Perhaps the most devastating, and infamous, event to come out of Bangladesh in recent years is the Rana Plaza collapse. In 2013 countless structural flaws turned fatal when the entire building completely collapsed, killing 1,138 factory workers and injuring more than 2,500. Requests for maintenance and proper emergency exits had fallen on deaf ears, and workers desperate for their meager wages continued to show up for work or face certain firing. Years later 38 people have been charged with murder, but shocking grievances to human rights somehow continue on in factories across the country.
With over 3.5 million workers spread across nearly 5,000 factories, 80% of Bangladesh’s total export revenue is all thanks to one type of product: fashion. Cheap labor, abundant labor and labor that up until recently hadn’t protested the cruelties of modern slavery enticed corporations from around the world. The government of Bangladesh previously worked to discourage unions that fight for fair treatment, but in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse and increased international pressure, unions were technically allowed to be formed. In practice, employers have worked tirelessly to discourage unions, threatening and intimidating workers who even consider joining. Human Rights Watch have interviewed Bangladeshi garment workers in recent years, and sadly report that even a mention of unions can result in anything from verbal threats to physical abuse. Unfortunately, the widespread changes for increased wages and standard safety precautions are not being met. In fact, new allegations of everything from sexual harassment to mandated unpaid overtime, is now coming to light.
At present, workers in garment factories across Bangladesh are not even earning above the poverty line for a full time schedule: making just BDT 5,300 (about $68USD) per month, when the government has set the poverty line at BDT 6,336 ($78USD) per month. Protests for higher wages and safer conditions have resulted in mass firings. Workers who dare to participate in protests for fair wages for their work would often come to work the next door met with their names on the gates of the factory on the “fired” list. Devastatingly, these workers are placed on blacklists that bar them from finding employment at other factories.
Years after the Rana Plaza collapse, an event that temporarily shocked Westerners, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance reports vital safety measures, now regulated, are still not being put into place. Workers, over 80% female, are all but powerless in this fight as they are dependent upon even the meager wages being offered for their work. Improper building codes, lack of fire exits, and squalid conditions are not being inspected by government workers. This lack of oversight also means child labor has stayed common in Bangladesh despite worldwide efforts to eradicate the horrific practice. Factories routinely turn a blind eye to underage workers, forcing them to work cripplingly long hours. According to UNICEF over a million children under the age of 14 are employed in Bangladeshi factories full time, often working numerous unpaid overtime hours instead of attending school.
As long as Western demand for cheap fashion remains high, changes will not be made in Bangladesh. The cost to factories to make necessary improvements that respect human life are not being demanded from their customers, and hence there is no incentive to spend the capital. Furthermore, Bangladesh’s government, hungry for the influx of foreign money, has not enforced mandatory changes. If you are ready for equality no matter the geographical location, demand transparency from where you shop.