Saving the Factory, Not the Workers: the Garment Industry in Bangladesh

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Drawing from the Rana Plaza disaster that killed 1,134 workers in 2013, Prii Sen describes how the Western remote fight for better garment factory buildings in Bangladesh is significantly different from the actual demands of laborers themselves. She gives us an account of labor conditions in Dhaka, as well as the multiple forms of political organizing that are continuously practiced by the workers.

Article published in The Funambulist 33 (January-February 2021) Spaces of Labor. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

The story of Bangladesh’s ready-made garments industry, the infamous underbelly of the global fast fashion industry dominated by Euro-U.S. multinational corporations, is often represented in mainstream media through a series of building collapses and other industrial accidents. It is the disaster zone of poorly constructed and unregulated factories that inevitably collapse when the faulty structures can no longer contain the rush to fulfill orders with ever-shortening lead times, even as prices continue to plummet and wages remain stagnant. It is the collapse of state institutions, or at least all illusions about their political will to safeguard workers, which time and again exposes their anti-worker biases and the state-capital nexus that necessitates the oppression of workers. It is also the collapse of all reason when a labor force composed of predominantly poor migrant women workers from rural areas earn poverty wages while simultaneously creating immense value in exports (close to 28 billion dollars in 2019-2020), around 83% of the total national export, and obscenely high profits for multinational brands.

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Site of the former Rana Plaza mall factory in Dhaka after it collapsed in April 2013. / Photo by NYU Stern BHR (December 2014).

In an hypermediatized world, spectacular industrial accidents that literally bury workers remain one of the main currencies for international outrage and solidarity campaigns boycotting brands until they #PayUp. International news coverage continues to visualize the crises through racialized bodies that must be recovered, dead or alive, from the debris. These force periodic damage control responses from brands and governments that reinforce existing hierarchical power relations where workers’ rights are subordinated to the demands of foreign capital. Consider the Rana Plaza disaster that killed 1,134 people and injured thousands of others. In 2013, an illegally overextended multistorey building in Savar, Dhaka, that was judged unfit for industrial use, collapsed. To discipline an errant arm in the global apparel supply chain, international partners predictably threatened to suspend Bangladesh’s trade privileges. The Bangladeshi government sought to appease Western buyers by amending the Bangladesh Labor Act 2006, making union registration a smoother process to safeguard workers’ rights by giving them a voice at the workplace. These cosmetic changes only benefited unions associated with international NGOs. High thresholds for worker participation and targeted surveillance continued to disadvantage more radical workers’ organizations. The status quo was reinstated once the international attention on Bangladesh shifted.

Beyond dreadful collapses, the slow violence of everyday labor characterizes a majority of workers’ experiences in the factories. Precarious work is normalized within the logic of global supply chains aiming for ever-expanding production goals. During his ethnographic research in Bangladesh’s garment factories (“Beyond Factory Safety,” 2019), Hasan Ashraf encountered a worker in 2011 who explained: “Garment work depreciates (ক্ষয় / khoy) a body faster.” This strikes me as a succinct description of both the nature and conditions of work. The use of the multivalent ক্ষয় indicates a corporeal reality and unmistakably implicates the powers that be. ক্ষয় is an occupational hazard. It is the decaying of bodies that labor in a system of unmitigated exploitation, without proper protections in the forms of rights, affordable healthcare and welfare resources. The corporeal reality of ক্ষয় co-constitutes the mental health of workers. Many suffer from anxiety and depression due to the pressures of overtime work without proportionate pay, as factory managers disregard labor laws and threaten dissenting voices with violence, pay cuts and layoffs. ক্ষয়় is also the physical state of structures. It encompasses decaying foundations and rusting metal frameworks. Bodies decay in tandem with the factory buildings that hold them. As bodies and buildings decay past recovery, the prison of the workplace becomes a gravesite.