Backsliding in Bangladesh

The deadly collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory in 2013 focused world attention on Third World workers’ unsafe working conditions. Now global clothing brands hope you’ve forgotten.

Kalpona Akter, the child garment worker who became a national union leader in Bangladesh, is worried. On August 31, a landmark workplace safety agreement expires. Over the past 8 years, it had forced big clothing brands in the U.S. and Europe to spend real money to reduce the danger in her country’s garment factories. Akter now fears that the global clothing giants are stalling, and that not enough of them will sign an extension. 

Local unions, their international labor allies, and global solidarity groups pushed through the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in 2013, after the worldwide horror when 1134 workers, the majority of them young women, died when the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building collapsed. The Accord was transparent and legally binding on the brands. But now, Akter explained in a telephone interview from Dhaka, the capital, certain big international brands are trying to make any future agreement “voluntary,” relying on “codes of conduct” that they will write themselves, or they plan to skulk away even from token responsibility. Some 4.5 million Bangladeshis work in the garment industry; the country is the 4th-largest clothing supplier to the U.S. 

I first met Kalpona Akter in 2013, when I traveled to Bangladesh to report after the Rana Plaza disaster. She told me then that one of the union movement’s first actions after a factory building collapsed or another murderous fire broke out was to race to the scene and collect clothing labels to see which big brands outsourced there. Walmart, the Gap, H&M and Inditex do not sew clothing themselves; they subcontract to Bangladeshis who own the 4500 factories, typically housed in five- to nine-story buildings northwest of Dhaka. (Each building can cram in multiple factories.)  

Akter last month wrote an open letter to two European Commissioners describing how, after the Rana Plaza building collapse, she and others picked through the rubble. “It took us weeks,” she wrote, “but we identified about 30 brands. Many of them had nice sounding codes of conduct that had made no difference.” 

Akter says that during the eight years after the Accord took effect, Bangladeshi workers were thankful for the inspections and safety improvements. The Accord arranged for independent monitors to inspect more than 2500 factories, where they found close to 130,000 safety violations. The 300 most dangerous workplaces were blacklisted. As one likely consequence, there have been no major new disasters in Bangladesh’s garment industry since Rana Plaza.

But many leading American brands never signed the Accord in the first place. Walmart, the Gap, and others instead concocted an “Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety,” a weak alternative that was not legally binding. (The similarity of its name was certainly no accident.) The Alliance expired in 2018. Since then, the U.S. brand scofflaws have been free riders on the Accord, as no new tragedy damaged their reputations. (The Walmart publicity department in Bentonville, Arkansas did not respond to my e-mailed request for comment. Neither did Gap headquarters in San Francisco.) 

The big clothing brands have behaved disgracefully in other ways. When the Covid pandemic hit last year, sales in Europe and America skidded — and most of the big brands simply stopped paying their suppliers in Bangladesh, (and in other garment-producing countries) — even for clothing that had already been sewn. Their sub-contractors, in turn, could not pay the workers. Akter and her international allies launched a global movement to “name and shame” the brands, and, under pressure, some did grudgingly start to pay up. (An up-to-date website run by the Workers Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C. has details about who has paid and who hasn’t.) 

But the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European solidarity alliance based in Amsterdam, estimates that Bangladesh garment workers are still owed $844 million. Workers earn a base salary of $96 a month, although overtime, often compulsory, can raise that figure. Billion-dollar brands cheated young women who are sometimes the sole support of their extended families out of wages they had already earned. 

Yet another shameful episode occurred recently. When the Delta Covid variant hit Bangladesh, the government declared a nationwide lockdown from July 23 to August 5. But the factory owners got frightened that the interruption would prompt the big brands to shift their business to other garment exporting nations like Vietnam, Ethiopia or Jordan. The runaway shop threat is genuine. So the owners forced the government to reopen factories prematurely. No one told the transport companies, though, so Bangladeshi garment workers had to come back to work on foot, in many cases walking many miles from their rural homes. 

Bangladeshi garment workers face repression when they try to form unions. Kalpona Akter started working when she was 11 years old. (She once told me, “I could see the playground at my old school from the roof of my factory.”) She was elected president of her union at age 15, and blacklisted soon afterward. She now heads the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, which is partly funded by the U.S. AFL-CIO. The union movement has survived two big government crackdowns, in 2016 and 2018, surely motivated in part by the fact that many members of Parliament also own garment factories. Today, union membership is only an estimated 5 percent of the total workforce.

In Bangladesh, as everywhere, independent unions are indispensable to workplace safety. In 2013, when I interviewed survivors of the Rana Plaza building collapse, they explained that cracks had opened in the building’s interior walls the previous day — they showed me cellphone pictures they had saved — and they refused to go inside the following morning until managers threatened to fire them. A strong union could have called them out en masse and saved their lives. 

Once you learn how badly garment workers are exploited in Bangladesh you may be tempted to avoid the “Made in Bangladesh” label when you buy clothes. But boycotting would be a tragic mistake. As Akter has explained: “Not buying our clothing is not the solution. That will mean we won’t have jobs. We need these 4 million jobs. But we also need the big brands to be accountable, to pay enough to ensure the workers get a living wage, to make sure the factories are safer for the workers, and to give the workers a chance to raise their voices and practice their union rights. We need jobs, but we want them with dignity.” 

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James North

James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.