If shirts could speak and 'we the people' would listen

Anita Roddick
11 September 2007

I’ve just returned from Bangladesh, and I am angry. Not, of course, with the people. They were beautiful, and incredibly warm and open, inviting us into their humble homes and often sitting with us into the night in small, windowless, poorly-lit union offices telling us stories of their lives as garment workers. They answered all of our questions with patience, and asked questions of their own.

I am angry because of what is happening to these workers, who sew our garments. There are two million garment workers in Bangladesh, and 85% of them are young women 16-25 years old. Each year they sew $2.8 billion worth of clothing for export to Europe and another $2 billion for the United States.

These are some of their stories.

Economist Farida Khan replies here to Anita Roddick, arguing that the garment industry is vital to overcoming poverty in Bangladesh.

Women who sew garments for one of the best-known entertainment companies in the world are forced to work from 8.00 am to 10.00 pm – fifteen hours a day, seven days a week – for just 20 cents an hour. They were allowed one day off in the last four months. They are cheated of their overtime pay, and are always paid two or three weeks late.

On 18 January, during lunch, a group of workers went to ask the factory manager to please pay their wages on time. The manager grabbed a young worker by the throat and started slapping him screaming, “how dare you come into my office!” The manager made a call on his cell phone and within minutes five gang members carrying pistols arrived. They began beating the workers, punching them, hitting them with sticks, knocking them to the ground and kicking them. More than twenty workers were beaten. The manager used his cell phone again, and shortly the police arrived. The gang members handed the workers over to the police, who arrested and imprisoned eight of them for two weeks.

The workers are now out on bail, but face long prison sentences on the trumped-up charge that they destroyed over $100,000 of factory property. All the workers were fired, and the wages due to them stolen. They may have to go into hiding.

I spoke with a young woman who sewed baseball caps for one of the best-known sports labels in the world. The caps went to “major league” baseball teams in the United States. She had worked in the factory for six years and her base wage was still just 10 cents an hour, 80 cents a day, or $4.42 a week. She earned 3.5 cents for each cap she sewed. I asked her how much she thought the cap sold for; 20 taka (34 cents), she replied. When I told her that it sells for $20 or more, she was shocked. She could not believe it. How is it possible that a single cap would nearly pay her whole month’s wage?

What do you hope for in your life, I asked. She responded: “No. There are no rays of hope for me. In the future there is only darkness.”

In Bangladesh, when the workers are kept until 10.00 pm, the factories often give the workers a fifteen-minute break from 6.45 to 7.00 pm and provide a free snack of a small banana and a tiny piece of cake. Many of the owners boast to their European and American buyers about this. In a sweater factory, one young man asked the owner if they could have different food, since the banana and the cake were rotten and smelled terrible. The manager responded by beating a young man as he screamed: “What I give you, you will eat.” The man was locked in a room and the police called. The police photographed the offender.

One girl told us her production goal was to sew a pocket every thirty-six seconds, 100 each hour and 1,250 in a twelve and a half hour shift. She sewed pants for one of the best-known apparel labels in the world. The workers were paid just 12 cents for each pair of pants they sewed.

Workers who sew clothing for one of the largest sports retailers in the world, a European company, worked from 8.00 am to 10.00 pm, seven days a week. Before important export shipments, they were kept straight through from 8.00 am to 3.00 am the next day – a nineteen-hour shift. Then they slept on the factory floor, curled up next to their sewing machines. A bell would ring at 7.00 am so they could get ready for their next shift. They were paid 10 cents an hour. The workers reported being slapped and beaten for not reaching their production target.

The workers went on strike demanding one day off a week, an end to all physical abuse and payment of at least the minimum wage. On 3 November 2003, at 5.00 am, the striking workers blocked a trailer truck trying to leave the factory. The owner called in the police, who opened fire, killing at least six people. The police attacked the workers with clubs, beating men and women. Forty-nine people were hospitalised. People outside could hear the screams and groans of the women still in the factory.

One 13-year-old child worker who was shot in the stomach said she is “still haunted by the terrible scenes of that night, and I can’t forget the horror of the attack.” The police bound a score of young women by roping their legs together as if they were cattle.

One young man operating a button machine had a needle go right through his finger. The manager gave him 10 taka (17 cents), and told him to go home.

A girl who could not have weighed more than 38 kilograms had been sewing women’s underwear for eighteen months. She earned just 7 cents an hour and 56 cents a day – less than the legal minimum wage. When I asked her how they got away with it, her answer was: “What can I do?”

Women who sew some of the best-known labels in Europe and the United States repeatedly told us that they needed permission – a “gate pass” – in order to use the bathroom, a maximum of twice a day. Women told us they were cheated of their legal maternity leave with benefits. When they reach 35 years of age, they are forced out of the factory. The managers tell them: “You can’t keep up. You’re exhausted and you can’t see well anymore.” The companies want to replace them with another crop of young girls. If the workers try to organise, they are beaten and fired from their jobs.

