Cheap labour

Manufacture […] converts the labourer into a crippled monstrosity, by forcing his detail dexterity at the expense of a world of productive capabilities and instincts; just as in the States of La Plata they butcher a whole beast for the sake of his hide or his tallow. — Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Chapter 14

In April 2013 Rana Plaza col­lapsed, a ran­dom fac­to­ry build­ing in Dha­ka turned into a name that is engraved in the his­to­ry of Bangladesh. The day before the dis­as­ter it was clear that some­thing was wrong because cracks appeared in the walls. That is why the shops on the ground floor had already closed their doors. Why did the employ­ees of the gar­ment fac­to­ries still come to work? It looks like they were forced by their boss, but can you impose that on thou­sands of peo­ple who real­ly don’t want to go in? Prob­a­bly they were also forced by their own finances: no work means no mon­ey and if I get fired I’ll be eas­i­ly replaced. A pre­car­i­ous posi­tion, which proved dead­ly for more than 1,000 peo­ple. The site of the dis­as­ter is now a gap­ing hole between two oth­er build­ings. There is a mon­u­ment erect­ed by a left­ist group. The ham­mer and sick­le appear a lit­tle too polit­i­cal, but at the same time the clenched fists pow­er­ful­ly express the anger.

The gar­ment indus­try in Bangladesh is enor­mous and will grow even big­ger in the com­ing years. Most of the pro­duc­tion is for export. The main com­pet­i­tive advan­tage of the coun­try is the low min­i­mum wage. This allows fac­to­ries to let peo­ple (most­ly women) work for a slave wage, while stick­ing to the rules. This can­not be blamed on indi­vid­ual fac­to­ry man­agers; they are in the mid­dle of the sys­tem in which the major West­ern brands require ever cheap­er pro­duc­tion. Mean­while, Human Rights Watch is not happy.

Of course, after Rana Plaza the brands had to do some­thing to save what was left of their image. This result­ed in fac­to­ry audits to check if own­ers abid­ed by the rules; espe­cial­ly regard­ing the safe­ty of the build­ing and work­places. But the inspec­tions also check whether the employ­ees can have a voice, for exam­ple because there is a trade union.

Hammer and Sickle

In Bangladesh, trade unions have a bad name because they are almost always politi­cized. The lead­ers are not too both­ered by the mem­bers and play their cor­rupt games with the gov­ern­ment to stay in pow­er. When West­ern orga­ni­za­tions come up with “this fac­to­ry should have a trade union”, you start off with a com­mu­ni­ca­tion problem.

But there is a deep­er feel­ing behind this: mis­trust from the man­age­ment towards the employ­ees. This is not with­out rea­son; I think peo­ple will have lit­tle loy­al­ty for a com­pa­ny that only gives them the min­i­mum. It shows in the high turnover of employ­ees. That’s one of the things that the projects we looked at are try­ing to work on. For exam­ple, the fac­to­ry in the pic­tures start­ed doing exit inter­views for peo­ple who want to leave. In that way it becomes clear what their rea­sons are, and some­times the sit­u­a­tion is improved so that they stay after all.

Garment Factory

We did not come to inspect the fac­to­ries, but to do an eval­u­a­tion of the train­ing that the man­agers had received. The first asso­ci­a­tion I had when we entered, was actu­al­ly my own expe­ri­ence in the box­es fac­to­ry. The effi­cien­cy of the process has a kind of beau­ty, where you see a piece of cloth trans­formed into a packed t‑shirt with a price tag in no time. But the tasks of an indi­vid­ual are so lim­it­ed that as an employ­ee you are not more than a machine. It is lit­er­al­ly mind-numb­ing, see Marx’s quote above.

In these two weeks I have most­ly seen pos­i­tive things, and young man­agers who know that a good rela­tion­ship with their employ­ees is also good for busi­ness. Mean­while, it is also clear that the thou­sands of peo­ple who put our clothes togeth­er don’t have an easy life. I think it is hyp­o­crit­i­cal to blame the fac­to­ry own­ers in Bangladesh for this sit­u­a­tion. Ulti­mate­ly, con­sumers want cheap clothes, and the West­ern brands want to pock­et the prof­it. Anoth­er piece of work of the run­away cap­i­tal­ist machine…

The pic­tures from the fac­to­ry are made by Abu Ala Hasan, the con­sul­tant that I worked with.