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Investigating the Bangladeshi garment industry without a hidden camera

A year ago a factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1000 garment industry workers. How do you accurately report on the situation now, without going undercover?

Bangladesh garment workers.

A year ago the most deadly accident ever in the garment industry shook the world. An eight-floor building collapsed on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. More than one thousand people died and 2500 were injured. The global media coverage that followed shed light on the miserable conditions of garment factory workers in Bangladesh, and how western consumers were inextricably linked to this tragedy.

The five garment factories in the building of Rana Plaza made clothes for European and American brands like Benetton, Walmart, Primark and Mango. The workers had voiced concerns about a big crack in the wall the day before the collapse.

Five months before the Rana Plaza accident over one hundred garment workers were killed in the Tazreen Fashion factory fire, trapped in a building with inadequate fire exits and safety plans. There were allegations workers had been locked inside the burning building so they wouldn´t steal garments, and the factory’s owners now face criminal charges

A year after these tragedies, Finnish investigative TV-program MOT wanted to know if anything has changed. In what conditions are our garments made today? Did these terrible accidents stir Western retailers and consumers to action? Has something improved since those dramatic pictures of dead young women being dug out of the ruins of Rana Plaza weeks after the collapse? 

But a key question was whether or not we could investigate such a delicate issue in Bangladesh – the second biggest garment producer in the world after China –without a hidden camera.

I had heard stories about journalists going to Bangladesh before us, sneaking in from back doors, changing hotels when their identities were revealed, even employing their own bodyguards. 

But we wanted to play with open cards. It seems that the Western clothing companies – at least the Finnish ones – are slowly giving more importance to transparency (not all of them!), and they have the power to put pressure on the Bangladeshi garment factories to do the same. Through two Finnish clothing companies we secured access to two factories: Reima, a well-known Finnish baby clothing brand, and Texmoda. The first factory also produces for Swedish chain H&M. 

We tracked shirts bought in Finland to these factories and could count that from a Reima baby shirt that costs 13 euros in Finland, around 2 cents made it to the worker at the sewing machine in Bangladesh. 

We also learnt that the Texmoda factory didn’t belong to any external audit system. The factory owner told MOT that if the Western brands paid just 50 cents more per shirt, the safety would be much higher in the factories: “To be honest with you, clients don't bother about the safety and security issue. They bother only about the price and quality,” Mr Aminul Islam told MOT.

Rana Plaza, April 2014In addition to visiting factories, we also needed to talk to as many factory workers as possible – outside the factories, because inside, with management and supervisors breathing down your neck, you won't get the real picture of the working conditions.

The key to find people ready to talk was simultaneous research in two countries: one of us looking for names of factories with Finnish brands, the other one searching for workers from those factories through unions in Bangladesh. We managed to meet more than 20 workers from different factories around Dhaka, especially people working for Finnish brands who very openly told us about their working conditions.

And the stories were shocking. The large majority told us that the work has become inhumane and even sickening. 

The minimum wage was increased in December last year from about US$40 to US$68 per month – still not enough to live off, and the second-lowest in the world after Myanmar. And the wage increase has actually made conditions worse for workers, as factory owners looked to make up for higher running costs.

Nine of the workers we talked to were working for a factory producing garments for the Finnish-owned Lindex, now a part of the Stockmann Group. 

“The pressure in the factories has become sickening. We don't have time to go to the toilet or to drink during our shift. If we don´t reach our target of over thousand shirts per day, we have to do overtime without compensation,” one of the mail workers from a factory making garments for the Swedish brand Kappahl and for Lindex told MOT.

Verbal and physical abuse was common, the workers said. If targets weren’t hit, workers were called names and were threatened by the supervisors. Because of the wage increase, the factory owners expected two people to do the work of three.

“This situation has become intolerable”, said a 20-year old female seamstress. “If I had an option, I would leave the garment industry immediately.”

There were also reports of physical violence and even the hiring of “goons” to prevent workers joining unions.

Some things have improved since the Rana Plaza tragedy. The Bangladeshi government, the unions and 160 Western brands have signed the Bangladesh Accord  on Fire and Building Safety. International and Bangladeshi engineers will inspect more than 1500 Bangladeshi factories before September. And brands have promised to finance possible measures to improve building standards and fire safety in factories.

But there are still several brands who haven't signed the Accord or paid to the Rana Plaza victims fundbrands like Benetton, Lee Cooper, JC Penneys, Kids for Fashion, Aushan and Carrefour. The arrangement is supposed to gather $40 million to be distributed to the victims. Up to now they have only received about $3 million.

In Finland the MOT-program, titled The Bloodstained Fashion, woke a storm among viewers and prompted immediate responses from the companies featured.  On the night the program was aired, Stockmann announced they would audit their factories but not withdraw from Bangladesh. Reima said in a press release the next day that they would sign the Accord.

The MOT report (in Finnish) will be available to watch online until mid-May, 2014.  

ICIJ member Minna Knus-Galán is an award-winning reporter based in Finland.

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