As discouraging as it is, no number of documentaries or worthy articles is suddenly going to make everyone in the world care about the people making our underwear for $1.50 a day. A large part of that is probably because it's hard to comprehend how shocking the working conditions in Bangladesh's clothing factories are until you visit them for yourself—until you meet the workers being slapped around by their bosses and the kids being hidden on the factory roof every time Western buyers come to town.
In response to those working conditions and wages, which are among the lowest in the world, some workers have been striking for weeks, their frustration often turning to violence as they clash with police. And those violent protests have won them what looks like a victory: the Bangladesh government announced over the weekend that the minimum wage for garment workers is going to be increased by 77 percent, to $67 a month.
I flew out to Bangladesh a couple of weeks before the pay raise was announced to meet some garment workers. Upon arrival, a contact took me to a poor factory neighborhood—a slum, comprised as it was of a few beaten up huts—on the outskirts of Dhaka. There, he introduced me to Bilkiss, a sweet, pretty 18-year-old who had worked at the same garment factory for five years. She is one of an estimated 4 million in Bangladesh who make our clothes.
She had just finished a long day's shift and looked exhausted, moving and talking slowly. "Today, I was slapped and grabbed by the throat for making a tiny mistake," she said. "Sometimes we are slapped because of other people’s mistakes. And they insult us. They call us whores."
For her troubles, Bilkiss is currently paid about $1.60 per day. That wage doesn’t cover the rent of her small room, which she shares with her two sisters and one brother. "We don’t have the courage to complain," she explained. "We tolerate it. We think it’s our natural destiny."
Late one evening, I filmed a factory close to where I'd met Bilkiss. As soon as I pulled out my camera, I was mobbed by an inquisitive crowd of people who clogged the road and blocked traffic until the factory owner came out and told me to film on the other side of the street. I asked him who his factory made clothes for and he reeled off a who's who of the British and American high street. Then I asked him whether his workers were happy. He chortled, his big belly bouncing. "Yes, of course they are," he said, proudly. "We pay them very well."
Back in the slum, I told another young girl named Lovle what the factory owner had said. "If the owners do well, they open another factory and then another, so they are happy and they think the workers are happy, too," she replied. "When the owners ask us if we are happy, we must say 'yes' because we have no alternative."
Bilkiss agreed: "Happy?" she asked. "That’s their statement; it’s not ours."
The buyers from Western companies who come to view the factories and barter on deals are often unaware of the extent of the mistreatment. "When foreign buyers come, the bosses instruct people to clean the floors and work properly," Lovle explained. "The whole environment changes just for the buyers."
Lovle, who has been working in the factories for ten years, continued: "Sometimes our salaries aren't paid on time. We're told, if the buyers ask us, we must say that they are." Speaking about underage workers, she said, "When foreign buyers come, the teenage boys or girls working in the factory are hidden in the toilets or on the roof so the buyers don’t see them. Or, if there are too many children, the owners will tell the kids not to come to work today."
There are between 30 and 40 children working in Lovle's factory, and child labor is common in Bangladesh. It's a depressing side effect of the extremely low wages, but families must make money to survive, and the children mostly have their parents' blessing.
But among all this misery are small signs that the situation for Bangladesh's factory workers might be getting better. In some, mainly the larger of the 4,500 garment factories, conditions have been improving. With the help of local NGOs and the international media, workers have been speaking out and factory owners are beginning to be held accountable for their offenses.
The owners of the Rana Plaza factory—which collapsed earlier this year, crushing over 1,130 workers to death—are on trial. And at the end of last month, Bangladesh police announced that the owner and 14 employees of the Tazreen factory were going to be charged with "death due to negligence." Mind you, that was a year after a fire in the factory killed more than 110 workers, and a year for Tazreen owner Delwar Hossain to walk around as a free man.
And then there's that pay raise, the 77 percent increase to the minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh. Which, on the face of it, sounds like a very positive development. However, campaigners fear that this change in law won't be adopted by factory owners, and some wonder whether anything will change at all.
In Dhaka, Bilkiss told me how she doesn't think she's ever been paid properly for all the overtime she works, which suggests factory bosses aren't too likely to start abiding by any new wage laws. "I suspect that my bosses keep some of the money for themselves," she said. But unfortunately, like many others in her position, she doesn’t have the courage to ask.
In response to the strikes and wage hikes, over 100 factories have reportedly closed down. The government and factory owners have used this news to launch a claim that a rise in wages will put everyone out of work. Western companies, they say, will go to other countries in search of cheap labor. And for a nation that depends on making clothes for 80 percent of its export earnings, it's a business they can’t afford to lose.
Living next door to Bilkiss and Lovle is a cleaner at one of the factories, a lady named Bando. She doesn’t know how old she is exactly, but guesses about 65. She looked tired and I didn’t want to bother her with questions, but she was keen to invite us in. She was sick, she told me. Her back and shoulders ached.
"I have been working all week with this pain," she said, "but today it was too much, so I took the day off." The pain was visible on her face and she clearly shouldn't have been working, but she had to go back the next day or risk losing her job.
As deeply distressing as all of this is, the sad truth is that if we were all to boycott companies that source their clothes from Bangladesh, young girls like Bilkiss and Lovle would most likely lose their jobs and not have any income at all.
As Bando told me before I left: "It's not much, but what else can I do?"