This young woman worked in a pleasant factory in the rural countryside that CARE Bangladesh was helping to manage. It was very small, not at all like the big garment manufactories in Chittagong or Dhaka.
Make no mistake: this is a women’s issue. When news coverage erupts about disasters in Bangladeshi garment factories, no journalist ever mentions the consistent reality that most of the dead will be female. In Dhaka, as well as everywhere in the world that garments are made, the workers are overwhelmingly women.
These women are also usually young, often runaways trying to escape the forced marriages and violence in the countryside–and those conditions are very specifically gender issues.
Furthermore, the consumers of garments are practically all female. Women buy some 80% of clothing, worldwide, regardless of who finally wears it.
So, on one side of the world, the workers are females trying to escape the uncaring and utterly controlling patriarchs of their home communities. And, on the other, the people with the power are also women. Something needs to be done with this potential.
The answer is not a bunch of self-flagellation about our desire for cheap clothes. Yes, these women make very little money. But the work gives them the freedom to leave situations they cannot otherwise escape. We all should work toward better wages for them, but in the meantime, we need to focus on making the place they escape to better than the one they left.
That means, first and foremost, safety. There are other programs, like literacy training and banking arrangements that NGOs and some retailers have instituted in Bangladesh, that are hugely beneficial as well. None of that matters if you are working in dangerous conditions.
Realistically, the retailers are the best pressure point. Two cautions. One is that they often have much less control than we think they do. Not only is the sheer number of Bangladeshi garment factories difficult to audit and the unauthorized subcontracting rampant, but the government is hugely corrupt. It will require a careful assembly of retailers, manufacturers, unions, and, probably, international agencies to get this right.
Women’s groups can play an important role, just as groups like the National Consumers League and the Women’s Trade Union League did in response to the garment factory abuses, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, 100 years ago in the United States. It seems to me it would be good for women’s organizations, especially consumer groups, to start getting involved in the talks about what safety arrangements can be made and enforced in Bangladesh.
Apparently, the unions there have come up with an exhaustive plan and retailers aren’t signing it. It is hard to tell from the news reports what features of the plan are causing companies to balk, but there do seem to be some provisions, such as legal liability for damages, that probably are nonstarters, since the retailers don’t have enough ability to directly control the circumstances. Still, these things can be negotiated and international pressure to get these agreements and procedures in place are a must. In the UK, there is pressure mounting for Primark to sign already.
Only China and India are bigger manufacturers of garments than Bangladesh. But there are many countries, such as Sri Lanka, for whom garment-making is a major export. These countries also need to be pressured by international groups. I am very familiar with one maker in Sri Lanka, MAS Holdings, which has broad programs designed to achieve women’s empowerment that are quite admirable and successful.
The thinking behind the MAS programs, in part, was that, by positioning as an ethical, “woman-friendly” garment maker, they could attract the preferences of consumers in the West and, thus, the business of the retailers. This is a good strategy and I think one that should be rewarded. Perhaps showing a shopping preference to manufacturers that can demonstrate compliance with safety standards would be the more direct and less disruptive way to shift the market in favor of good working conditions for women.