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Your Clothes Were Made by a Bangladeshi Climate Refugee

Climate change is driving women to work in Bangladesh's dangerous garment factories.

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

This story originally appeared on the OnEarth website.

Down in the hole that used to be Rana Plaza, the crushed remains of half a dozen cars were still waiting for removal, and next to them was a broken mannequin. She was lying on her back. She wore a pair of tight purple knee-length pants, but she was naked above the waist. Her torso had been severed in a neat diagonal below the right breast, but her head was intact. She had ivory skin, a pink rosebud mouth, ash-blonde hair brushed straight back off her forehead, and piercing blue eyes that stared up without expression at the sky.

More than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers died here in April, almost half as many as died in the World Trade Center. Yet the first thing that hit me about Rana Plaza was how small it was. The footprint of the building was not much larger than a basketball court. The site of the Twin Towers covered 16 acres. All that remained of Rana Plaza now was this shallow pit, a few inches deep in muddy water from the pre-monsoon rains, ringed by mountains of rubble and twisted rebar and damp piles of half-sewn clothing and bolts of brightly colored cloth.

The building next door was still under construction. Its façade had been stuck on, a thin veneer of blue reflective glass, but the interior was just a raw skeleton of brick and mortar walls and concrete pillars. It was hard not to wonder whether it would be any safer from collapse than Rana Plaza had been, whether its construction had involved the same unholy collusion between venal developers and corrupt local politicians. I took the unfinished stairway to the top floor and found that the upper levels had suffered a good deal of collateral damage. Huge segments of the roof had bellied downward and were propped up in a tentative way with culms of bamboo. Whole walls had been blown out by the force of the collapse, and papers from the upper floors of Rana Plaza had floated in. Even two months after the disaster, many were still strewn about in the wreckage. There were cards with samples of buttons and zippers, and pattern forms and order books and cutting instructions. Many of these related to contracts with the United Colors of Benetton, headquartered in Treviso, Italy, and were shakily translated from the Italian for workers who couldn't speak English (regolare bene le tensione delle macchine—"adjuste better the tension machine").

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You could see the mannequin and the pattern books, of course, as a simple parable of the modern world economy, the hidden costs of a global supply chain that keeps us well supplied with cheap consumer goods. Many of the journalists who flocked here after the disaster probed the raw nerve of our moral culpability, although mostly they hewed to the conventional tragedy-in-a-poor-country narrative: evil owner (which he was), innocent victims (which they were), the one miraculous survivor. (There always is one in these stories; at Rana Plaza it was a woman who somehow made it out alive after being trapped in the rubble for 17 days.)

Yet while the image of the broken, blue-eyed mannequin haunted me, I wondered if it really captured the full story behind the catastrophe. It seemed to me that there were deeper meanings to be uncovered. Who were these women? Why had they left their rural homes and flocked to Dhaka, probably the most unlivable, environmentally blighted mega-city in the world? In the end, I found that it wasn't the mannequin that held the answers, or the Benetton patterns. It was those few inches of rainwater in the pit. For water is the existential curse of Bangladesh, and it is the point of intersection between the two stories that periodically drive this country of 160 million into the headlines: its disaster-plagued garment industry and its extreme vulnerability to climate change.

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The twin garment centers of Savar (where Rana Plaza was located) and nearby Mirpur (the most rapidly growing area of the city) lie on the northwestern outskirts of Dhaka. The capital of Bangladesh today is a city of 15 or 16 million, and that number is swelled each year by more than 400,000 migrants from rural areas. By 2020 the population may reach 20 million. By 2030, it will rise to 25, even 30 million. "That’s when our real nightmare begins," said Babar Kabir, senior director for disaster, environment, and climate change at BRAC, a giant NGO that occupies a 21-story building in Dhaka. "Will the city even survive?" Like many educated Bangladeshis, Kabir affects a kind of droll gallows humor in describing his country's calamities. But when he posed this question, I think he was entirely serious. The whole city, he seemed to imply, was like Rana Plaza on an epic scale, a rickety, jerrybuilt structure that might eventually collapse.

a bucket with clothes and dye in it

A growing number of the new rural migrants are young women, mainly poor and uneducated, drawn to Dhaka by the promise of work in the apparel industry, which now employs more than three and a half million people, mostly in and around the capital. They will work for ten hours a day, six days a week, and often more, starting at the minimum wage of 3,000 taka a month—about $37. But that's only one way to look at the industry. Another is that it accounts for fully 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export earnings. Growing at 12 percent a year, it is the single factor driving the country's progression from one of the world's poorest to what J. P. Morgan calls one of the "Frontier Five" emerging economies, along with Kazakhstan, Kenya, Nigeria, and Vietnam. For European and US buyers, Bangladesh is the new China—because rising wage levels and labor shortages are pricing China’s garment factories steadily out of the market. Newly prosperous Chinese are more likely these days to wear Benetton clothes than to sew them.

