If shirts could only speak…if we would only listen

She is our sister. That garment holds the story of her life. If we ignore it, if we do not care to understand, she suffers. And so do we.

Read Anita Roddick's report from the sweatshops of Bangladesh and what she is asking the corporations to do. If you're shocked and inspired then find out what you can do...

I’ve just returned from Bangladesh, and I’m angry. Not, of course, with the Bangladeshi people. They were beautiful, incredibly warm and open, invited me into their humble homes, and sat with me into the night in small, windowless, poorly lit union offices, telling me stories of their lives as garment workers.

I am angry because of what is happening to these workers, who sew the clothes we wear. There are 2 million garment workers in Bangladesh, and 85 per cent of them are young women of between 16 and 25 years of age. Each year they sew £1.6 billion worth of clothing for export to Europe and another $2 billion worth for the US.

The corporations for whom these clothes are made claim they have codes of conduct that guarantee the human and labour rights of anyone employed in their manufacture, anywhere in the world. They ask us to trust them. They say that they are scrupulous about monitoring their contractors’ plants. In reality, though, their monitoring is a joke and is failing miserably.

These are the stories of some of the garment workers of Bangladesh...

WOMEN sewing garments for one of the best known entertainment companies in the world are forced to work from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week, for just 11 pence an hour. In one recent four month period they were allowed just one day off. They are cheated of their overtime pay, and are always paid two or three weeks late.

On 18 January, a group of workers went in their lunch break to politely ask their factory manager to pay their wages on time. The manager responded by grabbing one of them by the throat and slapping him and screaming at him. The manager then made a call on his mobile phone, and within minutes five gang members carrying pistols arrived. They began beating the workers, punching them, hitting them with sticks, knocking them to the ground and kicking them. More than 20 workers were attacked. The manager used his cell phone again, and the police arrived. The gang members handed the workers over to the police. Eight of the workers were imprisoned for two weeks. Those workers are now out on bail, but face long prison sentences if found guilty of trumped-up charges that they destroyed more than £56,000 of factory property. All the workers involved were fired and had their unpaid wages stolen.


ONE GIRL told me she had to sew a pocket every 36 seconds; that works out at 100 each hour, and 1,250 in a 12-hour shift. She sewed trousers for one of the best known clothing brands in the world. She and her colleagues were paid just seven pence for each pair of trousers they sewed.


WHEN THEY HAVE TO WORK UNTIL 10PM, Bangladeshi garment employees are often given a 15-minute break from 6:45pm to 7pm and a free snack of a small banana and a tiny piece of cake. Many of the factory owners boast to their European and American buyers about this.

In one sweater factory, one young employee asked the manager if he and his colleagues could have some replacement food, as what they had been given was rotten. The manager responded by beating the young man, locking him in a room, and calling the police.


EMPLOYEES sewing clothing for one of the largest sports retailers in the world, a European company, had to work from 8am right through to 3am the next day when deadlines for shipments were looming. They slept on the factory floor, curled up next to their sewing machines. A bell would ring at 7am, so they could get ready for the next shift. They were paid six pence an hour. They reported being slapped and beaten for not reaching their production targets.

They went on strike, demanding one day off a week, an end to all physical abuse and that they be paid at least the minimum wage. They then blocked a truck trying to leave the factory. The owner called in the police, who opened fire on the striking workers, killing at least six people. The police attacked the workers with clubs, beating both women and men. 49 people were hospitalised.


WOMEN sewing clothing for some of the best known labels in Europe and the US repeatedly told us that they needed permission – a ‘gate pass’ – in order to use the factory toilet, and could only do so twice a day.

Women told us they were cheated of their legal maternity leave and benefits. They are sacked when they reach 35 years of age. Managers say: ‘You can’t keep up. You’re exhausted, and you can’t see well anymore.’ The companies prefer young girls. If workers try to organise, they are beaten and fired.


I SPOKE WITH one young woman who sewed baseball caps for one of the best-known sports clothing brands in the world. The caps went to top professional teams in the US. She had worked in the factory for six years, but her basic wage was still just five pence an hour. She made about £2.45 a week, and just two pence for each £12 cap she sewed.

When I asked her how much she thought the caps sold for, she said 20 taka – that’s 19 pence. When I told her that they sell for at least £12, she was shocked. She could not believe it. How is it possible that the cost of a single cap was equivalent to her whole month’s wage?

I asked her what she hoped for in life. She said: ‘There are no rays of hope for me. In the future there is only darkness.’


ONE YOUNG MAN operating a button machine had a needle go right through his finger. The manager of his factory just gave him 10 taka (nine pence) and told him to go home.
A GIRL who could not have weighed more than 85 pounds had been sewing women’s underwear for a year. She earned just four pence an hour and 30 pence a day. This was less than the legal minimum wage. When I asked her how her employer got away with it, she said: ‘What can I do?’

