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Bangladesh and Us

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

You know a corner's been turned when someone in a legion of foreign sweatshop workers is given a face. That's happened in Bangladesh, home of hideous factory conditions -- as seen in the ruins of Rana Plaza, a former eight-story work warren. Death toll: over 600.

And the face has been given a name, Shaheena. Deemed unworthy at birth of a last name, Shaheena became a national symbol of endurance. The world watched as her body, trapped but alive for several days, finally gave out in the smoke set off by rescuers trying to free her.

Sensitive Americans now reconsidering their purchase of an $8 made-in-Bangladesh T-shirt should think carefully. They should first hear Shaheena's story.

Age 38 and sole provider for her son, Shaheena moved in with her sister's family. She needed $25 for her share of the advance on rent in a new, cheaper apartment -- no easy feat for one making $100 a month toiling till midnight. So she worked all the time in dismal surroundings. She worked past warnings that the factory building had developed dangerous cracks.

A brutal life, it sounds to us. But this factory job gave Shaheena the wherewithal to leave an allegedly abusive husband while pregnant. And as awful as the pay and working conditions seem to outsiders, these jobs were a step up for the many women whose only other option was rural destitution -- all day outside, scratching the soil for even less money. In this poor, mostly Muslim country, women factory workers have become labor leaders. Theirs are the first female voices being raised.

Bangladesh is home to 3.5 million garment workers, most of them women. Other Asian countries started off as sweatshop nations, then moved onward and upward. Taiwan, South Korea and China are examples. Their low-wage advantage fueled their economic growth, eventually empowering the workers themselves. Today, the millions of Chinese emerging from poverty tend to live in the manufacturing coastal cities. The rural interior remains dirt poor. Rising wages in China are now prompting some manufacturers to leave for cheaper places, such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

If Bangladesh follows this pattern, its workers' status will rise. But what might consumers do in the meantime? Should we be buying preppie polos and Western jeans -- sold at Wal-Mart, Sears, H&M and Gap, among other retailers -- made under these horrible circumstances?

After all, we'd be helping a government that has neglected to enforce the most basic labor and safety laws -- laws already on its books. This government has ignored harassment, even murder, of workers trying to unionize. Factory owner families apparently control 10 percent of the seats in Bangladesh's parliament.

But if we don't buy products from Bangladesh, we send workers like Shaheena No-Last-Name back to non-personhood.

Change must come at the hands of Bangladeshis, and a series of workplace tragedies already has them in the streets. When arrested, Rana Plaza's owner needed a human shield of guards and a police helmet. Otherwise, angry crowds might have torn him apart. A Bangladeshi court has seized his money.

Still, it's not without qualms that one goes through the stores, seeing fashion carefully marketed to avoid the place of manufacture. You see labels saying "styled in France" or "fabric from Italy." Or you see local logos and Americana prints. I spotted a retro apron, with a down-home print and made-in-China label. It was being sold in, of all places, Whole Foods.

But this sort of trade is what moves countries and their people out of economic misery. In the end, it creates better lives for them and new consumers for us. No one said progress was pretty.

COPYRIGHT 2013 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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