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Hotspots and Incidents » Disasters, catastrophes

The pain of Bangladesh: T-shirts made with blood and tears

09.05.2013
 
Pages: 12

  

By Ramzy Baroud

The pain of Bangladesh: T-shirts made with blood and tears. 50051.jpeg
AP photo

As they spoke to a BBC correspondent in their run-down room which they call home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a man sobbed as his 12-year-old daughter sat close to him.

His face, wrinkled before its time, was a picture of utter anguish. It could only be understood by a parent whose child was dying under giant slabs of concrete where nothing could be done.

"If she is dead," he said, "I just want to bury her with my own hands, so at least in my mind I know that I have finally found my daughter."

Then the despairing man succumbed to his uncontrollable tears. 

His daughter Hamida had been working right along his other young daughter who had miraculously escaped the collapse of several factories in the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka on April 24.

Hundreds of dead bodies were retrieved, most of whom were women and young girls who made a living working under the harshest of conditions in the country's many sweatshops.

Hundreds more were still trapped and presumed dead. Many of those who were freed had to sacrifice a limb as it was the only way to freedom. 

Images of the devastation dominated the news for days after the eight-storey building collapsed on top of nearly 3,000 cheap laborers who were already trapped in another sense - in the endless poverty and exploitation of factory owners.

 

Over 3.5 million people work in the country's estimated 4,000 factories, generating about 80 per cent of Bangladesh's total exports.

Some estimates put the monthly salary of a garment worker in Bangladesh at $70 (£45) to $100 (£64).

Other estimates are lower, considering that the country's monthly minimum wage hovers above $38 (£24).

Quoted by the BBC last August, Rosa Dada of Four Seasons Fashion Limited found the business logic simple and convincing.

"In Bangladesh the average monthly salary for garments workers is only around $70 to $100. If I produce here, [the] price is much more competitive."

Competitiveness is key, even if it is at the expense of impoverished people who have no other option but to accept miserable pay and highly dangerous work conditions.

Of course a Four Seasons executive would not accept work for a $70 a month.

Dada must be aware that most of the garment industry laborers in Bangladesh are women.

When one calculates the long-term loss brought on by the death of a mother working under inhumane conditions, no numbers, no statistics, no charts and certainly not Dada's quest to stay above the competition, could possibly do this tragedy any justice.

The story of Bangladesh's pain is dotted with tragedy, government corruption and unmitigated greed.

It also involves many companies and garment distributors in Western countries, China, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Moreover, it would not be an exaggeration to say that in some way, our constant hankering for cheap prices, untamable desire for "good deals" and lust after brand names is happening at the expense of the sweat, blood, tears and in some cases, the crushed bones of cheap laborers like 13-year-old Hamida.

Walmart, Gap, JCP, Abercrombie, Kohl's and many more are very much part and parcel of this story. Some of these companies still refuse to take any real action to avoid future tragedies.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building was not the first of such disasters and is unlikely to be last, especially since government action has been so lacking, to say the least.

As for most Western companies, they merely resort to public relations tactics to circumvent their direct and indirect responsibility, as opposed to rethinking their negligent approach altogether.

True, there has been much media coverage of the tragedy, which even by the country's poor work conditions standard is unprecedented.

But there has been ample evidence for many years that Bangladeshi laborers are being abused, humiliated and sacrificed in the name of profit.

Abusive business owners often lock and bolt exit doors to ensure that workers can't go out.

They build without permits and authorities turn a blind eye to their many illegal practices.

According to Human Rights Watch, the government has a workforce of 18 inspectors who are supposed to oversee and prevent illegal practices in thousands of factories in the Shaka district, which is the heart of the garment industry.

Workers' rights activists contend that officials are paid handsomely for their silence.

Human Rights Watch said that "factory owners - a powerful force in Bangladesh, with ties to government officials - are usually given advanced notice before an inspection."

Just five months ago, 112 workers died in a Tazreen Fashions garment factory near Dhaka. 

Some workers jumped to their death from high windows to escape the fire because the doors were bolted. 

The complicity of international companies was also found in the traces of the burnt building.

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) said recently that "Walmart-labeled product was found in Tazreen and now one of the factories in the Rana complex, Ether-Tex, had listed Walmart-Canada as a buyer on their website."

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