Questions, confusion, and spare change in the heart of the global garment industry
Questions, confusion, and spare change in the heart of the global garment industry
by Brad Miller
This is the place everyone was talking about.
I’d seen images of the garment factory collapse on the news. I’d heard activists and politicians give speeches on working conditions. I’d read economists’ theories and explanations for the phenomenon we call sweat shops.
But I’d never met someone who had actually visited one. Who could actually say what it looked like. Who actually spoke with the workers and listened to their stories. I’d never met anyone like that. I always wished someone would actually show up and check; to see what life actually was like.
I never imagined I would get that chance myself, to see up close and personal what was really going on.
I never expected that seeing it up close would only make me more confused.
I never expected that this would be the trip that was going to permanently change my everyday life.
And it all started with biscuits.
Biscuits and Bumblebees
Before my trip, I never really knew where Bangladesh was located beyond “somewhere in Southeastern Asia” or “vaguely close to India”. It turns out, it’s right along India’s northeastern border and its capital, Dhaka, is among the most populous cities on the planet.
Dhaka is a gigantic city, and like most large cities, it’s dotted with slums. The slum of Duaripara is home to the Duaripara Family Project, a school and community center dedicated to empowering families in the area. I was staying in a nearby cement apartment with Lovely, the Project Manager, and her family. Although I had been there several weeks, I had yet to visit the slum itself.
Finally, I had my chance. I was able to come along on one of the weekly family visits, and after a labyrinthine stroll through endless tin-roofed shanties, I found myself sitting on a small wooden bed while being offered biscuits and Sprite by a bright yellow bumblebee of a woman named Bikti.
Bikti zipped from one part of the room to the next, and when she stood still it was on the balls of her feet. She was the mother of one of the girls in the program and she herself had worked in a garment factory. Lovely, the project manager, asked me if I had any questions for her.
Where could I start?
I took a bite of biscuit to stall for time, asked a few questions about her daughter, then I dove right in.
“What do you think of working in a garment factory?”
Her answer couldn’t have left me more stunned.
She was happy.
She was grateful.
Originally, her husband was the main earner for the family. But he developed tumors that required an operation and prevented him from working. So Bikti took work as a housemaid to help make ends meet.
But the work there was physically exhausting, and emotionally wrenching – her employers were not kind or particularly fair. She left that work and took up a shift in a garment factory. The hours were longer, but the work was easier and the conditions much improved.
I couldn’t believe this. Here was someone thankful for factory work. A garment factory was helping her to pay for her husband’s treatments and her daughter’s education. It was saving her family. I thought garment factories were horrible! I thought they were the evil I had come to write against! Yet suddenly they seemed to be saving lives.
By now my biscuits were gone and a small crowd had gathered around the door to her tin shanty, straining for a peek at the cowboy-hatted foreigner. I knew I needed to wrap this up.
I told her that some Americans were concerned about factory conditions. They wanted to boycott or close down some garment factories.
“If they don’t make orders, factories will close. Then what will we do?”
I didn’t have an answer for her.
On the Other Hand…
I came back to the center confused. Was the injustice I had come to uncover actually helping people? Was it possible that factory work wasn’t all that bad, that it was not a symptom of poverty as much as it was a way out?
I knew I had to get more information. I asked Lovely if I could talk to some of the girls at the school about factory work. She told me they have a specific program for girls who can’t attend school because their families send them to work, and that I could ask questions there.
Perfect. I thought. Now, I’ll get some answers.
That’s where I met Ruma.
Draped in a traditional cotton sari patterned in deep teal-green-and-blue she shuffled in, gently guided by Lovely. Sitting down with us, she often looked at her hands or the floor. Calling her shy would be an understatement.
But after hearing her story, describing her as “brave” hardly seems to do her justice.
Because of financial struggles, Ruma’s family moved from her rural village into Dhaka when she was only a year old. They settled in Duaripara slum and her father worked pulling a rickshaw (a two-wheeled human-powered taxi) while her mother worked in a garment factory.
At first things were OK. Ruma could go to school. She studied through grade five and attended the Duaripara Family Project’s after-school program. But then her family fell on hard times, and her parents told her she had to leave.
“I had studied here for years,” she told me, “When I had to leave I was very sad.”
