Disasters Made in Bangladesh

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

By James Pogue

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.”

“Friends from where? What is your country?”

“Canada.”

“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.” 

Comments