Young, poor, hopeful – workers in sourcing countries

A fire at garment factory Ali Enterprises in Karachi, Pakistan on September 11 2012 killed 315 workers and injured more than 250; the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Greater Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed

five garment factories, cost the lives of 1,127 workers and injured more than 2,500. Structural flaws and a violation of building and safety codes were the causes for the disasters. What makes workers take up jobs in unsafe buildings and under bad conditions? In the latest installment of our sourcing series, we take a look at living and working conditions of garment workers in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“We sawYoung, poor, hopeful – workers in sourcing countries hundreds and hundreds of workers crammed into sweatshops. The deafening rattle of sewing machines was impossible to escape. Many workers looked far younger than the legal age at which people are allowed to work, 18,” describes the eye witness report “Behind the walls of Bangladesh’s garment factories” that ITV reporters filmed in May of this year.

Finding willing workers no problem for garment industry

Yet, despite these and similar conditions and the lowest wages in the world, the garment industry employs millions in sourcing countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China, Cambodia, Indonesia and others. Understanding the motivation of the workers means understanding the consequences of not taking up a job.

Especially for women (and most of the garment workers in sourcing countries are women), holding a job in a garment factory means an improvement of their living conditions. Any profession, any amount of money coming into the household is still better than nothing and may delay many events so typical in a woman’s life: getting married way too early, having children when almost a child herself, being at the mercy of a husband who may or may not beat her, being in danger of getting sexually harassed or abused.

Working in an export firm and thus for an international brand may also be a question of prestige, something to raise the social standing of someone who has so little, never mind that the workers would not be able to buy any of the garments they produce.

Fear of theft stronger than fear of fires

To western eyes, it must be strange indeed to read about prison-like factories with barred windows. It should be noted that the latter is somewhat of a regional preference: Instead of burglar alarms and the like, owners of residential and commercial spaces in South Asia resort to a cheaper and low-maintenance method of theft proof: putting grills on all windows. This also has the added advantage of preventing young children from falling out of the window, a danger not to be underestimated in warm countries where windows are usually wide open at all times.

ThoughYoung, poor, hopeful – workers in sourcing countries this is no doubt a serious hazard in case of a fire, the fears of theft and break-in overrule it. Thus, workers at factories like Ali Enterprises and Rana Plaza would have thought nothing much of finding all windows barred. And neither would factory owners trying to prevent their employees from stealing expensive garments. In view of the recent tragedies, a rethinking of this practice is called for, especially in places with little ventilation, old and faulty wiring and plenty of flammable material lying around – all conditions that garment factories are known for.

Workers hope for a better future

The German documentary “Tod in der Fabrik: der Preis für billige Kleidung” [Death in the factory: the price of cheap clothing], shown on 6th December 2012 on TV channel Das Erste, had reporter Christoph Lütgert do research onsite in Karachi and speak to the victims’ families. They shed some light on the aspirations and conditions the predominantly young workers had to deal with.

Sajid Hussain, a worker at Ali Enterprises, confirmed the theft vs. safety attitude. “There was an emergency exit but it was always locked because the boss was scared something could be stolen,” he said. Sajid used to stich one thousand jeans halves together a day for 70 euros a month. On the day of the fire, he wasn’t on shift; his younger brother, only 22 years old, wasn’t so lucky and died in the flames.

The Ali family in Baldia Town, in the western part of Karachi, lost their 22-year-old son Ayaz Ali and his four sisters aged 17, 19, 20 and 25 in the fire at Ali Enterprises, together with their aunt. The six members earned for the whole extended family; now, they don’t know how to make ends meet.

Now, Young, poor, hopeful – workers in sourcing countries23-year-old son Azim Ali is the only remaining child of Azmat and Rehana Ali. In retrospect, it may seem unwise to have all children employed at the same factory, but at the time, it seemed like a good idea: despite the bad conditions, employment was steady and offered a perspective especially to the family’s young women. It seemed like the road to a better future without poverty that both parents and children dreamed of .

Workers are content despite bad conditions

An ITV team of reporters dispatched in May to a Dhaka slum for the documentary “Behind the walls of Bangladesh’s garment factories” came across similar attitudes. Though the conditions “can be awful” with ramshackle hutments, no running water and lots of flooding during the rainy season, workers like their lives and jobs.

Take the case of 12-year-old Khalida for example. Unlike the children of the Ali family, she never had a home with warm food, running water and the safety of a family structure to come back to after a long shift. Yet, as she told the ITV reporters, she likes her new life and her job. Like so many other children from rural backgrounds, she left her parents to look for employment, dreaming of a better future in the big city, which came in form of a job in the garment industry that pays her 25 pounds (29 euros) a month. Now, Khalida is scared though because she noticed cracks in wall of her factory too. Though the boss promised to repair them, the fear remains.

As the workers’ stories have shown, even bad working conditions are no deterrent from taking a coveted job in the garment industry as it means some financial and personal independence, social status and hope for the future. As our previous installment “Fact or fiction: responsible sourcing in Bangladesh” has shown, safe factories with fair wages and benefits like medical and childcare are not a myth, it is just a question of workers, buyers and suppliers demanding them as standard rather than a “nice to have”. Stay tuned for our next article in the series on Tuesday and do send your insights and comments to [email protected]

Simone Preuss

Images (top to bottom): Workers at TEB, a responsible factory in Bangladesh / Dinana; the collapsed Rana Plaza building / rijans; the canteen at TEB, offering three warm meals a day / Dinana