Disasters Made in Bangladesh

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

By James Pogue

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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