Garment Workers, Bangladesh

Title: In Memory (May 10, 2013)
Bad news and sad news can make it hard to find words. Being rendered speechless seemed like just a cliche term until recently. I turned to trees and symbols of freedom for comfort when words hurt too much to say. Emotions can be overwhelming.I am glad that the Tsarnaev brothers were caught in Boston before they could destroy more lives and property. I’m glad that our traditions and spirit weren’t destroyed. Marathoners have stamina.
I am glad that so many people were rescued alive from the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24th. One survivor was found after seventeen days, dehydrated but unhurt. She was able to move around but was trapped in a section of the second floor that hadn’t completely collapsed. Some dry snack food and bottled water in the area helped her survive that long. She banged on the wall whenever she could hear rescue workers nearby and eventually was heard and rescued, a miracle for the sad workers and crowd of family and friends.
. . . So garment workers and people from Boston are tough.

Title:  Garment workers in Bangladesh now have the right to form unions (May 14, 2013)
/Update/ The woman who was found after seventeen days trapped in the collapsed garment factory is doing well in a hospital. A video with a statement from her can be viewed on the Guardian website. She mentions that she had two bottles of water but no food. The worker who heard the banging noise also speaks later in the video.

Protests have been held in Bangladesh about working conditions since the factory collapse on April 24th. Workers will have something to cheer about. The government of Bangladesh passed legislation Monday, May 12, that will allow garment workers to form unions without requiring the permission of the business owners. Other industries in Bangladesh have unions but the garment industry has resisted the change.
On Sunday, May 11th, a minimum wage board was established by the Bangladesh government

Don’t need a union? Ask the girls in Bangladesh!

with plans to publish recommendations about pay raises in three months. Four million garment workers could benefit from a pay raise. Currently workers earn about 3000 takas per month (25 pounds / 38 dollars) which includes an 80% increase that was made after worker protests in 2010. []

Enforcing safe building regulations is also important. Since 2005 there have been at least 1800 worker deaths from fires or building collapse in the Bangladesh garment industry according to research by the International Labor Relations Forum. A factory fire in November 2012 caused the death of 112 people. A protest sign seen at a worker’s rights rally in the U.S. had photos of that tragedy and a statement reminding us that unions have helped make workplaces safer.
Good air filtration would be important to help reduce risk of fire. Fabric is flammable and so is dust in the air created when cutting fabric or thread. Fabric dust may have dyes and formaldehyde that can make workers sick. A 2006 guide from called “Work Dangers, Ventilation for fresh, clean air,” describes how workers in Mexico organized and got ventilation (p 99) and needle guards (p 121) for their sewing machines. The draft Hesperian Health Guide also discusses overcrowding and evacuation concerns. Locked doors increased casualties in the November 2012 fire.
The combined vibrations of industrial machines can cause the building floors to vibrate and risk collapse. Shock absorbing devices under the equipment might help reduce vibrations from being amplified throughout the floor. Lack of load bearing supports and overly heavy equipment would add to the risk of collapse. Generators that were too heavy for the building may have triggered the factory collapse on April 24th. Over 2500 people were saved, though many with severe injuries, and 1127 people died in the tragedy.

Title: Disclosure: My grandma was a garment worker (May 17, 2013)
The garment factory where my grandmother worked when she was young produced pants in the 1920’s. It later converted to producing dresses and closed a few decades ago. We visited the outlet shop of the dress factory occasionally when I was young. It was fun to sort through the assortment of fabric remnants and leftover lace trim and ribbons.

Needlework was a skill I learned but wasn’t that good at. My grandma made stuffed animals and quilts and had more custom outfits than fit in her closet. She enjoyed sewing in a way that I couldn’t quite. Guiding the fabric through the machine without puckers takes dexterity and patience. Pillowcases and rectangular things are easier than collars and fitted garments.

Futon maker was one of my jobs during college. Futon mattresses are rectangular so I did okay. The cotton batting smelled wonderful but the air in the warehouse did seem a little thick with the fragrance. The skills I learned also earned a discount bed because I was allowed to buy the materials at cost. Assembling the layers at home was not as easy as my coworkers had made it look though. I just sewed the fabric covers – for hours – I found a new job fairly soon that didn’t involve bending over a sewing machine.
My grandma had a lot more patience than me. She earned seven dollars per week for a few years working Monday through Friday plus a half day on Saturdays sometime around 1925. And in 1985 I earned the U.S. minimum wage of ~ $3.75 an hour / $150 per week sewing futon covers. In 2013 garment workers in Bangladesh are being paid only a little more money (~$38 per month) than my grandma earned in 1925 ($28 per four weeks) and importers can purchase a t-shirt for as little as $1.68 each. That doesn’t seem right to me.
The fabric and thread for a shirt would cost more than $1.68 at a fabric store whether you sewed the shirt yourself or hired someone. Costs are saved on large scale production by buying in bulk and using assembly line techniques. No one individual makes one whole shirt but the team makes many shirts more rapidly. Each worker can focus on repeating one step of the task very quickly. Workers might just sew sleeves or necklines with pieces that had been assembled and cut by others saving time on transitions between tools and work areas. But all workers deserve reasonable pay and safe working conditions whether sewing sleeves, pants, or futon covers.
  • In Bangladesh, Good and Bad Conditions: Davidson, “…$1.68″~ 3:50sec: Video – Bloomberg.

Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and the information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes.