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Life in the Factory

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What is life like in a Bangladeshi garment factory for women workers? It’s not good.

“What happened when you formed the union?” asked the interviewer from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Aleya Akter, the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), employed at Lufa Garments, responded:

I was severely beaten when I tried to bring together workers to make them understand why it’s necessary to form a union. I was beaten on three separate occasions from 2006 to 2007, once inside the factory conference hall, once in a meeting room with the presence of the police, who observed and did nothing, and once in front of the factory.

Shobita Byapari, a sewing machine operator, 28 years old was asked, “What do you think stands in the way of progress for Bangladeshi garment workers?” Her answer: “Police, thugs.”

Ritu Khan, a helper, 40 years old, was asked the same question, and responded, “Police, thugs, the supervisor, the line chief. These are the biggest problems.” The exchange continued:

What does the police do?

Suppose the owner got a cop to harass me, or they got a thug to beat me.

How about the supervisor?

Suppose if I did something. In the office, they…

Do they lay a hand on the girls?

Yes.

So the girls don’t say anything about that?

What will they say? For the fear of losing our job, no one says anything.

Sabina Ara, a sewing-machine operator, who believes she is 25 or 26 years old, was asked “Suppose you asked for a salary increase. What would happen?” She answered:

They threaten us with many things. They threaten us with the police. Then there are local politicians; they threaten us with them. There are landlords; they threaten us with them.

Apostles of free trade and the current system of global capitalism laud these factories as great for workers–how freeing!–without examining anything about what these workers lives were like before they worked in the factories, why they are forced to work here, etc. A deeper examination shows the role of agricultural centralization and global food policy throwing workers off their land as a key part of creating this workforce. What’s worse is the rhetoric of freedom globalization promoters use. In using that rhetoric, they–implicitly or explicitly–accuse critics of this work and these conditions as actually the ones opposed to workers’ having better lives. And given how many of these workers are women, they accuse people like myself of even being anti-woman. This is, of course, facile, an argument easily made when one doesn’t bother actually listening to the words of workers themselves.

The Garment Liberation Theory of Global Development and Women not only misses the harsh reality of inadequate wages. It also overlooks the grim interaction among the culture of the nation, the factory, and the household. Claeson notes that 79 percent of a sample of women studied by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity “reported giving their husbands their wages every month.” Sixty-three percent of the 27 unmarried women in the study “lived with their parents and reported giving their earnings to their father or mother. The rest of the unmarried women reported sending 2,000 to 2,500 taka (US$ 25-32) to their parents in the countryside every month. Only the single mothers retained full ownership of their earnings, being solely responsible for their own and their children’s livelihood.”

The regime of gender subordination also works on the factory floor. The testimony of Taslima Sultana, sewing-machine operator, 31 years old, typifies much of the testimony in the report:

Inside the factory no one can really abuse a male operator the way they do to women. We don’t protest very much so that’s why they do that to us. And besides, they don’t even hire men very much anymore. And this is why they don’t take men. For example, the end of the workday is supposed to be at 7 p.m., but they don’t give us leave until 8 or 9 or 10 p.m. They wouldn’t do that with a man, would they?

It’s not that work can’t liberate women from their families. It’s that this work liberates no one. It is terrible. Moreover, it’s a sexist work system that seeks to exploit women, the core of the garment industry since it’s development at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Who can we hold responsible for these conditions? That’s an easy answer–the big wealthy world department stores.

The report concludes by making unmistakably clear that the power to improve the workers’ lives resides at the top of the supply chain, with the Walmarts and the Gaps, should they truly choose to exercise it. As Aleya Akter of the BGIWF puts it, “If the buyer says, ‘I will not give work if there is no union,’ even the government’s Dad doesn’t have power to stop it.”

This is why it is our responsibility to stop these conditions. We can’t say, “oh, let the Bangladeshis demand better laws if they want them” while we buy clothing produced by women making peanuts and working in unsafe factories. First, the Bangladeshi Parliament is dominated by the clothing manufactures. Second, when they do stand up and demand change, their organizers are beaten or killed. Third, if they did win those changes, Walmart, Gap, and Target would just move to some other country. It’s American and European companies setting the standards here. We need to hold them to higher standards and take away their incentive to move by setting universal rules to which they must apply no matter where they move, with inspections mandatory.

Unfortunately, this is not an issue even most people on the left take remotely seriously. Meanwhile, more workers are exploited and dying.

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