End of the line
The vulnerable workers at the very bottom of Australia's fashion supply chain. South Asia Correspondent Ben Doherty reports from Dhaka in Bangladesh.PT2M57S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2oqc8 620 349 June 23, 2013
Forhad Mia doesn't feel like part of a global supply chain. The handful of internationally renowned labels he's brought home from work, labels he stitches into the shirts he sews at a Dhaka, Bangladesh, factory, mean little to him: he can't read them.
We cannot buy medicine if we are sick.
The only thing familiar is the ''Made in Bangladesh'' epithet common to all.
Forhad Mia and his wife Raifa sit in their slum bedsit in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Photo: Ben Doherty
As rain lashes noisily against the walls, he sits in his home, a single, tiny, corrugated-iron room in the middle of a dense and sprawling slum near the factory where he works. A fitful ceiling fan does little to disrupt the stifling monsoon air, and the lone light-bulb flickers and dies with the power failures, leaving the room pitch black.
The room is so small it accommodates only the bed he shares with his wife, Raifa. It is their only piece of furniture. The couple's few clothes hang from a string across one wall, and their toothbrushes sit in a plastic cup on the floor.
Forhad, like everybody in this ramshackle shanty town, makes clothes for Australia, and for the world. In the global supply chain, this is the end of the line.
The factory where he works, Stitchwell Designs, makes clothes for Kmart in Australia, as well as for global brands Carrefour and Sears. A sewing machine operator with three years' experience, Forhad earns 5100 taka, about $69, a month. At another factory, his wife earns less, 4500 taka.
The room they call home costs 3040 taka a month to rent, leaving them fewer than $90 each month on which to subsist. ''It is too low, we cannot have a humane life,'' Forhad says. ''There are many things we cannot have. We can afford meat only once or twice in a month, we cannot buy medicine if we are sick.''
The four-storey hovel in which Forhad and Raifa live, illegally built from bamboo, wood and tin, houses more than 100 people. They all share 12 gas burners and just four toilets.
Illness is common, but sick days are not. A day of work missed is salary docked, so most here work six or seven days a week, usually between 10 and 14 hours a day. Overtime, nominally voluntary is, in reality, compulsory, and often unpaid.
The supply chain that ends with customers at a Western department store and begins with Forhad at his sewing machine is complex and clandestine. But all along its length there is pressure, of those above pushing down on those below: customers expect bargains in a competitive retail world; retailers demand ever-lower prices from suppliers; suppliers connive for fractions of a cent off each garment made, on pain of pulling their orders from factory owners; and factory owners hold wages at worldwide lows and force unpaid overtime on their powerless, expendable workers.
Ever downwards the pressure is forced - until it reaches Forhad at his machine.
Of Dhaka's 5000 factories - in the arcane world of Bangladesh's garment industry, no one is sure how many exist - Forhad's factory is one of the better ones. The amenities are spartan, but the building is safe. There is a room set aside for the children of women workers, and firefighting kits are found on each floor. Generators are on the ground level. But even this factory, which passes international audits, offers a glimpse into the darker side of this industry.
Stitchwell has been dumped as a supplier by Kmart, with the Australian retailer saying it improperly outsourced work to another factory.
It is a bane of outsourced industries all over the world, where unwatched supply chains run out of control. In times of peak demand, work is silently farmed out to smaller factories that operate in almost total secrecy, without regard to worker safety or rights.
''Since we have a one strike out policy, we are not placing any further business with them. This exit will be completed by November, 2013,'' says Kmart spokeswoman Tracie Walker.
But Stitchwell managing director Iqbal Hossain tells Fairfax Media his relations with his international suppliers are ''very strong, very happy''.
In the next three months, KMart (the US and Australian businesses are not related) will take delivery of 2 million shirts made here. The dress shirts waiting to go to Australia bear price tags of $15. The price at this end is less than $5, a worker says.
The best prices in the world, according to Hossain, but he concedes there is constant pressure and demand for greater production at lower prices. ''Bangladesh has a good reputation; the price is low because labour is cheap, and the quality is good,'' he says.
But there is a new pressure in Bangladesh. The collapse in April of the illegally built Rana Plaza factory, in which at least 1127 garment workers died, was the latest and largest in a string of factory collapses, fires and accidents, to blight this country. In the five years before Rana, 500 garment factory workers were burnt to death at work here.
The sheer scale of the Rana disaster has given the Western world cause to question its presence in Bangladesh: asking whether a huge, ill-regulated and ruthless industry can reform itself, and whether it deserves another chance after too many failures already.
In Bangladesh, there are fears for the future of a $20 billion industry on which the country depends for 80 per cent of its export earnings, and which directly employs 4 million poor people, mostly women with little or no education and no other real job prospects.
Hossain says it would be unethical for foreign companies to leave Bangladesh in response to the Rana tragedy, and would only harm the country's most vulnerable workers, the very people whose interests any boycott would claim to protect.
''These companies have made huge profits, they have become rich on the back of Bangladeshi labour. Yes, Bangladesh has problems, but Rome wasn't built in a day. They should stay in this country to help us improve our industry, not leave us with disaster and chaos.''
Bangladesh's famed ''father of microfinance'', Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, has proposed an additional 50¢ surcharge on Bangladesh-made clothes sold into developed markets. The money would go to a fund to provide healthcare to workers' families and education for their children, as well as lifting wages and improving safety.
''Fifty cents is a small amount in a country like Australia, but it would make a great difference in Bangladesh,'' Hossain says.
Bangladesh's garment industry is too vast, and too disparate, to be categorised as wholly good or ill for the country. That the economy of a country of 163 million people depends on it is inarguable, and that it has provided work for some of Bangladesh's poorest people, empowered women, and lifted millions from poverty, is not seriously questioned.
But at what cost? Just as truly, the industry has attracted the criminal and the unscrupulous. The owner of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, built his factory illegally and, just hours before it collapsed, used armed security to force his workers back inside the building after dangerous cracks had sent them fleeing.
Today, the industry exists, the factories are open, and with them the question of how they might be reformed.
In line with Dr Yunus' suggestion, there is consensus emerging here that the developed world may have to pay more for the goods it gets from its developing nation business partners; that nowhere in the world can afford to be as cheap as it has been.
At Aftabunessa Garments, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Mohammed Habibur Rahman says he recently lost a contract with Rivers. He says he cannot afford to make his factory compliant to international standards because the prices being offered by foreign buyers are too low. His six-storey building, housing 700 workers, is incomplete. It has barred windows and only one dark, narrow staircase, cluttered with boxes and reams of material. In an emergency, it is a death trap. He won't allow photos.
''To become compliant is big work. It is not only stairs, it is windows, it is more floor space for employees, it is childcare, medical facilities. All of this is expensive, but from where we will get the money?
''The foreign companies take all the price from us. They make good money, but there is nothing left for us. How can we improve the wages, how can we make our factory compliant?''
Despite the tense conversation, like all Bengalis, he offers tea, and an analogy. ''It is like cha: to make it sweet, you need to add sugar. Right now, we have no sugar, we have nothing.''