Mahmudul H Sumon: An anonymous visit to a garment factory in Bangladesh

After the Tazreen Fashions factory fire (2012) and the Rana Plaza collapse (2013), which killed 119 and 1,136 workers, respectively, the garment sector of Bangladesh has seen the coming of two new regimes of regulatory bodies, namely, “the Accord” (Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh) and “the Alliance” (Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety). Both bodies are said to be legally binding agreements between global brands/retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. Some transnational activists regard these developments as great achievements. In fact, an attempt to have a legally binding document that would hold brands and retailers responsible for their shoddy practices in the global supply chain has been a long-standing demand by some international trade unions, the Clean Clothes Campaign, and other global campaign groups for workers’ rights. The Tazreen factory fire and the Rana Plaza collapse expedited the process.

If we look at the objective of the new regulatory institutional arrangements, it is all too apparent that their mechanisms of governance require an inspection program among factories in Bangladesh. From the beginning on, the Accord and the Alliance intended to publicly disclose inspection reports and corrective action plans for the factories and more. They also had training programs for what they call workers “empowerment” and aimed at sustainability of the initiatives. The following post reports on a visit to a garment factory in 2015, when the Accord and the Alliance were in their initial stages of operation in Bangladesh. Being a deshi (local) anthropologist meant that many of my interlocutors had to remain anonymous.

My college friend had told me to tell his name at the factory gate. But when I got there, the security officer wanted to talk to him directly (via my cell phone, of course!) and check my identity before allowing me to enter. The factory I was visiting was at the Ashulia area in Savar, an industrial area that grew in the last two decades or so. I was told at the gate that some buyers were visiting. The lift, for example, was reserved for their exclusive use. I decided to use the stairs. My friend met me after some time. We decided to have lunch and continue from there.

I started the interview by asking him about the Accord, the new inspection regime that was creating a lot of news during the time of my visit. In response, he showed me all the new things installed after the coming of the Accord. I asked if this was done out of compulsion. He said yes, especially the fire door had only been fitted recently, the collapsible gate had been removed, and overhead water sprinklers had been installed. “If you want to stay in business, you will have to do it,” he said. Other safety features were also recent, such as the separate exit to the unit, which was supposed to improve the emergency exit facilities.

Yet, my friend seemed critical about the removal of the collapsible gate. With the earlier, much stronger gates gone, the entrance doors to the building were now rather insecure and it would be easy to break in. Therefore, more security personnel was required during holidays. Much later into our conversation, he added that the new gate also meant that he himself and other managerial staff now lacked security, for, especially during periods of unrest, collapsible gates offered better protection to the management against protesting workers. I noted a sense of vulnerability in my friend’s words.

He then told me that after the Rana Plaza collapse for at least two quarters of the business year, there had been “negative growth” in the sector. To substantiate his point, he detailed how workers were not required to work overtime because of lack of orders. In fact, workers would suffer from this, as the now-missing overtime payments were a crucial add-on to their salaries, besides the hajira (attendance) bonus (if a worker was on time for their shift for an entire month). Usually, overtimes added two thousand to three thousand Bangladeshi taka per month to their regular salaries. His estimate was that three hundred to four hundred small factories had been closed in recent months. Relating to the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza collapse, he expressed worry that “exaggerated projection” of the “disaster” had caused the entire garment industry to slope. Likewise, he expressed negative views about labor leaders (sramik netas) and organizations (shangathons) who could have considerable influence on the (shop) floors even if operating from outside the factory gates. In his opinion, an earlier wave of violent unrests in the garment sector during 2005 and 2006 had some negative impact even in 2014.

Mother holding the image of her only daughter who died in the Tazreen factory fire in Nischintapur (photograph by Mahmudul Sumon, 22 November 2013).

Mother holding the image of her only daughter who died in the Tazreen factory fire in Nischintapur (photograph by Mahmudul Sumon, 22 November 2013).

My friend then gave me a tour of the different floors of the unit. As we passed through the different factory levels, he made it a point to show me production steps of the garments from start to finish. Each worker carries out a small portion of the overall job and the item is then forwarded to another operator until the product exits the finishing section. When we entered the sewing section, I noticed that the machine operators were very busy with their work and spent no time on greeting us. Their work required more concentration than that of other sections where workers had time to talk while working.

Later in the day, my friend told me that investment had increased in this sector. His boss, now a known business figure in Bangladesh, started immediately after graduating from the university. He was inspired by a political leader. This was back in the early 1990s. The leader insisted that he should start with a small unit in Dhaka. This is how it all began—a very small beginning, my friend added. But for me, the political linkage also seemed very important.

Next, we walked through new production units, which were automated and required a lot of capital investment. Even for sewing work there was talk of increased automation. In the units where accessories were made—embroidery and more—I noted that men operated these machine-heavy units. In fact, the washing unit was operated solely by men. I learned that women were regarded as unable to work in these units and, with the environment dominated by men, might in fact find work in these units unpleasant. Other staff in the unit include a welfare officer (usually women are preferred for this job) and the head of security, a former army officer. My friend proudly praised how the Worker Participation Committee had not been selected by management but was elected by workers. The committee has a monthly meeting with management, and, he underlined, any complain of sexual harassment would be dealt with, even though the factory does not have a complaint cell (I reminded him that a high court guideline requires them to have one).

