I arrived just in time to hear the evening call to prayer. As an American, hearing the melodic chants bring a sense of the exotic, which when traveling to Bangladesh for the first time, is a feeling I’d expect regardless. The city of Dhaka at night looks more developed than I had anticipated. The truth will unveil herself in the morning.
PHOTO: Garment worker community children in Gazipur
I am in town to learn about work-place nutrition programs (or lack thereof in many cases) in apparel factories for a project on which I am consulting. Given the fact that the garment sector makes up more than 80% of Bangladesh’s exports, it’s not hard to see the impact of the industry everywhere we go.
As we drive into town for our first meetings I notice all of the people walking to work are men. Yet in the garment sector, 60-65% of all employees are women. This largely breaks out into the categories of workers (women) and management (men) though I found a good representation of both genders when touring the factories. Having visited countless farms to understand how sustainable sourcing can be improved farm to fork, I am excited to see a different origin source in the case of apparel and how conditions affect the way our clothes are made.
The factories are often hidden behind locked doors, though. In some cases the conditions are still quite poor. Luckily we were able to experience how positive change has brought better opportunity for the workers inside the factories we toured. This is especially the case after details emerged from the horrific Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, when a factory collapsed killing more than 1,100 workers. The resulting uproar by labor unions, workers, Bangladesh citizens and brands like led to the Bangladesh Accord, a legal agreement between factories and brands around issues like fire safety and structural improvements. The Accord is under review more than five years later, however, and some brands are walking back on their commitments, according to the Guardian. Other brands are boycotting investments in Bangladesh, moving to source in other countries like Vietnam or Ethiopia, because not enough has been done to advance workers’ rights and safety of infrastructure. The situation is tenable at best.
Our journey to the Gazipur District where a high percentage of factories reside, took about two hours (for a distance of only 35 km) due largely to heavy rains that came in the night before. The roads were flooded and traffic was unbearable. Couple that with very spotty infrastructure to begin with, and it made for a difficult drive. Our factory visits were informative and useful for our research but even more, insightful for me personally as I think about what brands can be doing to improve supply chain impact. I always say a company can improve productivity first and foremost by improving roads and other infrastructure and there is no question that holds in this instance as well. Yet we also learned about clear needs for the workers themselves, including better access to nutritious and safe foods, access to hygiene products like soap, toothpaste and shampoo, and better availability of medicines and feminine products. Vitamins and other basic health care needs are in high demand as well.
Coupled with a community visit, where we learned about the household eating habits of garment workers, a market visit and experiences eating at local restaurants, we gained a good sense of how food is purchased, consumed and valued. The work is hard, living is hard and the beauty is all around in the colors. This country struggles, but is growing. Challenges like unfair wages, gender inequities and climate change don’t make it any easier for the country to advance, but you can tell there are fighters among us here.
There are still big bumps in the road literally and figuratively, however, both for the garment sector and the country as a whole. Our security risk was heightened during our trip due to a botched hijack on a plane from Bangladesh to Dubai the day we arrived. It turns out the hijacker’s gun was a toy gun (how did he bring that through security in the first place?) and yet we were given strict orders about obeying our 8pm curfew and not venturing out of the hotel alone. We had an armed escort back to the airport, both because of the heightened security, and also the local elections scheduled that day. I never once felt scared, however. The people I met and spoke to were so incredibly generous. We were invited into homes and fed meals and snacks. We were treated with kindness at all times.
Being in Bangladesh was an unforgettable experience. I am still processing all I saw and absorbed. I will be reaching out in coming days to colleagues in the garment sector to get their perspectives on what’s attainable in terms of improving the livelihoods and opportunities for the workers in their supply chains. It’s clear there are unmet needs despite the progress made, and I have faith that brands will step up and do their part.