Photo credit: Allison Joyce for VSO
Bangladesh's garment factories are once again in the headlines. In April 2013, over 1,100 people died when the Rana Plaza, the eight-story factory which produced garments for British high street household names collapsed. It was the worst industrial disaster the country has ever seen. Only two weeks ago Rana Plaza was in the headlines for failing to compensate victims to the tune of four million pounds. On Monday the owner of Rana Plaza, and 42 other people are charged with murder over the factory's collapse.
I recently returned from a week-long trip to the Rangpur district in the North West of Bangladesh. The North West of the country is incredibly green and lush and it was easy to see why agriculture is a key source of employment in the region. I met a lot of people who worked as day labourers on other people's farms. They told me that the work is unpredictable, and scarce outside of the harvest season (May and December). There just aren't enough agricultural jobs to meet the demand.
Another key source of employment, is factory work, particularly for women. After China, Bangladesh is the second largest garment producer in the world. Many large international retailers source their products from the country. During my trip I interviewed Sujina Begum, aged 26, who had worked in a ten-story factory in Dhaka. Sujina told me how she worked standing-up, for long hours in a poorly ventilated building.
Poor working conditions lead to high rates of illness. Sujina developed what sounds like Hepatitis from drinking infected water in Dhaka. The Hepatitis led to jaundice, dizziness and extreme fatigue. Sujina was seriously ill in a factory where staff were not permitted to take any breaks. She quickly became too ill to work. Sujina told me "many people in the factory had Tuberculosis (TB) - it spreads quickly as there is no air. My sister contracted TB and became very thin and weak. She also had to give up work."
Poverty and poor job prospects mean that many people have little choice regarding where they work. Sujina only stopped working when she became too physically weak to continue. Sujina has now moved back to the Rangpur district, where she works at a small-scale rug production centre, run by Classical Handmade Products, with support from VSO.
The rug centres operate in spacious one storey buildings - a far cry from the infamous garment factories in Dhaka. Around 40 women work in each rug centre. Women are paid a wage which enables them to buy food and clothes for themselves and their families. Many can put money aside for the future. The rug centres are operated as businesses and offer an alternative to the large-scale and often unsafe factories in Dhaka.
The responsibility for improving conditions in Bangladesh's factories and avoiding another Rana Plaza falls heavily on factory owners and brands. Factory owners are very much responsible for conditions in the factory and the safety of their workers. Brands also have a duty to buy from factories which don't jeopardise the lives of workers, to compensate the victims of Rana Plaza, and to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord.
Ultimately Rana Plaza has taught us that fast and cheap textiles come at a high price - and our appetite for them needs to change.