Critiquing the “Informal”

 Published in: The Daily Star on December 23, 2015
Critiquing the “Informal”

The picture that you see here is not of a Bangladeshi “informal” or “formal” garment factory. It is one of the photographs taken by academics who had visited the garment factories in New York prior to their visit to Bangladesh during the post-Rana Plaza phase. The pictures belonged to a few garment factories that produce for American brands and are set right in the middle of Manhattan, in between the Fifth and Ninth Avenue, from 34th to 42nd streets, in an area of 1 square mile. The area is called The Garment District, or rather the Fashion District. The factories usually have 20-50 workers in a single production unit. It’s always the Chinese hiring Chinese and the Koreans hiring Hispanics. In the midst of all this, a stark reality of immigrants surface which also leads to the problem in compliance with wage and hour laws. Most workers are paid in cash, as many of them are undocumented. This Fashion District used to be really big once upon a time, while today only 3 percent of the clothing bought in the US is made in this garment center. Factories like the ones pictured here in New York are mostly situated in old buildings, which would instantly fail the structural integrity checks of both Alliance and Accord. The factory floors do not have 60” wide aisles; the wirings are not secured by any standards, with the workers mostly being surrounded by cones of sewing threads and fabric rolls (meaning there are no separate stores), clearly indicative of blocked exits.

In comparison, Bangladesh has four million workers and over 4,000 garment factories. We don’t produce garments in an “informal” manner anymore, rather we subscribe to absolute formality and adhere to the strict production guidelines set by the Koreans many moons ago. Unfortunately, recently your columnist’s inbox has been flooded by reports published from a private and distinguished university abroad, including many pictures taken by a foreign journalist, Photographer Claudio Montesano Casillas, who apparently went inside “sweatshops” in Keraniganj, Dhaka. Claudio published these photos with a report by Isabel Hunter for Mailonline on Nov 30, 2015. The report begins with a major error. It talks about children “stitching” labels into garments, which are mostly for the local and Indian market, but “apparently “are also used for export, of which the brands are “apparently” unaware. Claudio and Isabel should have known that garment factories don’t sew labels outside; all the stitching is done within the factory premises. Therefore, these “factories” that he had visited were not stitching labels for international brands but for local markets. All, but one, photographs were pictures of women and children sewing garments. Claudio called the factories a “grim reality”. Though the photographer desired to make the photos come out in a pathetic light, the reverse was achieved. All the photos cover smiling faces, including happy kids taking showers. In fact, one of the pictures is of a woman sitting on a sewing machine at an “informal” factory with no look of stress on her face. She is happy with what she does. Compare that to the pictures from the New York’s Manhattan ones and check which workers come out looking happier. Finally, what shocked and surprised me the most was when I spotted the last photograph, which was taken at one of our factories and which is a shot of a New Year’s celebration in 2014. If Claudio was so quick to pictorially elaborate the miseries of the workers in the “informal” factories, why had he included a happy picture of our workers from a “formal” factory and had said nothing about it?

Rana Plaza has happened; we have been collectively struck by the national tragedy; but that doesn’t justify others examining our “informal” sector, which caters to the local markets. If garment centers can exist in the heart of New York with many immigrants working in the most hazardous conditions and not being able to make their own ends meet, how does Bangladesh come into the radar of foreign critique? In that regard, why would a recent study by Stern (New York University) titled “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: The Forgotten Apparel Workers” be so quick to assess the pace of remediation in Bangladesh, with a reference of $281 million funding for RMG, whereas, in reality $72 million is only “announced”, $38 million are for Rana Plaza victims; $98 million from two platforms, which are spending most of their money for auditing and only $24.5 million are from ILO and UK Aid which are also project-wise pledges. Has anyone even studied in detail how little or nothing has reached the manufacturers?

When is that study going to happen? The figure of 3800 “ informal” factories in the research is also questionable, which almost links our “informal” sector to subcontracting. My guess is that they have erroneously assumed these “informal” factories ending up being “subcontractors.” These informal factories indeed produce for local markets, the study of which should be outside the purview of any international agency. I express sincere shock at the report from Stern, especially because it is the same school which had first come to Bangladesh post-Rana Plaza, assessed our situation and turned to many of us for insights and made excellent recommendations. The first report of Stern focused on unauthorized subcontracting, which I deemed, at that time, to be fair. But then this time around, the school has also published an “interactive” map of 7,000 factories which mostly have numbers of workers listed and many other columns remain blank, including product category. Why publish a report, which is incomplete?

Currently, most of the manufacturers like us are trying our best to remediate with whatever funds are available, while most of the engineering firms are busy examining factories and routinely handing out reports to manufacturers. Every garment manufacturer today knows that there is no escape from safe manufacturing and no one wants to bear the burden of a risky factory and endanger business relationships, which have taken years to grow.

According to a recent World Bank study conducted by Sanjay Kathuria and Mariem Malouche titled “Toward New Sources of Competitiveness in Bangladesh”, the authors share that if Bangladesh were to capture 20 percent of China’s current garment exports, Bangladesh’s exports would double and increase by $29 billion, and 5.4 million new jobs and 13.5 million new indirect jobs would be created, virtually absorbing “all the new entrants into the labour force over the next decade.” That Bangladesh’s garment export potential is larger than any other country does not come as a surprise, especially because the country’s industry has gone through serious audits. Considering that until September 2015, 1,103 factories have been audited by Accord, 580 by Alliance and yet only 19 have been fully or partially closed and considering all of us are attempting to remediate, irrespective of all the financial hurdles we are having to cross, an attempt to term the sector as “unsafe” is not beneficial for the four million people who live to wake up next morning to make it to their factories that provide them the bread that they live by. Critiquing Bangladesh’s progress in remediation deserves more in-depth studies, upon completion of which, I am certain that the entire industry’s effort will be aptly assessed and hailed.

Nowhere in the world would any industrial sector be able to turn around so well and as fast as we have done so far. This is where Bangladesh outshines the rest of the world and no report, and no photo coverage can ever steal that little bit of pride away from any of us.