Ishtiaque Hossain reveals revolting practices in the Bangladeshi garment industry
In December 2012, I was working as a public relations executive for one of the leading supply chain companies in Bangladesh. I remember attending BATEXPO 2012, a glitzy event that showcased Bangladeshi garbs to the rest of the world. It was less than two weeks away from the grisly incident where 120 garment workers were burned alive in a factory called “Tazreen Fashion” (because the fire escapes, for some unfathomable reason; were locked down). The BGMEA president “grieved” at the tragic incident, and as a gesture of “respect” towards the deceased garment workers, the garment owners association decided to have BATEXPO-2012 themed in black and white. There were talks of creating an inspection committee at the pre-BATEXPO press conference, and cancellation of “BATEXPO Night” (A flamboyant event featuring concerts and fashion shows). Shafiul Islam, the BGMEA president; grumbled at the cancellation of this ostentatious event. “Look, us garment owners work our butts off the entire year, running around with threads, colours, buttons and fabrics. This is the only time of the year where we get to have bit of fun with our friends and family. We even cancelled that.”
After the conference at the BGMEA building, the long line of fancy imported cars departed from the parking lot one by one. A rally of outrageously expensive vehicles that would put any Arab Sheikh to shame. It struck me odd how these garment factory owners always drove German luxury sedans and SUV’s despite constantly complaining about “high labour costs and consistent losses”.
A day before BATEXPO 2012, I was at the BGMEA building (a building that has been declared an illegal construction, but still hasn’t been demolished for reasons unknown). I was sitting in front of the event coordinator’s desk collecting invitations and bumper stickers for the supply chain company I worked for. I overheard the event coordinator’s conversation on the phone, “Sir we can’t buy tickets from a better airlines. This is the best I can do under the current budget allocated by the government. There is not enough time and so many tickets all at once are hard to come by.” He hung up, and wiped his brow. He seemed to be under an enormous amount of stress. I asked him what was wrong. “A few leading garment factory owners are travelling to Singapore to attend a garment and accessories exhibition, not unlike BATEXPO. They are not satisfied with the airlines I have chosen for them. But it’s the best I can do under the current circumstances.” “Does the government usually pay for such trips abroad?” I inquired. “Oh yes, every year,” came the event coordinator’s reply.
It is highly unlikely that garment owners can’t afford their own tickets to Singapore for attending exhibitions. Why do they need tax payer’s money to travel abroad in order to attend fancy exhibitions is another mystery that remains unresolved.
Fast forwarding to present day, when hundreds of garment workers have died a horrific death; crushed under the rubble of an ill-constructed building. This recent tragedy made us look back to the pre-BATEXPO press conference by BGMEA and their promises of implementing a safety inspection committee to ensure safer working conditions for garment workers. According to recent probes by both local and international journalists, this committee was nothing more than hogwash. A facade to calm the masses, the garment owner’s way of saying, “Look, we’re doing something!” This so-called safety inspection company wrapped up their activities after inspecting only 4 out of thousands of garment factories.
According to the records of Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS), more than 6000 workers have died of negligence and violence from garment owners between 1990 and 2013. In this 23 year time frame, zero trials were held to convict the garment owners that were responsible for these deaths. In the last six months, the death toll in the garment industry has risen to 1833, breaking all previous records.
Now BGMEA is back to its old thaumaturgies, making promises of another safety inspection committee to ensure better working conditions. Owners of the largest garment factories are holding press conferences at the BGMEA building urging the media not to document the grisly deaths of over 1,300 garment workers resultant of their negligence. “The image of our country is being tarnished by exposing this incident to the world,” said the chairman of BGMEA at a press briefing last week. “All this negative press about the garment industry will destroy our economy, and millions of garment workers will lose their jobs,” is the common media reaction of most garment owners. But they all conveniently forget to mention the outrageously low income of a Bangladeshi garment factory worker. Average pay for the nearly 4 million Bangladeshi garment workers is only $37 a month. And a common garment factory worker works 11 to 13 hours a day, six days per week. They are in a position where they have to make a tough decision: either work or starve to death, or don’t work and be crushed or burned alive in factories akin to deathtraps.