The room was laden with electric fans but the air remained hot and stuffy. Barred windows were open, the walls were crumbling, the stairs were slippery and the fabric piled high. Over 700 people were packed in together, heads down for the long day. We were standing in a seven-storey garment factory at the heart of Dhaka; fair to say it had seen better days.
4,500 factories like this one employ 4 million people across Bangladesh, in an industry worth $34bn and responsible for 84% of the country’s total exports. ‘Made in Bangladesh’ labels are sent all over the world, greasing the wheels of the West’s addiction to the latest fast fashion. From these tired tower blocks to our front doors and high streets in no time. This is big business.
Before COVID this industry was already extremely vulnerable to the vile crime of human trafficking. That is why Justice and Care works in factories like these, with the support of the country’s authorities, delivering trafficking prevention classes to those at risk of being duped into even more abusive work. We raise awareness among factory workers about their rights and the risks that they face from traffickers. We work with their bosses to ensure more protection is in place. Abuse thrives in the dark – we end it by bringing it into the light.
We read that the industry hit the floor during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, reportedly losing $3.5bn of clothing orders from retail giants like TopShop, New Look and H&M rapidly. This only added to the vulnerability. Hundreds of thousands of people with uncertain futures, desperate and more susceptible to abuse. We know ruthless traffickers pounce at the slightest opportunity.
Reports this week suggest factories are reopening, for fear of missing out on any rush for new orders as Western lockdowns begin to ease. COVID-19 numbers are relatively low across the country, though so is testing. Its true impact and threat, therefore, remains largely unknown in Bangladesh. As lockdown runs on these are clearly complex decisions for any Government, needing to balance public health priorities with averting economic disaster.
Yet Dhaka’s workers are raising concerns, taking to the streets and fearful of a return. They say they have little choice but need protection. Their jobs keep hunger at bay and sustain entire families, but they don’t want to die.
This should make us stop and think. Their plight and position – spotlighted even more brightly by COVID-19 – has to force us to ask some fundamental questions again here in the West. We need to take a long hard look into that mirror as we try on the latest doorstep package. The T-shirt we wear, the shoes we use and the skinny jeans we snap up are dyed, sewn and ironed by those facing their fears every day in these factories – whether that be COVID infections or human trafficking.
Are we honestly comfortable with this? If not, we need to respond.
As consumers, we know T-shirts cannot be sold for a few pounds whilst providing a reasonable living wage to the workers making them. We need to wake up to the fact our choices make the lure of the traffickers more potent. The so-called job offers become a risk worth taking when the alternative is extreme poverty.
It is time Governments increased the accountability of companies when it comes to their supply chains, as I recommended in a recent review of UK laws. As consumers we can do our bit too, scrutinising practices and voting with our wallets when ethical suppliers stand out. Are we prepared to pay a little more for a fair deal the other end? Will we back brands that treat people like disposable goods?
As we look to the future, as we reset our values following the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a duty to find answers and to work for a more ethical, just global supply chain. To move beyond a capitalist model that essentially sees the West snapping its fingers for cheap ‘stuff’ and the East cutting all kinds of corners to deliver it at any cost?
Could we see the day high street brands are proud to pay a fair wage at source or ditched when the don’t? Might we insist that organisations like Justice and Care are given access to their factories, ensuring adequate protection against trafficking is in place for their staff.
We are prepared to do what we can. Are you? There may be no quick answers but we have a duty to search for some. If we are to come through this pandemic with a clearer view of what we value and how connected we are across the globe, let us start with this.
Christian Guy, Chief Executive of Justice and Care.