holding a hammer and sickle and a commemorative plaque have been placed in front of the barbed wire cordoning off the area. Rachel remembered the street corner in Greenwich Village in New York City, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire claimed 149 lives in 1911.
But they are dwarfed by people, litter, dust and stands selling everything from popcorn, fruit, fried snacks, sandals, kitchen gadgets, and trinkets, and a barber stand.
Inside one of the trinket stands, posted by the necklaces, is a picture of a young woman, the wife of the stand’s owner. She was a garment worker killed in the Rana Plaza collapse. She looked straight at us, prompting us to ask: what can we do to insure that the people who are making the clothes we wear today are paid fairly, work in safe conditions and are treated with dignity?
When I was a child in New York City, I never sewed my own clothes. I was spoiled. My great aunt Ida sewed my clothing for me. She was a tiny woman, less than five feet tall, who made fabric fly under the needle of any sewing machine. When she came to visit, she almost always ended up pumping the foot pedal of my mother’s clack-clacking Singer, stitching new dresses, blouses and pants for me. I took her expertise for granted, never asked her about it when she was alive. But by the time I met her in the 1960s she had amassed over fifty years of experience as a seamstress. As a teenager, she was a shirt maker at a New York City men’s shirt factory. At the same time, her older sister Dora made shirtwaists—fancy women’s blouses—at a shirtwaist sweatshop. The profession abounded with recent immigrants like them.
I learned about the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory fire of 1911 after both of my great aunts had died. Their memories came back to me as soon as I heard about the 123 immigrant girls who burned to death due to working conditions so deplorable and a factory so unsafe that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was New York City’s worst workplace disaster until 9/11. What if my great aunts had jumped out of the ninth floor of the factory, hair and clothes in flames, just like the 14-year-old girls who were the fire’s youngest victims?
Memories of Ida and Dora and theTriangle Shirtwaist fire returned when I learned about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. More than 10 times more women—and men—died there than at the Triangle factory, but the reason for their deaths remained the same. That is why I wrote this poem.
A trendy shop in the neighborhood
hangs t-shirts in the window:
a panda with pistols;
the Mad Hatter singing;
“Keep Calm and Carry On”;
“Charles Bukowski Told Me To Do It.”
Next to the display, a sign:
“all t-shirts made by artists;”
but inside each shirt, the label:
“Hanes/made in Bangladesh.”
What if Hanes, Gap, Calvin Klein,
Walmart, Hilfiger, and Penny’s
printed t-shirts paying tribute
to those Bangladeshi artists
who cut and sewed them.
On the front of a shirt:
a melted sewing machine;
on its back: rows of bodies,
burnt and wrapped in white cloth,
lying outside the burnt sweatshop.
A shirt with a soundtrack:
a young woman’s sobs
as she looks for her husband,
missing under the eight-story
warren of garment factories
collapsed on its workers.
A woman’s crushed and folded body
encircling a shirt with the words:
“I knew the factory was unsafe,
but the boss said ‘no pay
if you don’t show up.'”
The shirt showing a couple
sandwiched between fallen pillars,
blood tears dried on his face,
her neck, snapped broken
by a chunk of ceiling.
Caption: “Phantom Apparel.”
Shirt raining Jewish and Italian
immigrant girls, jumping
from the burning Triangle Shirtwaist factory
in New York City in 1911.
“What happens now,” asks this shirt,
“to the people who make our clothes?”
My poem ends with a question that Rachel and I want to attempt to answer. That is why we are going to Bangladesh. We do not want to take the lives and expertise of garment workers like the men and women of Rana Plaza, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and my great aunts Ida and Dora, for granted. We intend to pay tribute to them, affirm our interdependence with them and try to find ways to support their struggle for better lives.
Sewing is common across cultures, connecting materials for protection, decoration and comfort. It reconnects that which has been broken or torn—it’s an act of repair, of making something whole again, or new for the first time. Yet, I use a sewing machine to disrupt and subvert these purposes, seeking to explore the boundaries of fragility and impermanence. I repurpose the act of sewing by using a machine that is not threaded or sewing things together that are barely tenuous. My marks are the holes left by an empty needle. In the absence of thread, when using materials that so obviously can’t hold together, the goals of repair, protection and comfort are possible but never certain. It is this area of uncertainly in which I situate my work.
I learned to use a sewing machine when I was in 6th grade. My mother had a beautiful light blue singer sewing machine and I wanted to learn how to use it so I took lessons at the Singer Sewing machine store in Richfield, Minnesota. I made a one-piece red jump suit with blue zig zag trim and a long red, white and blue skirt. I continued to sew my own clothes throughout high school — a green corduroy jumper, a navy blue pinstripe wool skirt and matching vest, even a two-piece swimsuit.
Years later, the sewing machine has emerged as an iconic tool I use in my art-making– partly because I enjoy its mark and partly because of the meaning its use imbeds into my work.
As an extension of my arm, I create gestural lines comprised of small holes by drawing with an unthreaded sewing machine. I sew fabric together in unexpected ways. The mark of the stitch—such an intimate mark—literally touches the bodies of almost every human being on the planet through the clothes we wear. A stich can be recognized as a symbol of our commonness, of our connectedness and of our interdependence.
Working with a sewing machine, I feel a kinship to women who have used sewing in the past and women who sew today, to create, to mend, to express and to survive. Upon learning of the Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh, I began to make work that signified what I could imagine remnants from the tragedy looking like. The remnants I made were sewn back together in tribute to those who survived the collapse.
How do I reconcile my dependence on this basic act of sewing to cover my body, keeping me warm and dry, with the deplorable working conditions under which my clothes are now made? How does this connect to my own history? And what can I do about it? In the coming weeks Alison and I hope to share our impressions and reflections as we learn from garment workers and others in Bangladesh.
I believe the act of remembering can be an act of resistance.