Disasters Made in Bangladesh
Why Poor People Are Still Dying for Our Cheap T-Shirts
Feb 19 2013
Photos by Syed Zain Al-Mahmood
e still don’t know exactly how many of Swapna’s coworkers were killed at the Tazreen Fashions factory on November 24, 2012. She was sewing shorts—“half-pants,” they’re called in Bangladesh—when on the ground floor piles of yarn and acrylic fabric began to burn. She had just become pregnant by her husband, Mominul, who worked in the factory with her as a quality inspector. When the fire alarm went off, the floor managers told the hundreds of workers to sit back down, yelling that there was nothing wrong. Minutes later, when the alarm went off again, it was too late. Smoke snaked up the three staircases; the lights went out. There was no fire escape. She thought it would be better to jump than to be burned alive, but all the windows were blocked by steel security grates.
Mominul had given up looking for his wife shortly after the lights went out, instead running to a corner of his floor where men had managed to tear the grate from one of the windows. By chance, construction workers had left a flimsy grid of bamboo scaffolding leaning on an outside wall, and scores of workers were able to shinny out of the window and down onto the roof of a nearby shed. He stood on the shed roof and watched as the fire climbed up the eight-story factory. Several workers tore exhaust fans from the windows and jumped, about a hundred feet, to their deaths. Suddenly, a charred, shrieking figure scrambled down the scaffolding and onto the shed roof. The figure grabbed him, screaming wildly. Mominul didn’t realize, until she calmed down, that it was his wife.
Workers at the Tazreen factory, in the Ashulia industrial zone outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, had been sewing T-shirts, jeans, and shorts for, among others, Walmart’s in-house Faded Glory line, Sears, and M.J. Soffe, a seller of apparel licensed by the US Marines. The factory was capable of producing huge volumes of clothing—about a million T-shirts a month. The business of making and exporting ready-made garments—referred to by consultants, Western businessmen, and government types as “RMG” and by everyone in Bangladesh simply as “garments” (as in “before garments, all of these people were farmers”)—began in the 1980s as a tiny industry captained by a class of ambitious small businessmen profiting from, among other local advantages, child labor and an extremely low minimum wage.
But conditions slowly improved over the years. These changes came about, in part, because Western garment buyers like Walmart and Nike were the targets of relentless activist campaigns that vilified “sweatshop conditions.” Companies that relied on such an infrastructure responded by instituting standards meant to eliminate child and slave labor and other overt forms of abuse in factories. In 1992, Walmart began issuing a 12-point “Standards for Suppliers” document, detailing general principles they expected local factories to follow on issues like wages (“suppliers shall fairly compensate”), prison labor (“shall not be tolerated”), and freedom to form unions (suppliers are supposed to respect this right “as long as such groups are legal in their own country”). It also covers safety: “Walmart will not do business with any supplier that provides an unhealthy or hazardous work environment.”
Policies like this last stipulation from Walmart are part of the reason the Tazreen fire became such a massive global news story at the tail end of 2012, and why it has been compared to New York City’s horrific 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire by everyone from the New York Times editorial board to US labor secretary Hilda Solis: It seemed like an anachronistic tragedy that could have only happened in an earlier era, one in which there were no “supplier standards.” The only problem with this narrative, of course—and the thing many mainstream newspapers and other observers have missed—is that it is a fairy tale.
The Tazreen fire wasn’t all that exceptional. Since 2006, 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have been killed in factory fires. Workers who try to form unions are regularly beaten and arrested by government security forces. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) has worked with the government to form a new force called the Industrial Police, accused by human rights groups of harassing and intimidating workers. At least one activist has been abducted and murdered. Riots are common. In the month after Swapna and Mominul escaped Tazreen, at least 17 other fires broke out in garment factories in industrial zones.
In January, I flew to Dhaka. I wanted to see what was being done in the wake of the fire at Tazreen and whether it would, as the observers who’d compared it to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire hoped, become a watershed moment for improving the safety conditions of the global garment industry, much as the earlier blaze had done for the American garment business. Landing at the Dhaka airport, it was apparent how much weight was placed on the trade: “In the future,” read one billboard outside the terminal, “made in Bangladesh outfits will set the tunes of the global fashion vogue.”
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest garment exporter, with 5,500 factories producing clothes for companies like H&M and Walmart, the two largest buyers of garments in the country. (You’re probably wearing something made in Bangladesh right now. Or your mom is.) The country, according to some observers, is poised to pass China within the next decade as the world’s most sought after producer of cheap garments. Millions of workers have moved from the crowded countryside—Bangladesh fits 150 million people into an area the size of Illinois—to find jobs in the factories surrounding the capital. Bangladesh has the lowest labor costs of any garment-producing country in the world, with a minimum wage of about $37 a month.
