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Feature: Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza — And Those Who Create Your Cheap Clothes


Meem, Raveena's 9 year-old boss at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Meem, Raveena’s 9 year-old boss

 

Fashion Crimes: Dispatches from the frontlines of Bangladesh’s cheap fashion revolution

 

By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Ottawa, Canada

 

 

 *It was exactly 1 year ago today, April 24, 2013, when the world was alerted of the devastating Rana Plaza tragedy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  At the same time, the idea of Fast Fashion, outsourcing and the hidden cruel truth of cheap and chic was revealed.  Isabelle our International Investigative Journalist, had a unique opportunity to sit down and chat with with The Toronto Star (Canada’s largest city newspaper) journalist Raveena Aulakh, who documented her stint as a worker at Rana Plaza. Here is her story. 

 

 

Raveena sits next to a cobbler on a Dhaka street in Bangladesh

Raveena sits next to a cobbler on a Dhaka street in Bangladesh (Courtesy of Raveena Aulakh/The Toronto Star)

 

At the end of my first day of work, I returned to my Dhaka hotel a little after 6 because I didn’t stay back for overtime. My back hurt, I had a nosebleed from sitting in the wicked heat, and my head ached. I was hungry but couldn’t eat. I smoked half a pack of cigarettes and watched the minutes tick by until 9 o’clock and I knew Meem would have finally left for home.

Meem, Toronto Star journalist Raveena Aulakh’s 9-year old boss.

 

 

The dust had not yet settled on the collapsed foundations of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh when Toronto Star journalist Raveena Aulakh met Meem, a girl with a fondness for glittery hair-clips and ice cream.  A girl smaller than the tall piles of shirts whose collars she was trimming in one of the city’s sweatshops.

 

And who taught Aulakh some Bengali words: Sab bhalo. It is all okay.

 

In August 2013, Aulakh travelled to Bangladesh to document the working lives of the men, women, and children working in the country’s garment factories and leather tanneries.

 

In Dhaka, she infiltrated a sweatshop where she found work trimming threads from collars under Meem’s careful eye.

 

In the notorious Hazaribagh leather tanneries, Aulakh met 15 year old Zakir, a boy who loves cricket more than he loves Bollywood, more than his mother’s masala shrimp – and who is not expected to live past the age of 50.

 

And in Savar, she met the maimed survivors and families of those killed at Rana Plaza, which took the lives of 1, 129 garment workers sewing cheap threads for Canada’s Joe Fresh, Britain’s Primark, and Spain’s Mango.

 

Raveena Aulakh’s dispatches from the frontlines of Bangladesh’s cheap fashion revolution paint a deeply troubling picture: the crowded floors of garment factories where unscrupulous bosses rule with an iron fist; clunky ceiling fans that fail to cool the faces of garment workers sitting in Dhaka’s crushing heat; the calloused and bruised fingers, raw backs of workers hunched over their work 12 hours a day; a leather tanning industry slowly poisoning its young men to death – a slow-moving, insidious Rana Plaza – where “the working conditions are brutal, illness is rampant and degradation of the environment is brazen.”

 

But Aulakh’s stories also shed promising light on the rise of Bangladesh’s working class from the dust and rubble of Rana Plaza – men and women raising their fists, claiming their rights, and changing the face of ‘Made in Bangladesh.’

 

Marking the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse approaches, Ramp1885 sits down with Raveena Aulakh to find out why she went undercover at a Bangladeshi sweatshop, how she learned that ‘children make for very good workers,’ and what she thinks the future holds for Meem and Zakir.

 

What drove you to want to infiltrate the sweatshops?

 

After the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013, editors at the Star knew they wanted to take a deep look at the garment industry but it took some time to formulate the story ideas. We wanted to do it as differently as we could and working in a factory, as opposed to interviewing garment workers, sounded like a good idea. We didn’t know if it would happen but we had to try.

I volunteered.

I had been to Bangladesh for a series of stories on climate change a few months before and had made some friends. And also because I looked like them, and if anyone had a chance, it would have been me.

 

What shocked you most in the sweatshop and tanneries?

 

I was most shocked by how young some workers were at the sweatshop. While Meem, at 9, was the youngest, there were other girls who were 11 or 12.

It was also shocking to see how long and how hard they worked – they worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, with just an hour-long break for lunch. They sat on the hard floor, without a back rest, and worked magic with their little fingers. They rarely complained. All those things were shocking to see.

At the tanneries, and I visited quite a few, it was again how young the workers were and how they were doing dangerous work with awful health impacts. For example, they work with chemicals like chemicals such as chromium and sodium and NO protection gear at all. They live inside the tanneries, breathe that air 24 hours a day and even eat there.

As I wrote in the story: “Chromium has carcinogenic potential. Acidic effluents cause respiratory illnesses. Gaseous emissions contain sulfur dioxide that gets converted into sulfuric acid once in contact with moisture and damages lungs.”

A United Nations report says that 90 per cent of tannery workers will die before the age of 50.

I couldn’t stand for more than 10 minutes without covering my mouth and nose with a scarf, the stench was so overpowering.

 

Zakir Hussain, 15, nails leftover leather pieces that are usually used to make wallets. Zakir, who lives and works at a leather tannery in Dhaka, is expected to live only another 35 years if he stays on the job.

Zakir Hussain, 15, nails leftover leather pieces that are usually used to make wallets. Zakir, who lives and works at a leather tannery in Dhaka, is expected to live only another 35 years if he stays on the job. (Courtesy of Raveena Aulakh/The Toronto Star)

 

What did you learn?