Now Ruma’s life is very different. She gets up at 6 in the morning to get ready for the day. She walks to the factory and works until lunch when she returns home for a brief meal. She then returns to the factory and works until 10 or 12 at night, coming home in time for another short meal before going to bed and starting again the next day.
“My factory is a T-shirt and pants factory, sometimes tights. I work as a helper, cutting threads. Sometimes I work packing or folding or attaching labels.”
She has been doing this for nine months.
What does she think of working there?
“Sometimes good, sometimes bad. When the task is tough I feel bad.”
Not exactly the clarion call of an answer I was looking for. I prodded a little further and found out the best parts are when she is given easy tasks and the supervisor praises her. But there are bad parts too.
“The supervisor bullies me when I cannot do the job. He curses me and uses very bad language.”
I tensed slightly at this, trying not to imagine this wisp of a girl being cussed at for misaligning a button. I changed the subject and asked about her co-workers.
I found out that some are okay, but because she is a girl, some of them touch her. Especially the bosses.
“When I do wrong or make a mistake they touch me, and they swear a lot.”
And ages of the workers?
“Some are older. Some are younger.”
Ruma is thirteen.
Clear as Mud
None of this seemed to be helping. The more I learned, the less clear everything seemed. I felt pulled apart; torn by the conflicting answers I was hearing.
I had spoken to a mother who was thankful that a garment factory saved her family, and that the proceeds are helping her daughter go to school.
So factories are good, right?
But now I had spoken to a thirteen-year-old girl who cannot go to school because she must work twelve hours a day under supervisors who verbally and sexually abuse her.
Now I want them all shut down.
But Ruma didn’t. I asked her, and she told me to keep them open. Who am I to say that I know better?
Who am I to know this, and do nothing?
Belly of the Beast
I’d heard enough stories that I was chomping at the bit to actually see a factory for myself. But because they have received so much bad press lately, Bangladesh factories are notoriously closed to foreigners. The best I could hope for was maybe a few photographs from the outside, or a rushed visit with a sympathetic foreman.
Which explains my surprise and delight at receiving a text message saying, “Do you want to visit a factory tomorrow?”
I was being offered not only a chance to see a factory, but to go inside, get a complete tour, and ask any questions I liked. Just around the corner from the infamous Rana Plaza collapse, I was getting an uncensored tour of the heart of the global garment trade.
At this point, I had heard both good and bad, so I felt I was ready for whatever this experience had to throw at me.
I should have learned by then: when it comes to Bangladesh, there are always more surprises.
The factory was… polished. It was clean. White, with blue-tinted windows and five work floors, a cafeteria, offices, a human resources department, and an in-house daycare of all things!
At the entrance, khaki-uniformed guards in olive-drab berets offered me a crisp salute. We took a polished steel elevator up to the top floor and made our way into a modern office. Jet-black tables and fogged glass walls. Two printed awards were displayed beneath a red Casio digital clock – the only decorations in the room.
The awards read, “Workplace Condition Assessment Achievement Award” and “Global Security Verification.”
I was given a chance to wash up before tea was served. I stepped into a sunlit restroom, washed my hands with floral soap, and dried them on plushy, daffodil-yellow towels.
I wasn’t sure if I was in a Bangladeshi garment factory, or if I had been somehow transported to a Chicago corporate office.
Then a pair of florescent-green shorts were brought in, and everyone in the room descended on them, gesticulating wildly and conversing in rapid-fire Bengali. I felt a little better.
My host, who has worked in the garment industry for over fifteen years, explained the entire process from design to export, diagramming the different departments on a piece of notebook paper. I listened intently, fascinated.
After our meeting, I was invited to see each of the four manufacturing stages and offer my thoughts. As we left the offices and turned the corner towards the workers, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. Probably something from Les Miserables – dark, dank, tattered workers sweating profusely as unwashed supervisors prowled through their ranks.
Instead, I found rows and rows of sewing machines. A field, really. And it was brightly lit, with countless fans running. Warm, but with an even breeze.
The workers themselves were comfortably dressed. Apart from a number of traditional saris and veils, they would not have been out of place in any American business.
I was surprised that conditions were not what I pictured, relieved to discover my clothes were not made in some draconian sweatshop.
But then I noticed what they were doing.
Every scrap of every piece of clothing was being carefully cut out to millimeter specification. Every stitch was being made with unflinching exactness. I was watching the precision of humans who are asked to make 10,000 exact copies of an object.
