The Road to Nowhere Issue

Bangladeshi Sweatshops Continue to Imperil Workers’ Lives

In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 Bangladeshi workers. Despite the news coverage, sweatshops aren't much better today.

by Larry Towell
30 September 2015, 4:00am


A worker sews on buttons in Keraniganj, Dhaka, which she does at least 12 hours a day, six days a week. With their windows barred, these buildings, some of them seven stories tall, remain uninspected fire hazards. All photos by Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

This article appears in the September Issue of VICE

Twenty years ago, as cheap clothing began flooding the global market, Bangladesh became a sweatshop for the world's top brands. On April 24, 2013, the eight-story, illegally built Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed. The building's workshops held contracts with a few dozen international companies, including Benetton, J. C. Penney, Carrefour, Walmart, Joe Fresh, the Children's Place, Mascot, El Corte Inglés, Cato Fashions, and Primark. The event killed more than 1,100 workers. Some 2,000 were injured, many seriously, and 104 people remain missing.

Investigations of the disaster show that the electric generators, located on the top floor, had begun to shake the building, eventually causing the concrete structure to give way. Garment workers who'd fled the tremors the day before the collapse were ordered back to work.


Rojina Akhter, who was maimed in the Rana Plaza collapse, holds her three-month-old daughter in the Savar slum in Dhaka.

Most of the factory's employees had migrated from poverty-stricken rural Bangladesh to sew for $2.00 a day, working 12- to 14-hour shifts six to seven days a week. (The minimum wage at the time was $38 a month.) A year on, half of the international brands associated with the largest disaster of its kind in history had yet to pay into the $40 million compensation fund set up by the UN for survivors and dependents.

By offering the lowest wages in the world, Bangladesh has become a powerhouse for the international garment industry, employing 4 million people and providing 80 percent of the nation's exports. In 2012, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated that the country could double its apparel exports over the following ten years.

Just like Rana Plaza itself, the global garment industry is propelled forward with little regard for its workers' safety. The factories of the EPZ (Export Processing Zone), set among manicured lawns and operating under their own laws, are off-bounds to photographers, while many of the larger factories outside this area, employing as many as 10,000 workers each, provide stage-managed and guided "tours" for the international press.

I decided to visit some of the smaller, more accessible operations, the sweatshops that produce clothing under contract for local buyers. Among the adult laborers, I found children from impoverished rural villages—some as young as ten years old—working for free under two-year training contracts. I also discovered children sleeping on the concrete floors. With clothing and fabric often piled to the ceiling and windows barred, these lesser-known, less scrutinized sweatshops continue to crank out their products amid uninspected fire hazards and with no regard for child labor laws.


A Keraniganj garment worker takes a nap. Laborers are paid per piece of clothing produced. Many come here from the impoverished countryside and sleep on concrete floors within the factories.


A child of unknown age works in Keraniganj, which is home to hundreds of small garment factories that produce clothing for regional distribution.


The garment district of Old Dhaka