For migrants from rural Bangladesh, then, jobs in the apparel industry, no matter how unsafe and poorly paid, are the pull. But what is the push?

In essence, it's water. Some Bangladeshis have too much of it, and others, paradoxically, too little. But for almost everyone, there is too little of the right kind—the kind you need for your household needs, for farming, for keeping your children healthy. "We are a country of rivers, but we have no water to drink," said Shirin Akhter, the founder of an NGO called Karmojibi Nari (Working Women) and a veteran advocate for the garment workers.

Two of Asia's great rivers cut through the western half of Bangladesh, and their combined floodplains are never more than a few feet above sea level. The Ganges—which Bangladeshis call the Padma—snakes its way into the country across the Indian border. The Brahmaputra pours down from the mountains of Tibet. A little way west of Dhaka, the two rivers merge to form the Meghna. By the time it reaches the Indian Ocean and straggles off into an ever-shifting archipelago of low-lying islands and sandbanks, the Meghna is 20 miles wide. Stretching westward to the Indian border and beyond are the "100 Mouths of the Ganges," a vast delta of smaller rivers and channels and the labyrinthine mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, last redoubt of the Bengal tiger. And this whole area lies squarely in the path of the ferocious cyclones that gather their strength from the warming waters of the Bay of Bengal.

"We are a country of rivers, but we have no water to drink."

The monsoon, which finally broke in full force three days after my visit to Rana Plaza, would subject Bangladesh to its customary annual floods. Rivers would burst their banks, inundating farmland. Entire sections of riverbank would succumb to the force of the current, dumping fields and homes into the water. On occasion, the Ganges has even been known to swallow up entire villages. Huge and laden with silt, the rivers would continue to carve out new channels and alter their course. As one illustration of this, the river that curls around the western edge of Dhaka is called the Buriganga, or "old Ganga." The reason is that several centuries ago it was connected to the Ganges. Today the big river is 40 miles away.

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It is from these sodden places that the garment workers and other migrants flock to Dhaka. The easy shorthand is to call them "climate refugees." That term had recently come into vogue when I last visited Bangladesh five years ago, after a monstrous cyclone named Sidr battered the country and scientists began to run scary projections of the numbers of people who would eventually be driven from their homes by sea-level rise and ever-fiercer storms. Now it’s understood that "climate refugees" is a crude oversimplification. Better, I was told by Sarat Dash, the chief of mission in Bangladesh for the International Organization for Migration, to speak of "environmental migrants," because that captures the full complexity of their situation, embracing the interplay of factors—some dramatic, others more subtle—that drive them from their homes.

Yes, Dash agreed, the ocean was still the headline-grabber. "If there’s a one-meter rise in the sea level, that will lead to the loss of 18 percent of our land area," he said. "That means 11 percent of our population, and that means 17 million people." And people, as Babar Kabir had told me a couple of days earlier, "are not so stupid as to just sit there and die."

Yet there may be a whole tapestry of other reasons behind any given family’s decision to move. Migration specialists distinguish "slow-onset" environmental change from change that is "sudden" or "extreme." A cyclone or a storm surge is extreme, but unless it wipes out a family’s livelihood completely, it may provoke only short-term migration to a nearby town or village, followed by return home when conditions permit. Dash calls this "circular migration." While less visibly traumatic, it's the slow-onset change that is more pernicious.

a view of boats from overhead

In the coastal southwest, it may be the steady seep of salt into farm fields and drinking wells as a result of the encroaching ocean and the diminished flow of rivers in the dry months, which reduces their ability to flush the salt back out to sea. In the early stages, a farmer will begin to notice that he is harvesting less rice, a fisherman that his catch is smaller, a pastoralist that there is less grazing land. Steadily things grow worse until he runs out of ways to adapt. Perhaps the worst affected area is Barisal district, along the lower reaches of the Meghna, which accounts for almost a quarter of all migrants to Dhaka, including, as I would discover, a large number of garment workers.

In the drier northwest, north of the Ganges, the problem is often a rapidly declining water table and recurrent crop failures. "With population growth, the extraction of groundwater and surface water is getting pretty enormous," Kabir said, "and with climate change it becomes a semi-permanent problem." When people leave in response to slow-onset changes like these, they tend to leave for good.

