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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

Next day, a friend drove me out beyond the city limits to the northeast to see the dyeworks and the textile mills that produce the raw material for Dhaka’s sewing machines. The monsoon had finally broken, and the first fierce showers were hammering down on the fields, which were still waterlogged more than six months after the end of last year’s rains. For mile upon mile these fields had been staked out for drainage and development by real estate companies, whose signs were planted at intervals in the knee-deep water. This is where Dhaka would grow in the future to accommodate the 25 million, the 30 million that Babar Kabir feared would push the city to the tipping point, threatening its very survival.

The dyeworks that supply the domestic sweatshops along the Buriganga with lower quality cloth, not suitable for the export market, had me thinking of Dickens again. Whole villages, rabbit warrens of poor homes divided by narrow, muddy lanes, and vibrating to the clatter of cast-iron looms that looked as if they dated back to the Industrial Revolution, were dedicated to the business of weaving and dyeing. The highway was lined with lengths of dyed cloth, orange, yellow, red, purple, green, and blue, hung out on string to dry like some roadside version of Christo’s Central Park project, The Gates. In their earth yards, men and boys were sloshing more cloth around in zinc bathtubs, up to their armpits in dye, hands and wrists stained permanently indigo and crimson. One man said he scrubbed his arms every night with scouring powder and bleach, but it didn’t make much difference. He upended his tub and poured some of the liquid into a drain to run off into a nearby stream. "Don’t worry," he grinned, "this is good water. It doesn’t harm you."

Farther east was Bangladesh’s main concentration of textile mills, strung out along a 25-mile stretch of highway near the town of Narsingdi. We stopped at B.L. Apparels ("100% Export Oriented and Composite Industries"). This was a much larger enterprise, a solid cement building occupying several floors. The word composite meant that it handled everything from weaving and dyeing to the silkscreen printing of finished fabric, producing saris as well as polo shirts, the latter destined mainly for markets in Australia and New Zealand. At first, the visit did nothing to lift my gloom. Standing pools of gray caustic liquid had gathered under the rollers in the washing and pressing area. There was a pervasive stench of hydrochloric acid.

A family standing around a tub of dye

But this wasn’t the whole story, I discovered, as the factory manager showed off some of the recent innovations to the mill. When a country begins to develop its garment industry, most of the raw material has to be imported. But as it grows, the domestic textile-milling sector will rapidly expand to serve it, with all stages of production housed under one roof. That’s what happened in China, and it’s happening now in Bangladesh.

"There are about 100 larger textile mills in this area now," the manager said. "Within 10 years there will be hundreds more, and they’ll be much bigger. This mill was very small when I came here 10 years ago. It had only 25 or 30 workers. Now there are close to 800."

He took me upstairs and along a narrow catwalk to see the pride of B.L. Apparels: its effluent treatment plant. The water that’s used in the mill is recycled, filtered, and pumped up to a series of diamond-shaped rooftop tanks, where it’s treated with powdered lime and ferrosulfate until its pH level is within government-set limits, only slightly more acidic than the surrounding groundwater. Then it’s released into a canal that flows into a nearby river.

"This is all new," the manager said. "The rules came in about two years ago. About 10 percent of the mills have completed their treatment plants, and the other 90 percent are under construction. They’re financed by government loans, and you can no longer get a license to open a new plant without one." You had to be on your toes, he said, for government inspectors show up unannounced about once a month for spot checks.

The rule of thumb seemed to be that bigger was better. The small tanneries and local dyeworks operated in the regulatory darkness, flushing their vile effluent into the waterways without restriction. To judge from the textile mills of Narsingdi, the more the industry was dedicated to the export market, the larger the factories, the more they would be scrutinized, the more likely it was that they would be forced to clean up their act. Rana Plaza had exposed Western buyers like Benetton as complicit in the dark side of Bangladesh’s apparel industry. But here was the paradox: that those same companies, by deepening their engagement, might also be its best hope for reform. The most important question of all, it seemed to me, was what the garment workers themselves thought of this, so I went to Savar and Mirpur to ask them.

* * *

There is a surprising lack of hard demographic data about the women in the garment industry: the companies may know the basic facts (name, age, place of origin), but they see no compelling need to share them; the government doesn’t seem interested; and the academics, NGOs, and advocacy groups don’t have the resources to do a systematic analysis. Yet some clear patterns emerged from my conversations.

Sarat Dash of the International Organization for Migration had talked to me earlier about the complexity of environmental migration, and the time I spent in Savar and Mirpur began to fill in some of the granular detail. I picked up one early clue from Mahmudul Sumon, an anthropologist at Jahangirnagar University in Savar, who heads a team studying Bangladesh’s last-but-one disaster, the fire at Tazreen Garments last November that killed at least 112 people (that was the official estimate: Sumon says the true figure was 124). Eighty percent were women, the majority were in their twenties; a good number were under 18. But the most striking finding, Sumon said, was that a high percentage of those who died had migrated to Dhaka from a single small district in northwestern Bangladesh, in an area notable for its falling water table and frequent crop failures.

