Life is cheap in Bangladesh

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Apr 15 06:32:26 MDT 2001

NY Times, April 15, 2001 

Lives Held Cheap in Bangladesh Sweatshops


NARSINGDI, Bangladesh — The fire in the garment factory began on the fourth
floor, where polo shirts, neatly folded in boxes, made a fine feast for the
hungry flames. The 1,250 workers scampered for their lives, most of them
hurrying to the stairway that led to the main exit. There, at the bottom,
was a folding gate. It was locked.

In panic, the trapped people spun around, rushing back up the steps,
colliding with those coming down. It was night. The lights had gone out.
Some workers squeezed through windows, shimmying down an outside pipe or
chancing a desperate leap.

The rest were caught in a human knot on the dark stairs, arms pushing,
mouths screaming, hearts pounding. Some people fell and were trampled. That
is how nearly all of the fire's 52 victims died, their final breaths
stomped out of them on the hard concrete of the teeming steps. Most were
young women. Ten were children.

What Bangladesh has to offer the global economy is some of the world's
cheapest labor — and what this impoverished nation has received in return
is the economic boost of a $4.3 billion apparel industry, the fuller
pockets that come with 1.5 million jobs and the horrors that arise from
3,300 inadequately regulated garment factories, some of which are among the
worst sweatshops ever to taunt the human conscience.

"We still suffer from the legacy of the colonial days," said one factory
owner, Muhammad Saidur Rehman. "We consider the workers to be our slaves,
and this belief is made all the easier by a supply of labor that is
endlessly abundant."

For the most part, it is the wretched of the earth who do the world's
tailoring. Made in Bangladesh competes with Made in Honduras, Made in the
Philippines, Made in Macao, Made in Any Steamy Reservoir of Third World
Unemployment: those places where plentiful labor lacks the leverage to
command high pay, and the most pitiful thing about the jobs is how hard it
is to get them.

Last November's fire at Chowdhury Knitwears interrupted a frantic
production schedule. Finished sportswear was due at stores in Britain. The
workers, used to a 12-hour day, were ordered to toil as long as 18. They
were given a lunch break at 1 p.m., then a shorter breather at 10 p.m.,
when each received a piece of bread and a banana.

Holidays, mandated by law, were a myth at the Chowdhury factory, said
dozens of employees. People were expected to work virtually every day of
the year. Overtime pay, another legal requirement, was also a myth. Most
wages ranged from $25 to $50 a month — or as little as 6 cents an hour.
Children earned less.

"When we'd complain, they'd lock the gates so we couldn't get out," said
Aleya Begum, a sewing machine operator here on the outskirts of Narsingdi,
35 miles northeast of Dhaka, the capital. "If someone complained too much,
they were fired."

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Louis Proyect
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