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And so they come to Dhaka, a thousand or more every day, even as the experts debate whether their movement is a legitimate adaptation to climate change or proof that the effort to help people adapt to harsher conditions has failed. This may sound like an arcane distinction, but in fact it’s hugely important, because billions of dollars—in government budgets and international aid—are at stake. Where should the money go? To improve conditions in climate-threatened rural areas so that people can stay in their homes? Or to invest more in the cities, accepting that the battle against forced migration is lost? Or both? Opinions are deeply split.

The flight from sea-level rise, flooding, storms, and the loss of farmland has a powerful cascade effect on the city. Once they arrive in Dhaka, migrants find that they face a new version of the very thing they were trying to escape, trading one form of water scarcity and pollution for another, and aggravating the problem by the simple fact of their own presence. Generally it’s the main breadwinner who comes first, his family following in stages as he gains a foothold in the city. As likely as not he’ll start off as a pavement-dweller. Tracking opportunities by word of mouth, he may find work as a day laborer or a garbage picker, a seller of tannery scraps or a brick-breaker or a security guard, sitting all night on a plastic chair in the dark outside a parking garage or an ATM booth. Many will join the ranks of rickshaw-pullers, earning 230 taka a day ($3) pumping the pedals of one of the 600,000 or more machines that careen around Dhaka’s overcrowded streets, many of them decorated with bright, wistful fantasies of a rural world filled with blue lakes, brightly painted cottages, tropical flowers, swans and peacocks, deer and tigers.

The migrant will find a place to live in a basti, one of Dhaka’s hundreds of slum areas, some no more than a precarious straggle of bamboo stilt houses along a polluted canal, others virtual townships of 100,000 or more, with their own complex internal economy and social order. He’ll sleep in a room that measures six feet by eight, perhaps sharing his bed with other men working rotating shifts, paying his monthly 700 taka to the local slumlord. "It’s like the Godfather or Al Capone," Kabir said. "There’s a whole invisible pyramid of lieutenants and sublieutenants and rent collectors. And if you fall behind on payments, you’ll get a visit from the mastaan, the muscleman." As for potable water, unless some kindly NGO has installed a tap, the migrant may have nowhere to turn but to the "gray business" that controls its sale in the slums, often paying more than 50 times as much for a liter of potable water as middle-class people who get it from their faucets.

Once they arrive in Dhaka, migrants find that they face a new version of the very thing they were trying to escape.

As he puts down fragile roots, the man’s family will join him, sometimes one by one, sometimes all at once, the sons following his pursuit of menial jobs and the women bound for domestic service, manual labor, or the apparel industry. But increasingly, the women who flock to the garment factories also come alone, or to join a sibling or a friend from the same village. "These are often adventurous young women," Kabir told me, "and they need to find an honest middleman, because there are plenty of others out there who will take them for a ride, sell them into brothels or traffic them across the border into commercial sex work in India." Sometimes women will even be drawn into Bangladesh’s booming black market in human organs, cajoled into selling a kidney for the equivalent of a year of minimum wages. Once a young woman finds a job, kinship is the engine that drives much of the subsequent recruitment: she does well, she recommends her sister, who then calls a cousin, and so on until a half-dozen members of the family may be working in the factories of Savar and Mirpur.

The less fortunate may find their way to the sweatshops that serve the domestic market, where I met 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls working 80-hour weeks to keep up with demand. (We forget, with all the talk of the Benettons and Gaps and WalMarts, that 160 million Bangladeshis also need a steady supply of cheap saris and lungis, pants and T-shirts.) Many of these miniature factories are strung out along the west bank of the Buriganga, which runs sluggish and foul, biologically dead, almost black in color, coated with an iridescent sheen of spilled oil. In the whole of Bangladesh there is just a single sewage treatment plant; located on the southern outskirts of Dhaka, it can deal with less than 10 percent of the sewage generated in the city. The rest, 1,100 tons of untreated human waste each day, goes straight into the rivers, ponds, canals, and gutters.

Dhaka’s poorest bastis occupy the lowest and most flood-prone sections of the city, inundated during each monsoon system with sewage-tainted water that brings disease in its wake. Overall, rainfall in Bangladesh has declined as the climate changes, but the rains are now more concentrated in the peak months of the monsoon season, more than doubling in volume in August alone over the past 20 years. "The city’s drainage system is equipped to deal with 10 millimeters of rain [less than half an inch]," said Iftekhar Mahmud, a senior reporter for Prothom Alo, the leading Bangla-language newspaper, who has reputedly written more on climate change than any other journalist in the country. "But we often get 10 or 20 times that much in a single day." To make matters worse, the natural drainage areas that are critical in buffering the monsoon floods have steadily been encroached upon as land grabbers pump them dry to put up new housing, much of it illegal. Bangladeshis call this sandfill; one new development I saw on drained land next to the Buriganga covered nearly 400 acres, more than half a square mile.

