Mutual support not “help”

Street scene Dhaka
Street scene Dhaka

(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.

Rickshaw close up

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.

Md. Sekender Ali Mina (Sumon) of the Worker Safety and Rights organization.
Md. Sekender Ali Mina (Sumon) of the Worker Safety and Rights organization.

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.

Alison and Rachel in front of the Parliament building designed by Louis Kahn
Tourists at the National Parliament Building

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.

Office of the National Garment Workers Federation
Office of the National Garment Workers Federation

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.

Rally at NGWF Rally
Rally at National Garment Workers Federation

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.

Megaphones used during the demonstration
Megaphones used during the demonstration

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, survivor
Rashida, survivor

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.

Khokan, survivor
Khokan, survivor

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.

Aduri, survivor
Aduri, survivor

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.

Paper waiting to be made into bags.
Paper waiting to be made into bags.

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.

Rana Plaza close up

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.

Site of Rana Plaza collapse
Site of Rana Plaza collapse

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.

Street scene in Savar
Street scene in Savar

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?

Stall next to Rana Plaza site
Mutual support not “help”


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.

Designer Shirts

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.

Alison green pocket


A few thoughts from Rachel as we prepare for Bangladesh:

Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Evidence #1
Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Evidence #1

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.

They are Just Pieces of Concrete.
They are Just Pieces of Concrete.

A few thoughts from Rachel as we prepare for Bangladesh:

About the Price of Our Clothes

Project Partners Alison Morse (left) and Rachel Breen (right)

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. As soon as we heard that the carelessly constructed factory crumbled and killed over a thousand of the mostly poor, mostly female garment workers who labored inside it, we thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. The fire in this New York City garment factory, sparked by terrible working conditions and unregulated building codes, killed nearly two hundred mostly young, poor, female immigrant garment workers. Connections between the two events ignited our horror and imaginations. Rachel created visual art; Alison wrote poetry.

When we saw each other’s work, we wondered what would happen if we collaborated, weaving our respective media: visual art, social engagement, poetry and storytelling; into a project that would delve deeply into connections between the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the Rana Plaza disaster. How might our lives be intertwined with the history and ramifications of both events? We have decided to find out.

We are now collaborating on a project: “The Price of Our Clothes.” With this project we seek to engage American consumers about the ways in which we’re tied to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the garment workers in Bangladesh, and how we might be able to support those workers. This blog will chronicle our process. We invite friends and colleagues to comment on and contribute to the collaboration as it unfolds. Your involvement is important to us.

About the trip:

We’ve been researching both events on-line and in print, but in February, 2015, we will be traveling in Dhaka, Bangladesh to see, hear, smell, feel, touch and taste the lives of the garment workers there. We received a grant from the Rimon Foundation to do this research and will arrive in Dhaka on February 4th. During our two-week stay, we plan to visit Rana Plaza, interview survivors and families of victims of the factory collapse, NGOs helping these survivors and families, Dhaka garment workers, factory owners, garment workers union representatives and lawyers, and reporters who covered the collapse and the lives of garment workers. We will also explore what alternative work opportunities might be available to Dhaka’s garment workers.

Have you traveled to Bangladesh? Do you have friends there who you would like us to meet? Do you have questions about the garment industry that you feel are important to ask? Please let us know!

Next up on the blog:

Look for individual posts from us that delve more deeply into our artwork and writing as well as our travels and work together.

About the Price of Our Clothes