Corporations and responsibility

One worker explained their situation like this: “We feel like prisoners. There is no value in our lives. We are like slaves. Our hands are bound and our mouths are stopped.” Every worker told us that if the owners knew they were meeting with us, they would be fired.

Some workers took us to their homes. They live in one-room, dirt-floored huts, perhaps three metres by four metres in size, made of scrap metal, wood and plastic. Four or more people share this one room. Everyone sleeps on a hard wooden platform raised about 300 centimetres off the ground. When it rains, these huts drip with water. In the rainy season, the workers’ neighbourhoods flood, and filth and sewage wash right into their homes, often rising close to their sleeping platforms.

Are the people in these huts lazy and unwilling to work for a living? Quite the opposite. These are diligent, hard-working people stretched to the limit by the conditions in which they are forced to labour. A mother and her 14-year-old daughter both worked in the garment factories from 8.00 am to 10.00 pm, seven days a week. Some months, they had to work between ten and fifteen shifts of nineteen hours each, until 3.00 am. But their wages still averaged only 15 cents an hour.

In these neighbourhoods, up to sixty people share one outdoor water pump, and the water is filthy. There is one outhouse, really just a hole in the ground, and two or three shared gas burners for cooking. Early in the morning and late at night, there are long queues as people wait their turn.

I asked the mother if she knew that she and the other garment workers in Bangladesh worked as hard, if not harder, than any women anywhere in the world. She replied: “I don’t know other countries. Here, people work, and I only know how I work.”

Next door, two families, a total of eight people, had to share this single room. One woman living there told us she worked fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. She earned 10 cents an hour.

One workers’ housing complex was actually built on bamboo stilts over a stagnant, polluted lake. It had two storeys. The entire structure was build of wood and corrugated metal, some of it rotted out. The floors and ceilings were rough wooden planks. The rooms were tiny, measuring eight-by-eight feet. There were no windows. There was very little light. In the summer the rooms heat up like ovens. In the rainy season they leak. It’s noisy at all hours of the day and night. 2,000 people live there. When anyone walks, the bamboo rocks and the metal creaks. One garment worker we spoke with was holding her infant. The company had not given the maternity benefits due to her. The baby had to eat whatever they would find. There was no special food. If the child ever got sick, they would need to borrow money to be able to go to the doctor.

I have not yet mentioned the companies by name for a reason. But they know who they are. We, my fellow campaigners and I, want to give the companies a chance to clean up their practices – before we consider naming names.

The corporations claim that they have codes of conduct that guarantee the human and worker rights of anyone anywhere in the world making their products. They ask us to trust them. They say they are seriously monitoring their contractors’ plants. In reality though, their monitoring seems to be a joke. If it is applied at all it is failing miserably.

I want to ask the corporations:

  • why do your monitors not drive out at night, say at 10.00 pm, or midnight, or even 2.00 or 3.00 am, to see your contractors’ plants still operating? Why do your monitors not visit these plants on Friday, the Muslim holiday, to witness the plants still operating?


  • why do your monitors never interview workers away from the plant, in a safe location and in the presence of local human rights groups whom the workers trust? (You know as well as I do that any worker interviewed in the factory who speaks truthfully about bad working conditions will immediately be fired the minute you leave). Why do your monitors never ask to visit the workers in their homes? (I have done all these things, and I can tell you, it is not hard to do.)


  • are you ashamed of the abject poverty your workers are trapped in? Does it not strike you as odd that there is not a single union operating with a contract in any of the 3,700-plus garment factories, despite the abuse, excessive hours and starvation wages? Do you think repression could be a factor?
In brief: the companies must turn monitoring from a charade into a reality. It is time to get serious.

World trade and human lives

But it is not just the corporations who are responsible – it is also the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

2,000 new garment factories opened in Bangladesh between 1994 and 2003, and apparel exports during this period grew by more than 300% – from $1.56 billion to $4.912. The garment industry is booming. A good example of the magic of trade? But if so, why are 2 million, mostly young women, garment workers left behind, stripped of their rights – in their own words, trapped like slaves – paid just cents an hour, working exhausting hours and seven-day weeks, living in utter misery, then discarded, penniless and exhausted, when they reach 35 years of age? What have these women done wrong?

The answer is: nothing. They are some of the hardest workers in the world, and they deserve to be treated as human beings. What is needed is not to make their lives even harder by depriving them of the ability to work in these factories, but to enforce rules designed to ensure that their rights to proper livelihood, dignity, respect, care and rest as valued employees are guaranteed and sustained.

Trade in and of itself will never bring social justice. The truth is that as unfettered corporate power grows, the workers suffer. Consider one of the largest retail corporations in the world, many of whose sweatshop workers are surviving under the severest pressure.