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If the horrors of Rana Plaza made us think about the industry behind our clothing labels, the image it conjured was probably one of rows of women bent over sewing machines. But this is only the top layer of the apparel pyramid. Beneath it are thousands of other, less visible workplaces, without which there is nothing to sew in the first place. No cloth, woven, colored, and patterned; no leather to be fashioned into belts, shoes, and sneakers, or the decorative trim on blue jeans. And the impact of these hidden links in the global supply chain on Bangladesh’s scarce supply of clean water is hard to grasp until you see it up close.

I went out one hot, humid morning to a neighborhood called Hazaribagh, which is home to virtually all of Bangladesh’s tanneries and the single worst source of pollution of the Buriganga. I stopped outside the Salma Leather Factory and chatted with a woman who was laying out rough squares of cowhide to dry on a garbage-strewn patch of waste ground. I wasn’t surprised when she told me that like many people in Hazaribagh, she was originally from Barisal District, a farming village near the mouth of the Meghna. Two of her brothers had found work in the garment factories, she said. Nearby, a grizzled older man, helped by a girl of 10 or 11, was trampling scraps of dried meat that had been scraped off the hides, reducing them to powdered fishmeal or chicken feed. Two other men squatted at the edge of a garbage dump, surrounded by piles of old shoes, painstakingly separating out the leather from the rubber and plastic, which they said would be melted down to make new soles. Nothing goes to waste in Dhaka—nothing, that is, except water.

I asked if I could look around inside the factory. The foreman, whose name was Bahar, a paunchy, barrel-chested man with a bushy beard, said that would be fine. Business was slow right now; Hazaribagh was waiting for the Shab-e-Barat, the "night of deliverance," at the end of June, when there would be a mass slaughter of animals. Tons of meat for the feasting; tons of hides for the tanneries.

What they produced here, he said, was "wet blue," the first stage of leather manufacturing. Later the hides would be shipped off to a separate plant to be turned into "crust leather," and then to a third factory for finishing. "Wet blue" is the dirtiest and most dangerous part of the industry. The conditions in the windowless, unventilated shed would have shocked Engels or Dickens, and they lived in an age before the invention of synthetic chemicals. Bahar showed me how the hides are softened for 24 hours in huge, rotating wooden drums, where pumped groundwater is mixed with lime and sodium sulfide to remove the last of the hair and flesh. After that comes a whole suite of other toxic chemicals and additives (a recent report on Hazaribagh by Human Rights Watch listed about 30). I tried not to think too hard about the belt and shoes I was wearing.

The most hazardous of the chemicals, however, is chromium sulfate, which gives the wet hides their distinctive gray-blue color. Bangladesh’s tanneries use 3,000 metric tons of the stuff each year, and those who handle it should always wear protective gloves, safety goggles, and a face mask. Perhaps it is unnecessary to say that none of these was in evidence here. Factory inspectors never visit Hazaribagh; the government itself acknowledges that, "There is no monitoring and no enforcement in Hazaribagh." There are regular vows to relocate the tanneries to Savar, one of the two main garment districts, consolidating them into fewer, larger, and more modern facilities that would share a central effluent treatment plant. The Savar tannery complex was first suggested 20 years ago. In 2002, a deadline was set for the move: the end of 2005. Wait, make that 2006. No, let’s say 2010. If the Hazaribagh tanneries were not gone by then, the High Court of Bangladesh ruled, they would be closed down. Three years later, they’re still there. The move to Savar is now set for 2015; or perhaps 2017; or perhaps never.

The air in the Salma Leather Factory was rank with hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and ammonia. A noxious blue slime coated the floor and slithered into a drain hole. On the other side of the wall, laden with heavy metals, animal flesh, fat, and dissolved hair, the slime would make its way into the gutters and alleyways of the neighboring basti, and thence to a series of drainage channels and small streams before finally being decanted into the Buriganga, half a mile away. Actually, that is an over-simplification, because until it was sluiced along on its journey by the monsoon rains, which were due any day, much of the effluent sat in a nearby stagnant pond that was half-choked with water hyacinths. Naked children were frolicking in the water, and a woman from the basti was beating her laundry on a rock.

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