My mother used to check the tags of everything we bought growing up. If the tag satisfied her, she’d buy it. If it didn’t, it would go back on the rack. No, she wasn’t checking for designer labels. She was checking to see where it was made.
“Made in Bangladesh/India/Nepal” was a definite no. “Made in China” was a maybe. “Made in USA” was okay.
It was annoying as a kid. Imagine being told that awesome Batman t-shirt you wanted was a no-go because of where it was made. It took years of hearing about how children my age were probably making that Batman t-shirt before my spoiled, American brat self got the picture.
The stories from Bangladesh, the country I was born in, are horrifying. My mother would tell me about how she grew up in Bangladesh in the middle class with six brothers and sisters in a neighborhood that was saturated with the signs of third world poverty. Though their house was a few stories high and they could afford new clothes and shoes, they could see the begging children, the families living in make shift tents on the street, and grown men defecating in the alleys from their veranda.
Amongst all the poverty, she remembers how the millions of garment workers in the thousands of factories had some of the worst situations. Every other day there was a story about these workers, mostly women, protesting their working conditions and pay. She saw them lined up in front of the factories in the morning, some of them barely hitting puberty. They hardly made a living wage and worked in cramped, disgusting rooms.
The faces of those women never left her. She still cannot make herself buy anything, years later in the States, that could possibly come from a place like that. As a result, I find myself almost 30 years later, still checking the tags of things I buy, feeling extremely guilty if someone even gives me something made in Bangladesh. I don’t always catch them all—especially if I’m online shopping—but it’s one of those things I’ve always been aware of.
Recently, a building collapse in Dhaka killed hundreds—yes, hundreds—of workers, with hundreds still missing. Three of the stories of the building were built illegally and an order to evacuate issued by the police after cracks were seen the day before was ignored—just like the owners ignored various basic health and safety regulations, child labor laws, and other building regulations. The owners have been arrested and rescuers are still trying to find the rest of the people trapped under the rubble for the last few days.
It’s horrific. It’s enraging. It makes my blood boil.
But it’s not surprising.
Last November a fire in the same area in Dhaka killed over a 100 garment workers. Since 1990, more than 1,000 workers have died and several thousand more have been wounded in preventable Bangladesh factory fires and workplace incidents. Preventable, people. All these deaths and injuries were preventable.
On top of all of the other bullshit, the women in these Bangladeshi textile factories have to deal sexual harassment and discrimination, which happen frequently in this industry that is 80 percent women. My own family members have told me how often they hear about women getting raped by their superiors or on their way to and from work. And these women rarely get maternity leave, a privilege so many of us in America take for granted.
Why can’t millions of people stand up to the few people running these operations? Well, would you want to be the whistleblower when you don’t have many other options to put food on the table? Bangladesh’s law and codes of conduct do actually allow for collective bargaining and worker’s rights—but anyone that does have the ovaries to stand up to their bosses and these companies often get repressed and abused even more (last year a labor organizer was tortured and assassinated).
It’s absolutely wretched that big companies choose cheap clothing from cheap labor over doing the right thing. I’m sure when you’re sitting in a comfy office chair in a first world country so far removed from these men and women in other countries it’s easy to ignore what goes into making your wallet fatter. But that’s not an excuse.
We saw what happens when big companies here in the US ignore regulations with the recent West, TX tragedy—but at least this doesn’t happen as frequently here in the US (though terrible working conditions and sexual harassment in the workplace are a pretty big problem here too).
This is the one cause I have been supporting in my own little way for as long as I can remember. Just like my mother, the faces of those workers are in my subconscious, passed on through blood. The two recent events however were a wakeup call even to me and I realized what I was doing wasn’t nearly enough. Every day we’re supporting companies like Mango, Wal-Mart, and H&M that are ignoring where their clothes are coming from. And this is not ok, folks. Ethical clothing begins with us consumers.
So here I am enraged and pumped with adrenaline and chocolate covered espresso beans, signing petitions online, emailing organizations that might need legal help, and researching companies and their practices, wondering if any of it will make a goddamn difference. Either way, I need to do something. Maybe you all can help me brainstorm and spread the word?