Beyond Boycotts: Gender, Globalisation and Garment Factories in Bangladesh

Photo: Weronika via Flickr CC 2.0
Photo: Weronika via Flickr CC 2.0

In Bangladesh, four million people work in textile factories. Their work accounts for 80% of their country’s annual exports. Yet they work in extremely dangerous conditions. It’s been a year since 1,100 workers died in two incidents of fire and structural collapse in April 2013. My post explores this tragedy through a sociological lens, looking at empirical studies of the local working conditions and social reality in which garment workers live. These tragedies are an ugly reminder of the unequal economic relations that sustain globalisation. One of the visceral Western response to these tragedies may be to cry for a boycott of these companies. Sociological research shows that the resolution is much less tidy. The story behind this is not simply about corporate greed. It is a tale about gender inequality and the social costs of economic mobility. Let’s start by remembering the 2013 tragedy.

Who takes the responsibility?

Over 1,100 workers died in two factory collapses in 2o13. The New York Times produced a moving short video on the Bangladesh Rana Plaza garment factory tragedy from the 24th of April 2013 (below). Featuring the work of photojournalist Ismail Ferdous, this video tells part of the stories of the people who died and a further 2,500 workers who were injured. The video includes the heartbreaking, iconic image of two bodies huddled together in the rubble (below). Ferdous says his photography represents

the voice of people who died… No one knows their story – how they survived making these clothes for first world countries.

Photo Times Asi via Flickr CC 2.0
Photo Times Asi via Flickr CC 2.0

The video notes that of the four million people work in clothing factories in Bangladesh, most of them women. The minimum wage is $68 per month though most factories pay less.

The tragedy reverberates beyond the loss of life, but also on the families who are dependent on these women’s income, in an economy where working class and poor women have few options.

Ferdous says, the fashion “tags remind me of the collapse.” Images of these fashion brands amid the devastation are all the more poignant when one considers the wealth these labels represent. The fashion houses linked to this tragedy include Benetton, who markets itself as a cosmopolitanism and progressive brand; El Corte Ingles, one of Spain’s largest department stores; J. C. Penny and Walmart, two of USA’s biggest department stores; and many more.These brands represent a multi million dollar industry, yet the Trust Fund set up to support victims needs a further $25 million to cover medical costs and loss of income to families. Human Rights Watch reports that only one single company has made a sizeable contribution to this Fund ($8 million by Primark), while 15 companies who manufactured products in these factories have yet to make a donation.

In the video, Ferdous asks: “who takes the responsibility? A Western viewer might watch this powerful video, feel enraged and consider that boycotting these companies is the answer. Sociological research actually suggests the answers about responsibility and social action are not as straightforward as they may seem.

Sociology of Gender & Exploitation

Sociologist Ethel Brooks studied how women and children who worked in garment factories protested their unfair working conditions in Dhaka in the late 1990s. Dhaka is also where the latest factory deaths took place. Brooks finds that unfair working conditions in Bangladesh were similar to the exploitation of workers employed by international garment companies in other developing nations such as El Salvador, and in sweatshops in cosmopolitan cities, such in New York. International condemnation of child labour in Bangladesh led to wide-scale protests by international consumers as well as by local unions. Factories bowed to pressure and fired 10,000 children they had been exploiting, which left them displaced.

Brooks chronicles how labour unions and activists brokered a program to get these children educated. But, she asks, what happened to them as a result? What were their local work options once they finished study, when the largest employers are the very same companies that exploited them in the first place? What happened to the women and other adults who continued to work in these factories? New bargaining agreements were put in place and international interest on these workers waned. Working conditions reverted back not long afterwards. So it is happens that 15 years later, the lack of labour rights have resulted in the deaths of 1,000 workers.

Photo Dhaka garment workers. By Tareq Salahuddin via Flickr CC 2.0
Photo Dhaka garment workers. By Tareq Salahuddin via Flickr CC 2.0

Naila Kabeer conducted a similar study of Bangladeshi women in Dhaka and London who work in textile factories. Kabeer notes that despite the horror of child labour, people outside Dhaka did not understand what this work meant to its locals. Children, especially girls, are vulnerable to sexual abuse while their parents are away working long hours. While they worked in factories, they were surrounded by other women, girls and relatives, which lessened the likelihood of facing this abuse. (Although Kabeer also notes that some factory owners preyed upon young women.) This sounds horrific, but Kabeer unravels the social fabric connecting factory work and other spheres of life in Dhaka.

When the children were fired there was no one to look after them at home. Many women were forced to quit to look after these children, which meant that at least two financial contributions were now missing from the household (the mother’s and child’s). The women who opted to keep working were constantly worried about their children, which negatively impacted on their productivity in the factories, which further jeopardises their precarious employment. In contrast to their alternatives, factory work was considered by workers to be a “relatively safe and regulated environment.”

Kabeer’s and Brooks’ ethnographies attempt to question the ramifications of international consumer-led boycotts on local workers. What happens to workers when short-lived campaigns are deemed successful? What are their employment and social alternatives? Can labour union movements survive when international companies are only compelled to act when the international media shines a transient, damning glare?

I find these studies useful in situating the current situation in Bangladesh. As the graph to the below shows, the number of textile factory workers continues to increase in Bangladesh. Who looks after these worker’s rights in a way that won’t further endanger them, or have other negative consequences on their living arrangements?

Source: BGMEA via BBC
Source: BGMEA via BBC

Beyond Boycotts

Beyond Boycotts: Gender, Globalisation and Garment Factories in Bangladesh
Beyond Boycotts: Gender, Globalisation and Garment Factories in Bangladesh

Consumer protests are important, but fleeting international condemnation do not go far enough. Inevitably media attention moves on, while local workers are left without a voice. These factories simply shifted the appearance of exploitation, and continued to neglect and abuse the working conditions and pay of their adult workers. As Brooks notes, many factory workers in 2007 were still women. As I showed, the same is still the case today. Brooks argues that international pressure has to be sustained and collaborative. Imposing certain ideas of capitalist freedom (no child labour) while neglecting the local reality of workers has limited effect on workers’ rights. International consumers can do much better by demanding long term reforms not just on factory floors, as Brooks writes, but also on “floors to corporate boardrooms, retail outlets and advertising outlets.”

There is an international imperative not to turn our eyes away, nor to forget the tragic loss of life in Bangladesh’s garment factories. Yet we should also consider thoughtfully about taking action that won’t further jeopardise the livelihood and safety of the women and children whose present and futures depend on this industry. The Bangladesh factory catastrophes can be avoided through stronger regulation of the international garment industry, better local working conditions and worker’s rights, stronger oversight of infrastructure, and tighter accountability by international parent companies that outsource their labour to developing nations.

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