I wanted to go to the Tazreen factory immediately after my arrival, and so my fixer, Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, picked me up at my hotel. We drove 15 miles out of town, then down a dirt road straight to the factory gates. There had just been an incident—a local had hit a police truck with his motorcycle—and things were being sorted out in the factory yard. I asked Zain who all the tough-looking men in suits were. “Those,” Zain said, “are the Industrial Police.”
From the outside, the building seemed mostly intact, and it took a minute for me to realize we were at the scene of the disaster. The area around it didn’t look all that dilapidated. It was surrounded by banana trees and rows of vegetables, with goats and children running around. The cinder-block residential barracks, which are owned by private landlords (not the factory owners) and rented by workers, weren’t at all squalid. Most were shared by entire families and divided into neatly kept rooms every 12 feet or so, with a steel door facing out. These features did, however, give the barracks the impression of being tropical cell blocks.
Zain, who also works as a freelancer for the Wall Street Journal, had said that he was going to introduce me to some survivors he’d interviewed right after the fire. But when we left the car and asked the several boys who began following us for tips on where we might find these survivors, they told us that most of the people Zain had interviewed had returned to their hometown villages. “Or they’ve just got jobs at other factories, and they’re at work.”
Zain asked the boys something else in Bangla—a question I’m glad I didn’t have to ask—the essence of which was basically: “Child, take me to someone who survived the fire that killed 110 or so of your neighbors and probably scarred you in ways you can’t describe.” And then we were off, a delegation of boys, dogs, and journalists that proceeded into a little courtyard formed by three of the barracks. Inside, a middle-aged woman wearing a yellow kameez produced two plastic chairs so that Zain and I could sit. The survivors we came there to meet were called out. Children came to watch, surrounding us.
We met two young women who had been stationed on the third floor when the fire broke out. One, named Sakhina, was talkative and sassy. She told us that since the fire, she’d found a job at a factory called Knit-Asia; she’d skipped work that day. The other, Mahmooda, was still too scared of fires to go back to factory work.
We asked them to recount what happened, which they did, and which started us on a frenzied tour of the barracks, always followed by small boys and occasionally large crowds. Each resident provided information that unraveled the story of what had happened that day on the third floor, where 69 bodies had been recovered.
More than 1,100 people went to work on the day of the fire. Sakhina and Mahmooda had both left rural villages seven years ago to come to Tazreen. “There is nothing in the villages for us,” Sakihna said when I asked whether she missed home. She’d been employed as the manager of the barracks until eight months ago, when she decided she’d make more money in the factory.
The evening of the fire, Sakhina had stopped working for a moment and set her elbows on the table. A floor manager came up to her. She recounted to me what had happened after that: “He said to me, ‘Sakhina, are you praying? Or are you sleeping?’” Then the fire alarm went off. “We had a fire drill a few days before. That’s what saved my life.”
I thought she was joking. “I’d never worked in garments before!” she continued. “I wouldn’t have known what the alarm meant. The floor manager put his arms up in the air and said to sit down. They told us not to leave. But I said to him, ‘If there’s no fire, then I’ll come back later.’ And I walked down the stairs and left. When I came back, there was smoke, and people were jumping out of the windows.”
Meanwhile, Mahmooda stayed put. When the fire knocked the lights out, she turned on the flashlight on her cell phone and used it to find her way to the window leading to the bamboo scaffolding, the same route most of the workers on the third floor used to escape.
Later that day, I met Swapna and Mominul, who’d also been on the third floor at the time of the fire. “I was thinking that it’d be better to jump than be roasted,” Swapna told me. “I think most of the people suffocated.”
After the blaze had been mostly extinguished, firefighters carried out the bodies and had them hauled away on flatbed bicycle rickshaws used in Bangladesh to move small loads of building materials. The fire department later released a tally of the dead: 100 even, they claimed. Later, when I asked local labor activist Kalpona Akter about that number, she laughed. “How stupid! You came up with exactly 100 and said that was your total? How can anyone believe that?”