One worker said: ‘We feel like prisoners. There is no value in our lives. We are like slaves. Our hands are bound and our mouths are stopped.’ Every worker said that if their employer knew they were meeting with me, they would be fired.

The workers live in one-room, dirt-floored huts, which measure about eight feet by 12 feet and are made of scrap metal, wood and plastic. Four or more people live in each hut. Everyone sleeps on a hard, wooden platform raised about a foot off the ground. When it rains, these huts drip with water. During the monsoon the workers’ neighborhoods flood, and filth and sewage washes right into their homes.

In these neighborhoods, up to 60 people have to share one outdoor water pump: the water is filthy. There are also two or three shared gas burners for cooking and only one outside toilet – really just a hole in the ground. Early in the morning and late at night there are long lines as people wait their turn to use these facilities.

One workers’ housing complex I visited was built on bamboo stilts over a stagnant, polluted lake. It had two storeys. The floors and ceilings were made out of rough wooden planks. The rooms were tiny, measuring eight feet by eight feet. There were no windows and very little light. In the summer the rooms heat up like ovens. It was noisy at all hours of the day and night. The complex was home to 2,000 people.

One garment worker I met was holding her baby. Her employer had not given her the maternity benefits she was legally due. The baby had to eat whatever the woman could find: there was no special food. If the child ever got sick, the woman would have to borrow money to be able to visit the doctor.

I want to ask the corporations:

• Why are the people who are supposed to be monitoring the factories of your sub-contractors not visiting those factories at night – at 10pm, say, or midnight, or even 3am – to see them still operating?

• Why are your monitors not visiting these plants on Fridays, a day of rest in Muslim Bangladesh, to witness the plants still operating?

• Why do your monitors never interview workers away from the plants, in safe locations and in the presence of local human rights groups whom the workers can trust? You know that any worker interviewed in their workplace will be fired the minute you walk out the door if they speak candidly about their bad working conditions.

• Why have your monitors never asked to visit Bangladesh’s garment workers in their homes? Are you ashamed of the abject poverty your workers are trapped in?

• Doesn’t it strike you as odd that not a single one of Bangladesh’s more than 3,700 garment factories is unionised? Do you think repression could be a factor in this? The corporations supplied by Bangladesh’s garment sector must stop the current charade and get serious about monitoring these factories.

And this is what I want to say to the WTO:
Two thousand new garment factories opened in Bangladesh between 1994 and 2003. In that period apparel exports from the country grew by more than 300 per cent – exploding from $1.5 billion in 1994 to $4.9 billion in 2003. Bangladesh’s garment industry is booming.

Shouldn’t this be an example of the magic of trade? If so, why are 2 million mostly young female garment workers being stripped of their rights – in their own words, trapped like slaves, paid just a few pennies an hour, working exhausting hours and seven-day weeks, living in utter misery, and sacked, penniless and worn out, when they reach 35 years of age? These people are some of the hardest workers in the world. They deserve to be treated like human beings.

Trade in and of itself will never bring social justice. The truth is that as unfettered corporate power grows, workers suffer. Consider Wal-Mart, the largest company and worst sweatshop abuser in the world. Three years ago, it paid its contractors in Bangladesh $38 per dozen sports shirts they produced, or $3.17 a shirt. That represents the total cost of production, including all materials, labour, overheads and profit to the contractor. Today, for the exact same shirts, Wal-Mart pays just $26 per dozen, or $2.17 each. So, Wal-Mart is paying more than 30 per cent less for its shirts, despite the fact that over the last three years the compound rate of inflation in Bangladesh has been 25.6 per cent.

Companies like Wal-Mart are doing exactly the same all across the developing world, telling their contractors either to accept constantly lower prices or to lose their contracts. Behind Wal-Mart’s everyday low prices are workers trapped in slave labour conditions, paid starvation wages and living in utter misery.

More than ever before, we need fundamental human, women’s and worker rights and environmental protections, which we will not allow the corporations to flout. Since the WTO will never be anything but a lackey to corporate interests, we, the people, must work to bring this about ourselves: we need to hold the corporations to account, so that they respect worker rights and pay fair wages.

The female garment workers in Bangladesh (and this would be true in most developing countries) do not know where the clothing they sew is sent. All they know is that it goes ‘outside’. They have never heard of the multinational companies they ultimately work for, and have no idea what the goods they make sell for. And the consumer in the West is just as ignorant about the people who make the clothes that he or she buys in the high street. We need to reverse this ignorance. We need to break through to each other. We need to expose the corporations that are growing ever richer off the backs of workers trapped in appalling conditions in the developing world.

Find out WHAT YOU CAN DO...

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2004