DHAKA – In April, the Rana Plaza tragedy once again cast a grim spotlight on the underbelly of Bangladesh’s ready- made garment industry. More than 1130 people died when the multi-story building on the outskirts of Dhaka collapsed, most of them garment workers earning the world’s lowest wages. The toll was so great that after years of foot-dragging, major Western brands agreed to a pair of landmark accords that commit them to invest in factory safety upgrades, greater transparency and an end to illegal sub-contracting that has left dangerous gaps in their supply chains.
Late this summer I traveled back to Bangladesh to investigate how authorities and foreign brands were making good on their promises. There were some hopeful signs. Fires and other deadly accidents were less frequent, and workers confident enough to stage protests for higher wages. But in a country as poor and corrupt as they come, cleaning up such a lucrative industry is easier said than done. Factory inspections are going slowly, hamstrung by a shortage of experts and a lack of coordination. And big American and European brands have failed to provide substantial compensation to scores of victims and their families. Many have yet to receive anything.
Making the workplace safe across the industry will take a long time. But the reality is that garment making in Bangladesh still provides crucial employment for millions of people with few prospects. There is a powerful drive to earn, particularly among women who are the industry’s backbone. Most are proud of the fact that they work six days a week, 12 hours a day, gaining more independence and respect as family breadwinners. This is the side of the industry that is often lost in all the bad news. Before leaving, my partner Susie Taylor and I decided it was time to shift the focus.
In collaboration with artist JR’s global Inside Out Project and CounterFoto, an upstart photo agency founded by my friend Saiful Haq Omi, we installed mural-sized pictures of garment workers on the walls and roofs of the capital’s largest slum, Korail, part of a day-long event that also included a community clean up. The black-and-white images – a mix of gritty portraits, galleries and giant eyes – are visible from the bustling streets and posh high-rise condos that loom across the water. They reflect the workers’ hopes and fears. And whether joyful, sad, vacant or defiant, they demand everyone’s attention. One hopes that they are not forgotten any time soon.