The next day, I went to a press conference at the reporters’ union in central Dhaka. Fifty-three unidentified victims had been buried in a ceremony after the fire, but a final tally had yet to be established (outside the firefighters’ “official” count). A group of anthropology students from across the country had bused in relatives of workers who have never been found. The conference room was packed with reporters, but because Zain couldn’t travel with me that day, I wasn’t totally sure what was going on. I did know that the students had surveyed the area around the factory and found at least 68 families who claimed to have been unable to recover their relatives’ bodies; this raised the possibility that the actual number of victims was as high as 131.
The exact number of bodies recovered from the scene is one of several mysteries still surrounding the fire, though the New York Times, like most outlets, has settled on 112. I spoke to a woman named Rukiya Begum, whose 19-year-old daughter had been working on the fourth floor when the fire erupted. Her body was never found, which meant that Rukiya was ineligible to receive the $7,500 that the government, the BGMEA, and a few foreign companies were offering to compensate relatives of the deceased. It turns out that many of the unidentified workers’ families were still waiting for compensation, or even an official acknowledgement that one of their relatives had died in the inferno. “I tried to go and get a death certificate,” Rukiya said, “but they said, ‘Where is the body?’ I’m worried she was burned down to ashes and there isn’t a body to find.”
I stepped away for a cigarette. A man in a purple shirt and an acrylic blazer approached. We shook hands, and in good English, he asked my name. He sketched me out, so I told him my name was Jim. He asked what I was doing in Bangladesh. There’s almost no tourism in the country, so I couldn’t say I was on vacation without raising suspicion. When a foreigner arrives at a hotel in Dhaka, they ask, “What is your company’s name?”—the presumption being that no one would ever visit unless they were getting paid to, and to be fair, I wouldn’t. Unsure of how to play it, I vaguely told him I was “just visiting.”
“Who are you visiting?”
“Friends from where? What is your country?”
“What do you do in Canada?”
“I’m an… artist.”
“Which hotel are you?”
At this point in the conversation, a man in a white shirt and blazer walked up and said something in Bangla to the man in the purple shirt. He then turned to me and asked whether I liked tea. I said, yes, I love tea, and he said to come with him. We left.
He took me to a little garden, where journalists were sitting around plastic tables and drinking tea. He said he worked in TV. “That man was from the Special Branch,” he said, referring to my purple-shirted interrogator. “They watch diplomats, journalists, and foreigners. They protect them from trouble, too. There is nothing for you to worry about.” Then he asked the same question the supposed Special Branch affiliate had asked: “Which hotel are you?” and whether I had a journalist visa.
The Special Branch and the Industrial Police are only two of a baffling array of Bangladeshi police forces. There’s also the thana, or village police; the plainclothes Detective Branch; a division of the Special Branch that oversees customs and airports; a paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion; and the National Security Intelligence (NSI) service, who sometimes keep watch on labor activists.
The NSI serves, to some unknown degree, the interests of the elected government, led by a party called the Awami League and headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. After Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971, its politics slowly evolved into a contest between venal cliques surrounding Hasina and another woman named Khaleda Zia, who now leads the oppositional Bangladesh National Party. The two parties have few glaring ideological differences; electoral politics in the country is mostly a power game. Those in office enrich themselves and their friends through corruption; the losers wait until the citizenry tires of the status quo and votes the government out. No Bangladeshi government has ever been reelected.
With government backing, Bangladesh’s garment manufacturers have developed into the country’s first instance of an entrepreneurial upper class. According to the BGMEA, which has become one of the country’s major sources of political power, the garment industry employs 3.5 million workers, and the number of garment factories has nearly doubled since 1999. Garments account for 80 percent of the country’s total export earnings; it is virtually the nation’s only industry.
Cautious of spurning one of its few major revenue sources, the government has a dual interest in ignoring worker demands for fire safety and better wages. First, it’s in the interest of garment manufacturers to keep costs down because the prices offered by Western buyers are so low that it’s almost impossible to maintain a decent profit margin. Second, the government is concerned about preserving the foreign market. “They have an overall goal of preventing labor activists from doing their job, which is to raise wages and safety standards, which might mean that Bangladesh isn’t the cheapest apparel maker anymore,” Theresa Haas of the Worker Rights Consortium, an American labor rights group that monitors conditions in Bangladesh, told me. “This is their development strategy.”
On our next reporting trip, Zain and I went to visit the widow of a murdered labor activist named Aminul Islam. His case has become well known among Western activists and government officials, and I wanted to hear the story of someone who had tried to challenge the prevailing conditions in the industry. We drove 50 miles to the tiny village of Hijolhati, north of the capital, where Aminul had lived. Because of traffic, it took us three and a half hours to get there. On arrival, we went to the village bazaar to ask for directions to Aminul’s house. The man we asked turned out to be the imam at the mosque where Aminul had prayed. We told him why we’d come, and he said it was good we were there. “He was a righteous man,” he said, and he got into our car to show us the way.