 

I would say I learned three important things:

1. There is a pretty good chance that my shirt from Banana [Republic] or even my socks from Joe Fresh may have been made by a child in Asia. Poverty is the root of a lot of evils but it HAS to be unacceptable to us in the West that children have to, and do, work so that we can buy and wear cheap clothes. There has to be some sort of accountability. We just can’t say, “I didn’t know or I don’t know what to do.”

2. Children, sadly, make for very good workers. They don’t complain, they don’t whine, they do what is asked of them. That way, their older employers betray their trust when they get children to work long hours in awful conditions.

3. Laws, really and truly, don’t mean a thing. Bangladesh has laws against child labour but they are flouted with impunity. Not just at the sweatshop where I worked but many sweatshop that my colleague Rick Westhead visited in Dhaka, there were children who were clearly underage but were still working.

 

What’s your take on sweatshops? Do you think fashionistas should abandon cheap fashion? Or do you think we should instead be supporting members of the fashion tribe who are agitating for their rights? What’s the ‘solution’ in your view?

 

There is no easy solution, no one answer. It has to be a mix of everything.

First off, do we really need to buy clothes every single day just because they are SO cheap? How did we, as consumers in the West, get there? We need to take a hard good look at our spending habits. If we don’t buy a $6 shirt from, say Joe Fresh, then it wouldn’t be created.

Also, whoever is buying that $6 shirt cannot NOT know how, where it was made. It is $6! If we are ready to pay a bit more for our clothes, chances are that money will in some way trickle down to the workers. Maybe not today, not in 2014, but eventually it will.

 

Many economists have argued that financial independence is the first step to women claiming their rights. They argue that sweatshops, while terrible places, can also offer girls and young women some degree of emancipation and independence. What is your take on this?

 

I agree that there is an important element there: the economic independence of women. As I wrote in the story, too, “cheap fashion has fuelled a social revolution in Bangladesh. It has given women more economic freedom, and to an extent, the power to make some decisions. By all accounts, working women are changing their lives, their families’ lives. There is more food in homes, and cleaner clothes. There is electricity, even if it’s one bulb, and there are toilets.”

While I was working at the sweatshop, I overheard so many conversations about what the women (including 9-year-old Meem) could buy for themselves and their families because now they earn. It was almost sweet victory for them, they had never had that power.

The goal should not be to shut down garment factories but make people more aware of the clothes they wear and their origin. People should question retailers, demand to know where their clothes came from.

 

Taaniya, 13, has been working for a few years. She was Meem’s friend at the sweatshop and gave the 9-year-old tips, including which sewing operators to avoid. (Courtesy of Raveena Aulakh / The Toronto Star)

Taaniya, 13, has been working for a few years. She was Meem’s friend at the sweatshop and gave the 9-year-old tips, including which sewing operators to avoid. (Courtesy of Raveena Aulakh / The Toronto Star)

 

Shabir, 14, right, washes raw hides at a tannery in Hazaribagh. Shabir works nights and weekends so he can go to school and still earn money for his family. (Courtesy of The Toronto Star)

Shabir, 14, right, washes raw hides at a tannery in Hazaribagh. Shabir works nights and weekends so he can go to school and still earn money for his family. (Courtesy of Raveena Aulakh/The Toronto Star)

 

Lootfah, 15, was the sewing helpers' favourite operator. If threads dangled, she would just quiietly trim them. (Courtesy of Raveena Aulakh/ The Toronto Star)

Lootfah, 15, was the sewing helpers’ favourite operator. If threads dangled, she would just quiietly trim them. (Courtesy of Raveena Aulakh/ The Toronto Star)

 

You met many survivors and family members of the Rana Plaza collapse — what continues to be their ultimate desire? Justice? Or compensation?

 

I would say it is both. Many families I spoke to said they knew that something was wrong with the building, there were clear signs. But people were asked by different sweatshops to come to work or be fired. So people went into work the day Rana Plaza collapsed and within hours, were either dead, maimed or badly injured. There is anger that this was allowed to happen and they want to see those responsible punished.

There is the question of compensation, too. Many of those who died were the only earning member of the family and their deaths have been devastating for families.

One teenager I met lost his mother in the collapse while his father is paralyzed below the waist. The teen had plans to attend university, something his parents, too, wanted for him. He said that dream is dead now.

 

What do you foresee as the future of sweatshops in Bangladesh? Do you think that recent mass protests, that foreign companies will leave the country in favor of other cheap labour markets (like Haiti?) where there is less political agitation?

 

There are indications, small ones, that tell things should get better in Bangladesh. As you have pointed out, there have been protest, agitations, Bangladeshi workers are not taking this lying down. On the other hand, the government needs that money to keep coming in so it can’t really afford for long to not listen to the workers who are asking for what is fair.

A recent story we did at the Star said that foreign companies haven’t left, not for other countries, not because of Rana Plaza. They are still there and it looks like they are trying to make things safer there for workers. And if they are investing money in safer work practices, it means they are in it for the long run.

Also, Bangladesh is still cheaper than Haiti or Cambodia.

 

Ethical Chic Photograph ( Courtesy of www.matatraders.com)

Ethical Chic Photograph ( Courtesy of www.matatraders.com)

 

What do you think the future holds for Meem and Zakir?

 

The future: It is really hard to say. Meem is happy she has a job, she doesn’t know the other things she can or could do if she attended school, got some skills.

On the other hand, Meem has a job, is somewhat financially independent and chances are that she will always work, joining a large number of Bangladeshi women who have done so.

I really don’t know how Zakir will do. The story talks about a UN repot where it is said that 90 per cent tannery workers die before they turn 50. I am scared for Zakir, and where he will end up.

 

Photography courtesy of Raveena Aulakh/The Toronto Star 

 

*Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is a writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.

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