My guide pointed to one woman sewing several strips of fabric, then folding, then sewing again.
“See that?” He gestured towards my neck, “That is how she makes the collar.”
I was drawn to this. I couldn’t look away. Every piece of clothing I’ve worn began to flash before my eyes. Shops full of clothing I’ve seen, clothing I’ve bought or given away, clothing I knew existed in thousands of stores across the entire planet, all made in places just like this by people just like these.
A twisting, grinding sensation began to take root in my stomach as my worldview shifted. With growing discomfort, the realization slowly dawned on me: there’s no such thing as “machine made” clothes.
I took a few deep breaths, trying to grapple with the conclusion that I was connected to all of this, and always had been.
But what exactly was this?
I spent the rest of the day in that factory. Watching as scraps were turned into pockets, seeing the rows of ironing boards laid out in military precision, gazing at the air-powered behemoth that attaches snaps and rivets, and marveling at the discovery of a machine made exclusively for testing the pull strength of buttons.
I saw monstrous clothes-washing machines, jigsaws being used to cut reams of fabric, and hawk-eyed inspectors checking every stitch and fold.
I now know what factory work looks like, but I still don’t know what it means.
I saw the illiterate, the illegitimate, and the ostracized with an opportunity to provide for themselves and for their families.
I saw workers eating lunch together at the rooftop cafeteria, joking, laughing, and gazing out on the tremendously beautiful views.
I also saw when a manufacturing error was caught, and a supervisor berated floor workers in a voice usually reserved for Japanese commanders in old WWII movies.
And in a candid moment away from the bosses, I heard an employee say, “It’s nice here. Good work. But some of the bosses can be very mean, lots of cussing.”
It seemed my hopes of getting a single un-conflicted answer were destined to be dashed again.
And to top it all off, I would find out weeks later that the factory I visited was a compliance factory – part of a minority that tries to respect the rights of its workers.
Why did I feel like I was back where I started?
And yet I wasn’t. Because now I was part of it.
I wasn’t trying to figure out the injustice of some foreign culture, I was struggling to understand my own. To understand this phenomenon whereby my clothes are made by people I never meet living in countries I may never visit and in conditions I’ll never have to endure.
I’d come hoping to find the answer to “what” is going on. But in my confusion and bewilderment, I suddenly found myself asking “why?”
Why does it exist?
For all the fancy academics, for all this discussions of economies and politics, here is my takeaway. My tiny, personal, and certainly flawed takeaway.
Factories like these exist because one person, one company, one society is willing to pay a low wage for long hours.
And because one person, one community, one society is willing to work long hours for a low wage.
Is there greed involved in offering the lowest possible wage for the highest amount of work? Undoubtedly. Is their willingness to work driven by desperation and a lack of options? Absolutely. Is the solution as simple as giving people more money? Probably not. But is Bangladeshi poverty largely a result of generations of abuse and neglect from countries that have profited at their expense? I’d say so.
These factories exist because people like me are willing to let them exist, and people like Bikti are willing to work in them.
And here’s the crazy thing: as long as people want those jobs, I want the factories to exist. As long as there are people who need those jobs to feed their families, to care for their sick, or just to survive until the next month, I want those jobs to be there.
But what I want even more is to bring the day when no one needs those jobs.
I want to see communities where having a sudden crisis means having to take out a loan, not another 8-hour-shift.
I want to see towns where working long hours for low wages in a garment factory is laughable, because there are so many other, better paying jobs.
I want to see the migration to cities reversed, because the farmland is once again cared for and invested in.
I want to see education so valued that, in a crisis, a child’s schooling would only be traded for the highest price, and only on a temporary basis.
I want it to be impossible for these conditions to exist, but not because they are illegal.
In the US, it is perfectly legal to pay a heart surgeon minimum wage. But as a practical matter, it’s impossible. No one is going to work for that amount, because as a society, we believe a doctor’s time is worth more than that, and we treat it that way.
Well, I believe a Bangladeshi’s time is worth more than $2 a day, and I want to treat it that way too.
So how do I do that?
As an American, I can pressure multinationals, I can protest, I can boycott, I can sign petitions. I can try to force legislation in Bangladesh or rules in the factories themselves.
But real change does not come through laws – laws merely reflect real change.
And in Bangladesh, a country struggling mightily with corruption, it won’t matter what minimum wage is legal, it will matter what is possible. What people are willing to work for.