We drove half an hour down a dirt road, undoubtedly doing permanent damage to the suspension of our rented Corolla. The imam told us that Aminul, like lots of garment workers in the area, had commuted to work every day by the same route we were taking, except that he’d walked the dirt road to the bazaar and then hopped aboard a bus. This must have taken hours.
Aminul’s house was a nondescript little barracks just like the ones we had toured in Tazreen. His widow’s name is Hosni Ara Begum Fahima. She seemed resigned to have to talk to us, because I was foreign and Zain is upper class, but the imam told her he wanted her to speak with us. Zain and I sat on her bed, the same one she’d presumably shared with her husband. She spoke without a hint of enthusiasm, relaying Aminul’s story.
In 1998, Aminul had brought Hosni and their daughter to Hijolhati from the Sherpur District, about 100 miles to the north, because he wanted a job in the garment business. At the factory where he found work he was elected president of a workers’ association; as president, he was pushed into confronting the factory management on wages and safety. When he was fired for his activism, he sued the factory owner and won, but instead of reinstating him, the owner locked him out of the factory and just continued to pay him a monthly salary. He eventually drew the attention of the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO-sponsored labor rights group in Dhaka, which put him in touch with local activists. He was hired at a Bangladeshi NGO.
“After that, the village policemen would come,” his widow said. “They went around and asked people what sort of person he was, and they all said, ‘He’s a good man.’ And then they’d come here and threaten to drag him away.”
In March 2010, Aminul was picked up by the police. “He was in Dhaka for a meeting,” Hosni said. “I got a phone call from somebody claiming to be a garments worker. I didn’t realize it might be the police, so I told him Aminul was at a meeting.” Officers raided the office and took him to Mymensingh, a town 80 miles to the north. “They beat him so badly. But after that he said he was hungry and he wanted to eat some fruit,” she said. The agents took him to a fruit stand. “They were standing to the side, smoking cigarettes. He was hurt, but he ran off and caught a train.”
Later, I spoke with someone who’d had reason to see the inside of an NSI torture chamber: “There were all the hooks and chains for hanging people—whips and things like that. What you would expect. And then over to the side, I saw this stove with eggs on it. And I asked, ‘Why do you have eggs in a torture chamber?’ And [the attendant] said: ‘Oh, those aren’t real eggs, they’re rubber. We heat them on the stove and stick them up people’s anuses.’”
From the train, Aminul called his wife to tell her that he was safe. “But I think the phones were tapped,” she said, “because when the train reached the station, the police were there waiting.” Aminul spotted the authorities and sneaked off to a rear car. He borrowed a shopkeeper’s phone to call an activist friend. They later escaped via motorcycle. “After that, he spent a week in the hospital. He asked, when they beat him, ‘Why are you doing this to me? Was it a garments owner?’ They didn’t say anything—they just beat him up.”
After this—and another arrest, this time by the Industrial Police—Aminul told his wife he was considering giving up activism and becoming a shopkeeper. But he never got the chance. On April 4, 2012, a man named Mustafiz, a friend of the family, came to visit Aminul at his office in Ashulia. Mustafiz said that he wanted to get married but needed a witness to do so. Aminul did these things for garment workers all the time, but he was confused by Mustafiz’s request. He stalled. Mustafiz insisted. Aminul went. Pictures would later surface of Mustafiz in the company of NSI agents. The night Aminul disappeared, Mustafiz’s house was emptied, the door locked, his cell phone turned off. Days later, a notice ran in a paper from Tangail, 100 miles east of Dhaka, bearing a picture of an unidentified corpse found in the area. The local police had buried it in a pauper’s grave. The body was later found to be Aminul’s.
I asked Zain to ask Hosni to pose for a few photos. She complied passively and silently. I asked him to ask her to pose for some shots outside. Again, she sheepishly agreed. Afterward, she showed us some laminated pictures of Aminul’s body; you could see where a hole had been drilled into his right knee, likely the result of torture.
Were garment factory owners involved in his killing? The government? Several people would later pass along to me the name and cell-phone number of an NSI agent allegedly involved in Aminul’s abduction. Bangladesh sometimes seems like it’s short on names, but it was still almost unbelievable that the name of the agent was also Aminul Islam. I was told he had recently been transferred to the remote southwest of the country. I called the number seven or eight times, but I only got an answer the first time. Zain translated: “What do you want with Aminul Islam?” the man on the other end of the phone said, and then he hung up.