Three years ago, this company paid its contractors in Bangladesh $38 per dozen sports shirts they made ($3.17 each). This represented the total cost of production – including all materials, labour, overhead and profit to the contractor.

Today, for the exact same shirts, the company pays just $26 per dozen ($2.17 each). This cut of $1 per shirt amounts to more than a 30% drop in the price the company is willing to pay – even though compound inflation in Bangladesh is 25.6% in these three years.

Such monster companies are doing this across the developing world, imposing a form of blackmail on local factory managers by telling them to accept the constantly lower prices or lose desperately needed work. Behind everyday low prices are workers trapped in near slave-labour conditions, paid starvation wages and living in misery.

Moreover, it is about to get worse. For years, the apparel trade has been governed by bilateral agreements which have provided developing countries with a set quota, or amount of apparel they could export to the US or Europe. Each year, the quotas were increased. Now, in January 2005, the WTO plans to abolish apparel and textile quotas. Across the developing world, millions of crushingly poor garment workers could lose their jobs.

No one knows exactly what will happen when the WTO lifts the quotas, but some industry leaders predict that:

  • 50% of all apparel factories in the world could close


  • The 38 major apparel producer countries will be narrowed to 12-15


  • The apparel industry in sub-Saharan Africa will be wiped out; the Philippines, Indonesia and Mexico will also suffer. Bangladesh will be on the borderline, though by some estimates it could lose as many as a million jobs


  • China will be the big winner, within a short time possibly accounting for 80% of all apparel imports to the US. Vietnam, Pakistan and India are also expected to emerge as winners


  • Apparel prices could fall by 15-30%


  • Millions of garment workers across the developing world, mostly young women, could find themselves thrown out in the street, jobless and penniless


  • Already weak governments could be destabilised
Alongside the havoc and spreading misery, the struggle for human, women’s and worker rights will be even further reversed around the developing world, as the desperate struggle to keep jobs takes precedence over all other issues. Fear will spread; trade unions and NGOs highlighting workers’ rights will be attacked as traitors for jeopardising their countries’ jobs.

It threatens to become a race to the bottom on steroids. It will be a field day for the corporations, as standards and wages all across the developing world are lowered.

More than ever before, we need fundamental standards of human, women’s and worker rights and environmental protections, beneath which we will not allow the corporations to go. Since the WTO will always serve corporate interests, “we the people” need to take matters into our own hands and hold the corporations accountable.

In Bangladesh, women garment workers do not know where the clothing they sew is sent to; all they know is that it goes “outside”. The workers have never even heard of the multinational companies they ultimately work for and have no idea how much the goods they make cost. When you ask these women whether or not they imagine that the people in Europe or the US think or care about them when they purchase the garments they make, they reply “no”.

This is why I say “if shirts could only speak; if we would only listen”. We need to break through to each other. There is a human being behind that label. She is our sister. That garment holds the story of her life. If we ignore it, if we do not care to understand, she suffers. And so do we. As I’ve tried to say so many times, if we do not take it personally, the corporations will continue to commodify, trivialise and exploit every aspect of our lives.

A campaign for accountability

This is a first step my colleagues and I discussed with our NGO partners on the ground in Bangladesh and with the National Labour Committee. In Bangladesh, the garment workers have the legal right to three months’ maternity leave with full pay. Yet, in over 90% of the factories, where women are sewing some of the best-known labels in Europe and America, this right to maternity leave with benefits is routinely violated. For the women and their infants, this is literally a matter or life and death, since their below-subsistence wages mean that they have no savings in reserve.

Thus, we are launching a popular, grassroots campaign to shame the largest apparel companies in Europe and the US into signing a pledge that any worker sewing garments in Bangladesh will be guaranteed her maternity leave with pay. The companies that are smart enough to sign up will be listed in our websites. Those who refuse will be even more prominently displayed, and we will do everything in our power to circulate their names everywhere and in every way we can.

This is a new campaign model. It is not an anti-corporate campaign targeting one company; rather, it is an attempt to establish a fundamental human right which global corporations cannot be allowed to violate for fear of their profits.

If this works, we can move on to other fundamental human and worker rights, establishing minimum standards which the companies will be obliged to respect and enforce. As people, as consumers, we have the chance to hold corporations accountable. We aim to do so, one right at a time.

We are just starting out on this project. Please be patient, bear with us as we get the facts watertight. It will take time to produce a list of the major companies/labels being sewn in Bangladesh. Once this is done, we will urge people to write to these companies to secure their pledge.

This might seem like a small step. But if the race to the bottom accelerates in the global sweatshop economy, we, the people, must find ways to take back our world and make it human, not inhuman. The small start proposed here is achievable. Together, we can win it and then the next!


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