Whether in Sri Lanka, Vietnam or Bangladesh, where a deadly factory collapse has killed over 500 people, the garment factory is fuelled by women who depend on it to keep their families fed. When garment quotas are reduced, or when a factory closes down, the women suffer. When worker safety is compromised, women and their families are left destitute.
Poor burden bearers
It is a funny cycle, one that classifies the poor of the world from the rich. The demand for garments, cheap, accessible easily available ones, come from the rich west, where fashions change and women are keen to keep abreast of trends.
The garment industry is thus fuelled by women at one end – at the other end, in countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Vietnam, the industry keeps women engaged, employed and empowered. Notwithstanding issues such as industry quotas and factories collapsing, women suffer the most when the garment industry gets affected.
What stands out in the entire story is that if the steps are taken to ensure that worker safety and other important issues are given priority, the garment industry remains a strong, worldwide dynamism that has done more for women’s empowerment than other industries.
It was heartbreaking to watch the Bangladeshi women workers suffer in the factory collapse – one gave birth on the spot and another’s limbs had to be cut to set her free. Yet, these women would gladly return if the factory reopens – they need the jobs, they need the money to keep the families fed.
In a country densely populated as Bangladesh, the birth place of Dr Yunus, recognized as the father of microcredit through his Grameen concept, women must share the burden of raising and keeping a family fed.
Bangladesh slave labour
The accusations of cheap garments being made in countries where worker safety is not a priority are justified. Bangladesh certainly needs to improve on those areas and get their act together. On the other hand, in Sri Lanka, where the garment industry is mature and has fuelled a sub-culture of considerable importance at a mass-market level, most garment factories complain of trained worker shortages and closures.
Whether in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, women play a central role in the garment industry and its related areas, a factor that must be taken into account by authorities and companies alike.
From the workers to the supervisors, women in the industry have played a key role in elevating the garment industry to one of international quality. The strictest quality levels expected by some of the world’s leading retailers are adhered to as the women spend their days at the wheel of the sewing machines, the cutting room or elsewhere, often working longer hours to meet deadlines.
Threatened with pull-outs by the big players, in the aftermath of the factory collapse, Bangladesh has urged the EU not to take tough measures that would see the garment industry there affected. Bangladesh receives preferential access for garments made there from the EU but things can change now.
Around four million people work in the garment industry in Bangladesh, considered the world’s second-largest apparel exporter after China. Pope Francis has compared the conditions under which they earn as little as US $ 38 a month, to slave labour. Duty free access and low wages mean that the country’s garment industry is worth US $ 19 billion a year. Of the clothes manufactured in the country, 60 percent are sold in European markets.
Rising with dignity
Women who fuel the industry should be the focus of the retailers who keep the wheels turning in the factories. Their welfare and well-being should be a priority for the factory owners as well as the global retail giants. Whether that will now get done still remains to be seen.
It is important for the buyers to also know that when they buy their clothes from the big retailers, that the jobs and the factories empower women and families – safety standards for the women who turn out the garments should be there in place. That is to be expected of the places the big players would go to for their clothes. Now that the spotlight is on cheap wages, unsafe factory conditions and long hours, the women can perhaps look towards a better deal that does less compromising on their lives.
The factory collapse is the latest in a series of mishaps associated with the garment industry in Bangladesh. There have been other accidents that warrant a closer look at the country’s garment industry. On the whole, it seems that they have not travelled the road into maturity in the trade; there remains so much to be done.
“Never underestimate the power of a woman,” said Nellie McClung – we can only hope that the women in Bangladesh who keep the garment factory wheels turning will be able to rise with dignity from the mishaps and go on to keep their families fed, their children clothed.
(Nayomini R. Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at [email protected])