Walmart’s response to the Tazreen fire, and to the harassment of workers and activists by its suppliers, has been to say, essentially, It’s not our problem. The company’s ethical-sourcing system ranks supplier factories with Homeland Security-style grades, on a scale from green to yellow to orange to red. These rankings, which cover basic tenets of safety and assess the quality of life of factory workers, are assigned through audits conducted by subcontracted investigators. At the time of the Tazreen fire, an orange rating meant that the factory in question had to be audited again within six months. If conditions hadn’t improved following the second audit, the factory would earn an additional orange rating, which meant it would be audited yet again within six months. A third orange rating would move the supplier into both the literal and figurative red, meaning Walmart would cease working with the offending factory.
Two days after the Tazreen fire, Walmart representatives issued a statement. “Our thoughts are with the families and the victims of this tragedy,” it read. It then went on, referring to the huge quantities of Walmart garments found in the charred wreckage of the blaze: “The Tazreen factory was not authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart. A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies. Today, we have terminated our relationship with our supplier.”
Walmart’s use of the singular in their statement—“a supplier”—is misleading. Documents photographed by Zain and others after the fire indicated that not one but at least three Walmart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory in the months before the fire. It’s true that Walmart terminated its relationship with one supplier affiliated with the Tazreen factory, a New York-based company called Success Apparel, but until recently they had not spoken about any other suppliers. Walmart has declined to state on what grounds Success Apparel was terminated.
It’s known that Tazreen received two audits and an orange rating. But it’s not clear whether or not it received a third full audit. When I asked a Walmart representative, Kevin Gardner, whether they had released any comment explicitly stating that the Tazreen factory had been placed on the red list, he declined to answer. After repeated requests, Walmart has refused to say when, exactly, this would have happened or how Tarzeen’s red-list status would be enforced. When I asked how the factory could have even been placed on the red list without ever having received a third audit, he also declined to answer.
The audits, it must be noted, did not take into account safety precautions like fire exits or smoke-proof stairwells; the system leaves code violations to be policed by local government officials. So it’s unclear who, exactly, would have ever been in a position to prevent a disaster like Tazreen. The American and European buyers have created an infrastructure in which the Bangladeshi factories they work with are treated as distant subcontractors; in the eyes of Walmart, it’s far beyond the company’s responsibility to take direct action on, say, installing fire exits.
Apparently, the financial burden of providing safe working conditions and paying fair wages is something that Western buyers and governments expect contracted local producers to implement on their own. But as Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium, explained to me, if the governments ostensibly tasked with overseeing these conditions allow workers to unionize, and if the producers attempt to improve the conditions that have allowed hundreds of workers to die in fires in just the past few years, the buyers will inevitably have to pay—whether up-front or in higher prices demanded by the hired manufacturers. “But the brands don’t want to do anything because the main reason they’re in Bangladesh in the first place is to slash costs,” Scott added.
This sentiment was espoused by a Walmart representative at a meeting in 2011, called in response to two deadly fires that razed factories in Bangladeshi industrial zones. Representatives from the government, activist groups, and manufacturers had convened at the BGMEA’s headquarters in Dhaka and at one point discussed a draft proposal that would have instituted some relatively minor binding standards for fire safety in local factories. “The Walmart representative stood up,” Scott, who attended the meeting, told me. “First, he acknowledged that there were safety issues to be addressed. Then he said that there was no way Walmart was going to pay for it.” In short, no industry-wide standards had a chance of being implemented from the top down.
If the Tazreen fire could have been prevented by safety measures that should have been implemented but were instead overlooked, the ensuing response demonstrates how hard it is to pin responsibility on the offending parties involved in the production of garments in Bangladesh and, presumably, elsewhere. Government inspectors visited Tazreen in the weeks before the fire, and in theory they were supposed to have flagged safety risks, such as the lack of smoke-proof stairwells; however, the government-backed investigative committee’s major postmortem findings focused on the possibility that the fire had been an act of industrial sabotage. Even if this is true, it offers no excuse for the lack of fundamental safety precautions that should have, according to the policies of the Western contractors, been taken by the factory owners long ago. Buyers like Walmart and Sears refuse to accept responsibility—they say they didn’t even know they were buying from Tazreen in the first place. Delowar Hossain, managing director of the Tuba Group, Tazreen’s parent company, still hasn’t been prosecuted, as the government’s committee recommended, for “unpardonable negligence.” In fact, the only people who have been charged with anything are three middle managers—the men accused of instructing their employees to ignore the alarms and work through them on the day of the fire. Finding a responsible party was not made easier by the fact that hours after the fire the factory’s computers were found smashed, their hard drives missing.