In between our conversations, my friend introduced me to his colleagues as his college friend and not as a researcher or anything of that sort. I noted that his colleagues were all senior to him but maintained cordial relations and were eager to talk to him about various things happening on the shop floor. The only person who seemed to pressurize him was managing the orders department. This person tried to negotiate additional workloads for a few of his workers, but my friend told him that it was not possible to offer overtime to selected workers only. As the work was scheduled for the next day, I got the impression that amid amicable relation between managers and section leaders, lots of haggling was going on.

Mother of a deceased worker speaking at a protest rally organized by the Garment Workers Unity Forum after the Rana Plaza collapse at the Savar Bus Stand in Dhaka, Bangladesh (photograph by Nazneen Shifa, 8 March 2014).

Mother of a deceased worker speaking at a protest rally organized by the Garment Workers Unity Forum after the Rana Plaza collapse at the Savar Bus Stand in Dhaka, Bangladesh (photograph by Nazneen Shifa, 8 March 2014).

In the backdrop of this rather intense description of the day-to-day workings of a garment factory, a few questions kept coming back to me in 2015: What should be our approach as activists and researchers when looking at regimes such as the Accord or the Alliance? How should we look into these transnational regulatory bodies and their initiatives, which aim at “fixing” problems in the nation state called Bangladesh? What kind of organizational and legal relations should such regimes have with the state and its different institutions? What kind of organizational and legal relations should such regimes have with the workers’ movement of a given country? My initial hunch was that there should be some close collaboration.

These thoughts came to mind back then, despite knowing fully that it was the failure of the local regulatory mechanisms of the state that had brought about the Accord and the Alliance in the first place. Even though the ready-made garment sector (RMG) is a part of what is commonly identified as Global Production Networks (GPNs), our analysis must take into account where a given factory is located.

In practice, however, I see, then and now, clear indications that the Accord is having an impact on the garments industry in Bangladesh. The description I provided from my 2015 visit to a factory is indicative. The fact that the Accord had a “toll” on the owners is also reflected in written statements and comments by some big players in the industry, who have found newspapers and some other forums (often spaces provided by NGOs working on labor issues) to be a good modicum to express their anger and exasperation specific to the industry, amid other things. One comment by one such “big player” had struck me, since I heard it for the first time: the industry should think in terms of “self-governance” instead of giving too much attention to platforms such as the Accord or Alliance. I found this to be a very audacious remark, especially in the context of two recent catastrophic events such as the Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh.

Thus, the big factories entered a period of changes that is different from the era before the Rana Plaza building collapse and the Tazreen fire, when the compliance regime was rather voluntary compared to today’s enforced regimes. Factory owners detested the idea of the Accord and its stringent codes and principles, which often required them to invest more capital in factory infrastructure. This was most likely because they found it difficult to flout internationally enforced inspection regimes compared to the deshi (local) ones (i.e., government’s inspection regimes).

No matter the recent evidence of major shortcomings in the Accord and related regimes, we should take these developments as “positive” steps. After all, one cannot deny that the factory owner’s total disregard for safety and security of the workers and their total lackluster attitude towards workers’ lives created a situation and setting in which close to two thousand workers died in the RMG factories of Bangladesh during the past two decades. This needs to stop.

The Accord or other such compliance regimes are often very technocratic in focus. Some research on shop floor practices has shown that often such technocratic approaches do not bring meaningful change to the workers’ everyday lives. The approach is often “therapeutic,” as Professor Rehman Sobhan, a veteran economist, has recently remarked in the context of a research program on labor in Dhaka (2015–2016). In the long run, approaches such as the Accord do not give enough focus to the day-to-day life course of the shop floors. Serious injustices and hierarchical relation continue to exist in the garments factories of Bangladesh, and this has implications for the health, safety, and well-being of the workers in general and that of female workers in particular (who make up almost 80 percent of the total RMG workforce). I think this area needs to be focused on by the different regulatory bodies (which since 2013–2014 include inspection regimes such as the Accord, the Alliance, and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment).

An improved work culture needs to be developed between the owner/management and the workers, and in some cases between management and workers (some recent research findings show that often the management at the shop floor is more manipulative than their owners because the factory management has more responsibility in the day-to-day operations). However, my own recent survey work among some factories in Dhaka and Gazipur also revealed the disturbing prevalence of the influence of local thugs in the day-to-day running of the factory in different places. Often such thugs are allied with the management. The status of subcontracting factories, which form the bulk of the supply chain, often remains beyond the purview of inspection regimes and the debates surrounding them. It is in these spaces of very poorly built factory spaces that labor conditions remain most precarious and where intimidation prevails. It is in these spaces where most children work. Finally, the culture of impunity must go. Negligent owners should be brought under the justice system (both Tazreen and Rana Plaza are very illustrative cases of negligence and to some extent have been prosecuted accordingly)—hence, the need for a much stronger involvement of the state.

This post is a revised and extended version of an article published in Dhaka’s English-language newspaper The New Age (24 April 2017).

Mahmudul H Sumon is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Cite as: Sumon, Mahmudul H. 2017. “An anonymous visit to a garment factory in Bangladesh.” FocaalBlog, 30 November.