Bangladesh's Paradox for Poor Women Workers

Low wages and hazardous conditions put workers in harm’s way
Garment workers in Bangladesh: A dangerous path out of poverty Photograph by Gazi Nafis Ahmed/VII Mentor Program

Bangladesh’s $18 billion garment industry provides opportunities for millions of poor, illiterate women. It also places their lives at risk, as demonstrated by the collapse of the building outside Dhaka that killed more than 800 workers. Touted as a symbol of empowerment by Sheikh Hasina, the country’s female prime minister, the garment business is the only road out of grinding poverty for many. “If you look at industrial history, for better or worse, this is what an early industrial revolution looks like,” says Pietra Rivoli, a professor at Georgetown University and author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. Bangladesh is “still a desperately poor country, and we shouldn’t minimize what a job with a steady paycheck means to a poor woman.”

The garment industry has offered a rare glimmer of growth in a country once described by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a “basket case.” In 2005, global trade agreements limiting the number of garments individual countries could export to the European Union and the U.S. started to expire. The World Bank predicted Bangladesh’s garment exports would wilt under an onslaught of cheap Chinese goods. Instead, Bangladesh’s exports tripled between 2005 and 2010 and are expected to triple again by 2020, to almost $50 billion a year, consultant McKinsey estimates. The secret is low wages. Average monthly pay in 2009 for workers in Dhaka was $47, vs. $235 in Shenzhen and $100 in Hanoi, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. By 2010, Bangladesh had about 5,000 garment factories, second only to China and more than in Indonesia and Vietnam.

Garment makers “are undercutting each other over $2 billion to $3 billion of new business each year,” says Kasra Ferdows, a professor of operations management at Georgetown who has advised retailers such as Zara. “It creates a dog-eat-dog business, where a lot of people on the margins will cut corners.”

For Pakhi Begum, the garment boom couldn’t have come at a better time. In 2008 she and her husband, Jahangir Fakir, ran out of money. Living in a rural district called Khulna, Fakir had struggled to make a living, and Dhaka offered escape. Both got jobs in the garment industry, at a company called Hallmark Group. Pay was low, and the hours stretched into the night. Four years later, Hallmark was investigated for financial fraud. Its owner pleaded guilty, and it was shut down.

Pakhi (like many Bangladeshis, she goes by only one name; begum is an honorific) ended up at Ether Textiles. At least six days a week, on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza, where Ether was a tenant, she would hunch over a sewing machine up to 14 hours a day, making jeans and shorts. Unbeknownst to Pakhi, the building was illegal, its owner a gun-toting politician who had obtained permits from the mayor, instead of the building authorities, to build the glass-fronted factory complex on a swamp. Despite efforts to reach them, executives from Ether Textiles weren’t available to comment on working conditions.

By 2011, about 12 percent of women in the country between 15 and 30 years of age worked in the industry, according to a study by Yale University. Pay was 13 percent more than in other industries, and factories favored women, who were seen as better at sewing—and more compliant. Perhaps most important to Bangladeshi women, the Yale researchers found, was that the dream of getting better jobs (secretarial or even managerial) within the garment industry was motivating more girls to pursue their studies.

Yet working conditions did not improve and wages remained flat from 2000 to 2010, according to a survey conducted by War on Want, a British nonprofit. Some 70 percent of the 988 workers surveyed had been verbally abused by their bosses, and more than 40 percent had been beaten. With mostly female employees overseen by male managers, sexual harassment was commonplace: A third said they had been touched inappropriately. Punishments for not meeting quotas included being forced to stand on tables for hours. A third of those surveyed said they were threatened with further humiliations, such as undressing in front of co-workers. More than half of the women interviewed were not allowed to take their legally guaranteed maternity leave of 100 days. The majority worked until the last weeks of pregnancy and were often fired when they left to give birth.

Still, a March decision by Walt Disney to stop production in Bangladesh was “wrongheaded,” says Georgetown’s Ferdows. Any continued improvement in working conditions will depend on companies working with the Bangladeshi government. “Don’t exclude countries. If people stop going to Bangladesh, they can go to a similar factory in Myanmar or Thailand. How is that going to help?”

Bob Chapek, the head of Disney’s consumer products division, said in a statement on May 2 that “these are complicated global issues, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Disney is a publicly held company accountable to its shareholders, and after much thought and discussion we felt this was the most responsible way to manage the challenges associated with our supply chain.”

At Ether Textiles the tap water was filthy and rare bathroom breaks meant a quick trip to dirty, overflowing toilets. Elevators were blocked off for managers and international visitors, forcing workers to use a single, unsafe stairwell, say Pakhi, her husband, and a co-worker, Rayhan Kabir. On April 23, Rana Plaza developed cracks, according to video footage and interviews with survivors. The next day, Fakir begged his wife not to go to work. She agreed, and after he left for work at another factory, Pakhi called in and asked for the day off. Her manager told her a month’s salary would be withheld if she didn’t show up, she says. Pakhi got to work on time.

Almost 400 people worked on her floor, all for Ether Textiles, whose website has been pulled down. (Its owner has been arrested but not yet charged. The names of its customers have not yet become public.) When Pakhi again begged for the day off, she says, her boss let fly with a string of unprintable insults. Hours later, Pakhi was trapped in the rubble, begging for her life and listening to screams all around her. She says that after rescuers failed to free her legs by removing debris with their bare hands, they left and returned with a large, broad knife. They started chopping. She says she doesn’t remember what happened next. She woke up in a hospital, her husband’s cell phone number scrawled on the wall, her legs gone.

On May 3, the same day the Bangladeshi government agreed to International Labour Organization proposals that include worker protections and the right to unions, Pakhi’s husband sits across from the hospital, contemplating what’s next. “My life in my small village was better than this,” Fakir says. “Here there’s too much pain for me to bear.”