There’s a good chance that at least a few of your Christmas bargains came from Bangladesh, a country that has been supplying the West with inexpensive clothing at great peril for decades. On the morning of April 24th 2013, a clothing factory collapsed on the outskirts of the capital of Bangladesh, killing nearly 1,200 people. It was a tragedy, a travesty, and something of a global wakeup call about the appalling safety conditions behind many of the world’s recognized brands.
On my second day in Bangladesh I accidentally visited an informal factory for the first time. I engaged myself in a “tourist tour” in Old Dhaka and I did not know these factories were part of it. The factories I saw did not correspond with my idea of a factory – a shiny well organised place with large scale production. Ever since I have been curious to know more about this underground world and have tried to portray the world beyond the label.
In total, there are more than 7,000 factories producing goods for the local and export market in Bangladesh. Approximately half of those are indirect suppliers, informal factories that “do not register with the government, either of the two national trade associations of apparel manufacturers, or foreign brands,” explains a new report conducted by NYU STERN Center of Business and Human Rights. Their workers are especially vulnerable, “because they are invisible to regulators and their employers operate on such slim margins that they cannot invest in even basic safety equipment or procedures.”
More than two years since April 24th 2013, over $280 million has been committed by the international community to fix the garment sector in Bangladesh. The national government has supoorted over thousands of inspections in factories and drawn up different safety programs. But they all have one major flaw: all the resources are allocated to the formal economy.
I spent entire 2015 documenting those who work in the shadows of the garment sector in Bangladesh. I visited the buildings of Old Dhaka that house a different “factory” on each floor; crowded rooms filled with people and sewing machines. I met the men and children who work 20-hour days and sleep on the factory floor (most women cannot commit to the same working hours and lifestyle). I hope with this reportage to give a voice to the nearly three million people whose working conditions remain unchanged since the Rana Plaza tragedy.