Later, in Mirpur, I found that a large number of the women were from the southwest, not the northwest, forced from their homes by cyclones, floods, and salinated farmland. Shirin Akhter thought the different demographics had a lot to do with transportation routes: buses from the southwest arrived at a big depot near Mirpur; those from the northwest stopped first in Savar. She said she had watched migration trends closely since founding her advocacy group, Karmojibi Nari, back in 1991, when women first began entering the labor market in large numbers. They gave many reasons: rural poverty, lack of educational opportunity, job prospects in the city. But in recent years, and especially after Cyclone Sidr in 2007, they increasingly cited environmental stressors. "They don’t necessarily use those words," Akhter said. "But what they do say clearly is that they can’t go back because they’ve lost their homes or their land to the water."

A silhouette in a hallway

I met a number of migrants from the northwest in a sprawling Savar neighborhood called Jamgora. It’s one of Dhaka’s largest slums, home to more than 100,000 people, and it turned out to be quite different from the others I’d visited. Some women may live in the bamboo, tin, and palm-frond huts of the bastis when they first arrive and are making minimum wage, but in time, as their earnings rise closer to the average of about 6,000 taka ($75) a month, they will gravitate to places like Jamgora.

The development is dominated by rows of grim concrete tenements, and the rooms, often shared by several people, are dark and cheerless, with heavy metal doors and windows secured by padlocks against theft. Yet the women who live here are not the poorest of the poor. Rents in Jamgora are two or three times higher than in the bastis, and water and electricity are included. In one room, two young women in their late teens were sprawled on the bed watching a soap opera. One of them, speaking in a shy whisper, said she was from a village in an arid northwestern district, near the town of Bogra. A young man wandered over to join us. He said he was from the same area. The family’s crops had failed once too often; now his mother, a brother, and three sisters were all working the sewing machines.

Despite their arduous working conditions, with low wages, no sick leave, little job security, frequent sexual harassment, not even the right to ask for a toilet break—not to mention the constant fear of another disaster like Tazreen or Rana Plaza—women in places like Jamgora have begun to achieve a modest degree of upward mobility and independence. Most are still unmarried, and although they may sometimes yearn to return to their villages, they have broken free of many of the restrictive taboos of village life. Remaining at home, they might have faced an early marriage, arranged by a father desperate to keep down the cost of his daughter’s dowry, which will increase as she gets older. But here they can chat with friends on their cell phones, go out at night if they’re not too tired, perhaps dare to put on a little lipstick. If they’re hard-pressed to pay the rent, I was told, some will even split the cost with a (usually Platonic) male roommate.

* * *

I spent the following evening with a group of about a dozen women in Mirpur. They gathered in a circle on the floor of a local office of Karmojibi Nari and recounted the stories of their migration. All but one were from the southwest coastal region, nine of them from Barisal, the area worst afflicted by climate change and extreme weather. The stories varied from one woman to the next, but water was their common thread.

One young woman had come to Dhaka from the edge of the Sundarbans, the vast coastal mangrove forest, because a tiger, driven from its customary habitat as the land grew saltier and the availability of prey diminished, was menacing her village. Another got a call on her mobile from a neighbor, warning that the riverbank by her home was slipping into the water; by the time she got there, her house, garden, and trees had all vanished. Other stories were a more nuanced mix of "extreme" and "slow onset" changes. Nargis, from a village near the mouth of the Meghna, had left after Cyclone Sidr with four siblings, all of whom now worked in the garment industry. But her parents had insisted on staying behind, and the remittances from their children had helped them rebuild their small farm. Jesmin, also from southern Barisal, had come to the city as a teenager with her brother after their father died of leukemia. Another brother followed, and soon all three were working in the garment industry. A decade later, after Sidr struck, village life became so precarious that Jesmin’s mother and two remaining siblings concluded they could no longer survive in Barisal, and they headed for the city too.

View of a boat from overhead

Jesmin was 30 now. She wore an elegant red sari and a tiny gold nose stud. She had high, sculpted cheekbones and dark, deep-set eyes, and while some of the other women stared shyly at the ground and told their stories in almost inaudible monosyllables, Jesmin had a calm and direct gaze, a poise, a natural charisma that marked her out right away as a future leader. She spoke eloquently of the hardships the women faced, the nostalgia they sometimes felt for their villages, their resentment of official indifference. But when the conversation turned to Rana Plaza, and the well-intentioned reluctance of western consumers to buy clothes from a country that permitted such things to happen, she began to laugh, and soon most of the women in the room were laughing and shaking their heads. It was as if I’d told the sickest joke in the world.

"What our girls are saying is don’t boycott us," Shirin Akhter said later. "Just give us a safe workplace."

It’s the greatest of ironies: while shoppers are tortured by conscience, while the Walt Disney Company pulls out to protect its "brand integrity," no one in Bangladesh—no one—wants the apparel companies to leave. The government needs the export earnings; the economists see the industry as the key to Bangladesh’s emergence as the next Asian tiger; the factory owners want the profits; those concerned with corporate social responsibility warn that if western garment buyers pull out, Chinese and Indian buyers will move in (and no one should expect them to care as much about effluent treatment plants and safe water); and the women and their advocates want the jobs—together with the labor rights, fair wages, and healthy working and living conditions that should go with them.

When the laughter in the room finally subsided, Jesmin looked me straight in the eye and said with a smile, "If you stopped buying the clothes we make, what do you think we would do? We’d die."

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