How in the world can I change that? Well, let me tell you a story about housekeeping.
Once upon a time, housekeeping was cheap and plentiful in Dhaka. Middle-class families could obtain a live-in servant for around $13 a month. And very often, employers would treat their servants terribly.
Demanding, exhausting work, incredibly long hours, and very little pay: that was the life of a housekeeper.
But then something began to change.
Organizations started offering support for housekeepers who wanted to pursue their education. These organizations started spreading the message of how valuable education was, and how (in the long term) it was much more profitable to stay in school.
And people started listening.
Bangladeshis began using donations, scholarships, and loans to pursue education. They began to place great value on their future potential.
And when employers wanted them back? These housekeepers refused to give up a day that could be spent in school for the price and conditions they were used to. Many decided to stay in school, and the ones who returned to work did so only on the promise of better pay and better treatment.
Now, it’s nearly impossible to find a housekeeper for $13 a month. Now, they value their time because they know their potential. And just like that, a local industry is being transformed and the future of many is re-written.
Better and Brighter
Duaripara Family Project is working to create the same sort of quiet revolution. They want to provide education and life skills for girls, and teach the value of such an education to their families.
If you need an example, talk to Shaheena.
She had been attending Duaripara Family Project in addition to public schooling. But when her family fell on hard times financially, it looked like they would have to stop her schooling and have her go to work.
Shaheena didn’t want to go. She loved studying and wanted grow up to be a bank manager. She valued her education and knew it was the key to her future.
And so did the staff at Duaripara Family Project.
They sat down with Shaheena’s mother and father. They explained how important it was that she received a good education. They talked about the risks and dangers of factory work. And then they worked out a plan.
They offered to help with some of the family expenses until the crisis was over. They also helped her parents find better jobs and connected them to a local microfinance coalition.
Because of the Family Project’s work, Shaheena is still in school. She never left.
She’ll never have to decide if factory work is good or bad, because she’s chasing something better.
What I’m Going to Do
That’s what I want to see more of.
Because, frankly, I don’t know if factories are good or bad. And I don’t think I ever will. All I know is that there has to be something better.
I know there are fair trade factories and organizations out there, and there are those who are passionate about the idea of only buying from special brands, and that’s fine. As for me, I feel perfectly comfortable paying for the factory that helped Ruma’s mother or contributing to the wages of Bikti.
But I don’t want to forget the injustice. I don’t want to wash my hands of the issue simply because it’s complicated or painful. I don’t want a quick fix to check off and ignore my responsibility. I want to struggle, and keep struggling with these questions.
And while I struggle, as I struggle, I want to do something.
I want to pay them back.
I may not know if factory work is good or bad, but I do know there is gap. There’s a difference between what Bikti is making and what she deserves to make. There’s a gap in what Ruma’s mother could be using to invest in education and healthcare for her family.
I may not have the power to change their situation. I may not have the power to change the poverty they are in or the level of education they have received. But I can help fill that gap.
With every purchase I make, I’ve started giving a little back. For every item in my closets, I’m setting a little aside. It’s the difference they deserve, the living wage they are not receiving.
Right now there is a set of coin jars on my dresser – one for every country my clothes have come from. After Bangladesh, I raided my closets and looked at all the clothing labels. For every shirt I set aside fifty cents, for every pair of pants a dollar.
It felt strange to see all the countries lined up, to imagine the families and the hands and the stories they represent. And as I watched them fill up with coins, I realized how many lives my own intersected each time I got dressed in the morning.
At the end of the month, I’ll be donating this money. I’ll be investing it in education and healthcare and job creation in each of the countries I’ve purchased from. I’ll be putting it back where it belongs. Investing it in organizations that are working to end the cycle of exploitation. Organizations that are providing a pathway to better jobs and brighter future.
Organizations like Oasis Bangladesh.
Factories are harbors for molestation, but they are also a safe haven from the abuse of the service industry. Factories deprive children of education, but they also save lives by providing emergency income. And I, without any knowledge or consent, have contributed to this system and benefitted from this financial reality.
I don’t know how to make sense of all that, but I do know what I want to do.
I want to use the benefit of an injustice to fight injustice. To use the unfair power I’ve been given to empower others. And to maybe, just maybe, make the question of sweatshops one for the history books.
- Click here to see how you can become involved.