A Day in a Bangladesh Factory-My Response to the Dhaka Buidling Collapse Tragedy

I was pretty new to Bangladesh the day some friends took me to tour a carpet factory. The experience was incredible to my 22-year-old senses. Huge machines wielding massive spools of thread, following instructions poked into cards like the kind that used to run those old self-playing pianos, shuttling out row after row of what would become another of those beautiful oriental carpets that cost so much money on this side of the world.

Piles of jute waiting to become a carpet.

We were shown around and I marveled at carpets stacked 8-10 feet high in huge warehouse rooms. When I climbed up on one stack to get a picture, I accidentally breathed in some clump of something and started coughing. I coughed and coughed and almost couldn't breathe. I can't imagine working their every day all day for years.

The thing that struck me most about the factory was not the beautiful rugs or huge machinery or even the workers. It was the measures they had put in place in case of fire. Next to a support pole I saw a barrel of water. Above that barrel hung two small buckets that had once been painted red, labeled, "Fire."

With all the dust, threads and debris floating through the air, not to mention the carpets and jute piles all over the building, a fire would incinerate the place with fury, and quickly. That little bucket-full might douse an overcooked marshmallow, but was ridiculous in this situation. Yet it hung there, almost in mockery of anyone who actually cared about safety.

Hearing about the garment factory that collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was painful. Like that fire bucket, that garment factory probably had "safety measures" put in place only to satisfy some clause in some document that would make overseas realtors feel like they'd achieved a modicum of safety.

Bangladesh is one of only 2 countries in the wold in such bad shape it's considered a 5th world country. The buildings are decrepit and conditions are bad. It's a very good place to get very cheap stuff.

But the cost is still high.

I lived in Bangladesh for 2 years and every day could see the huge groups of girls walking together in herds to and from the factory (it's not safe to walk alone--it can also be unsafe to be a garment factory girl if a manager takes an interest). I was there when Kathy Lee Gifford changed the rules that kids couldn't work in her sweat shops. It made things harder, not easier, for families in Bangladesh. What was intended for good ended up with families having to bribe the factory owners to let their children come back to work. Now that it was illegal for children to work there, the owners could get them for less pay, knowing people were desperate and if the children didn't work the less there was to eat.

As much as videos like the above (about the Dhaka collapse and major companies who refuse to sign a document insuring more safety measure like fire escapes) are important, and documents and laws create good change overall, I see a bigger problem, one that streams all the way to each of us and the choices we make.

If we were in Bangladesh, I would take you to a special outdoor market where the extras from garment factories are sold. I could buy name brand stuff ridiculously cheap there. In fact, I could even buy the brands themselves. At one place, I bought a handful of labels--Calvin Kline, Reebox, etc. For pennies, I could have bought a major name brand and put it on any dumb shirt I had.

I fact, I had this urge to buy the ugliest outfit I could find and slap a major label on it, and see if people thought I was cool.

It's a modern version of the emperor's new clothes. Americans ignore the fact that their mega brand expensive shirt might be made in the same exact factory as the cheapo stuff at Wal-Mart. Instead, our culture for some reason loves to pretend there's a big difference, and spending lots of money on one makes us more significant than spending a little money on another.

Not buying name brands is not going to fix Bangladesh's factory problems, but it might help with the bigger problem that connects all of this. Greed. Greed by major corporations is the reason so many of our clothes are being made by Bangladeshis who may not even have a 2nd outfit or a pair of shoes. Greed keeps them from investing to keep buildings from collapsing, or paying their workers a decent wage. But we can't lay all the blame at the corporations feet. Greed is also what keeps Americans shopping in malls, always looking for something new, when nearly every American has more than much of the world can even imagine. Greed for status keeps parents buying their kids the name brand shoes. Greed for popularity has teens buying the latest cool brand this year, though their closet is full and overflowing with last year's cool clothes, and the year before that.

Maybe a solution would be that we, who have so much, would stop snatching up more from over there, and instead start giving something back in that direction.

Kohls and Gap and Target have more than enough. They should gladly give up a little extra for the good of the world, right?

So should we.

1 comment:

  1. Great wake-up call. Thanks for sharing from your first-hand experience.


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