Disasters Made in Bangladesh

Why Poor People Are Still Dying for Our Cheap T-Shirts

By James Pogue

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?”