On January 26, a few days before this piece was scheduled to go to press, a fire broke out at the Smart Export garment factory in Dhaka. Seven workers perished in the blaze. No firefighting equipment was found on the scene, and one factory exit was reported by local newspapers to have been left locked, forcing workers to break windows and jump, just like in Tazreen.
On the factory floor at Smart Export, Zain found clothes produced for a brand called Lefties, which is owned by the Spanish conglomerate Inditex. An auditing officer who works for Inditex provided Zain with this quote, which illustrates just how easy it is to deny responsibility in the dissociated outsourcing system Western buyers have created: “This is a dump where no self-respecting brand would place an order.”
Walmart, for their part, have updated their standards and warned suppliers against buying from unauthorized factories. But the fundamental system of a voluntary, company-enforced (or unenforced, as the case may be) set of safety regulations remains in place.
On our last day together, Zain and I spoke with Abdus Salam Murshedy, a factory owner who produces for Walmart and who also serves as the head of the Exporters Association of Bangladesh. The son of a teacher in the rural, swampy area of the country known as the Subdarbans, in his early adult life Abdus had become the captain of the national soccer team. In his day, he was the most popular athlete in the country, but he now works primarily as the managing director of the Envoy Group, a conglomerate that has grown from garments into hotels and meatpacking, with revenues totaling $220 million a year. He is a very powerful man in Bangladesh.
Abdus met us in his office, where we had tea at his desk. He was small but still fit, and wore neat, professional-looking reading glasses. He told us about his first job, working in a jute mill. “It was so neat,” he said, “everything was done just right.” The implication being that it was unlike so much of modern life in Bangladesh. “And I said, I will become an industrialist!” He was having fun telling his story, so much so that he spoke too trustingly when we changed gears and started asking questions about the Industrial Police—“That was me! I started that!”—and about price pressure created by Western buyers. “The buyers, they are our god,” he said. Then he corrected himself: “They are our second god… We cannot do all these things they ask, fire safety, when the prices are so low!” Even he took issue with Western pricing schemes: “One thing I would like to know is why they have to do buy one, get one free. This is money they’re taking from here. Why do they do buy one, get one free?”
Abdus said he had a great relationship with his workers and required strict fire-safety standards in all of his factories. He felt that manufacturing garments was a good way to lead his country to prosperity. “Eighty percent of them, the workers, they are ladies!” I asked him to describe to me his feelings when he heard about Tazreen. He said that had been in London at the time, adding, “I felt bad because I know the owner, Mr. Delowar Hossain. He is a good man, and now it is all financial trouble, he has debt, he will go out of business.” Inside Abdus’s wallet, he had the card of Douglas McMillon, CEO of Walmart International. He took it out to show us. It was half the size of a normal business card. Zain commented on the fact. “I asked him this,” Abdus said. “He said it’s small to save money.”
We went to the conference room to take some pictures. He’d had time to think about what he’d been saying, and he was suddenly very nervous. “I didn’t know he’d be asking about Walmart!” he said to Zain, in Bangla. “Now I see what he’s trying to do.”
“This might be the last interview I do,” he told me, graciously. “You could cost me everything!” He smiled and we shook hands. He asked me, somewhat imploringly, to send him a copy of the story before it went to print.
Abdus was decent, modern, evolved—which is why Zain had brought me to see him in the first place. I wanted to know how the industry might look in a few years, as it cements its place in the global system and, with any luck, producers start to embrace Abdus’s ethos. Before we left, Abdus and I spoke more about the logistics of fire safety. “There are four staircases in my factory, and each one goes to a different place,” he said. “Why do you need a fire escape?” I asked him about Aminul Islam and the harassment of activists in the garment industry. “Some people are causing trouble,” he said with a wave of his hand.
Today, three months after she escaped the fire at Tazreen, Swapna has found a new job with a company called S21 Apparel, which claims to manufacture for AllSaints, the British purveyor of trashy urbanity to upper-middle-class suburbanites. Mominul, meanwhile, told me that he’s trying to get a job at a factory owned by the Ha-Meem Group—a factory where, on December 14, 2010, 23 workers were killed when a fire broke out on the eighth floor. “We’re giving people comfort and making them look good,” Mominul told me. “And by this we make it so people hear the name Bangladesh.”
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