Planet Money
4:24 pm
Thu December 26, 2013

The Tragic Number That Got Us All Talking About Our Clothing

Originally published on Thu December 26, 2013 4:31 pm

1,134 is the official government death toll of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. The building, which collapsed in April, was home to five garment factories.

But this number isn't just about a horrible tragedy — it's about what happened next. After the collapse, the reaction outside Bangladesh was immediate. Twenty-six North American brands, including Gap, Wal-Mart and the Children's Place, formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. A separate group led by European brands and companies signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh with local unions in the country. In November, the two groups got together with representatives from the Bangladesh government to agree on unified factory inspection standards.

"Before Rana Plaza, the factory owners had 26 brands that were coming to them with different requirements; now you've got the 26 brands of the alliance all speaking with one voice," says Jeff Krilla, the alliance's president. "We all now have one set of standards."

Krilla says his group is set to start conducting inspections with the new standards next month. Meantime, inspectors working on behalf of the Bangladeshi government say progress has been slow because of political turmoil inside the country. Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, a professor at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, says his group, which is assisting the government, has only been able to inspect around 60 factories in the past month. The group is assigned to check about 1,000 factories not covered by the alliance or the accord.

Inside Bangladesh, the reaction to Rana Plaza wasn't just about safety. With the world suddenly watching Bangladesh more closely, workers there saw an opportunity. This was going to be their moment to push for better working conditions and higher wages.

When I visited the country a couple of months after the building collapse, there was lots of talk about safety and working conditions, but more than anything, workers told me what they wanted was to make more money.

I met 32-year-old Shumi Hossain at an orientation for new union members in Dhaka. She told me something that a lot of workers in Bangladesh told me: Her No. 1 concern was salary and how much she was paid for overtime. Her No. 2 concern was abusive managers.

Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed was leading the training at the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, where I met Hossain. He told me that before Rana Plaza, the government was reluctant to give unions official recognition.

"There is a negative mindset that if there is [a] union, then it will disturb the growth of the industry. But because of all the disaster and everything, there was numerous pressure[s] on government, so government is slowly changing their position," said Ahmed.

According to Ahmed, the government approved close to 100 unions in the six months following the collapse. These unions can now have official negotiations with factory owners, but they are also taking to the streets.

This fall, there were massive protests around garment factories in Bangladesh. Workers were protesting for higher wages. Factories were vandalized and forced to close. Some workers were killed in clashes with police.

The result of this activity was a new number for Bangladesh: On Dec. 1, eight months after the building collapse, Bangladesh increased its minimum wage from about $39 a month to $68 a month.

Of course, like a lot of agreements like this, it's a number that not everyone is happy with.

Sirajul Islam Rony was on the government wage board representing the workers.

"We are not overly happy about it, but we are fine with it. With this rise, maybe [the workers'] situation will improve a little bit, but not much," Rony says. "It won't be a really meaningful improvement."

The increase was much less than the workers were asking for; they wanted over $100 a month — way more than the factory owners wanted to pay.

Rubana Huq runs a group of garment factories in Bangladesh making dress shirts and blazers. She says Bangladesh's competitive advantage has been its cheap labor. She worries that if wages go too high, Western brands will leave. She says the new minimum wage is a good compromise.

"It's going to be good for the workers," says Huq. "It's going to be a little tough for the owners, but I think we shall survive."

With this new number, Bangladesh has narrowed the gap between its wages and the wages of other big garment producers, like India and Vietnam. But even with the increase, Bangladesh is still pretty much the cheapest place in the world to make a T-shirt.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

As 2013 wraps up, NPR is looking at the numbers that tell the year's biggest stories. We're going to focus now on a tragic numbers. It got us all talking about our clothing this year, where it comes from, who makes it and under what conditions.

Here's Planet Money's Caitlin Kennedy with that number.

CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: One thousand one hundred and thirty-four is the official government death toll of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. The building was home to five garment factories. Days after the accident in April, the BBC spoke to one survivor, a young girl named Sunali(ph).

SUNALI: (Through Translator) I was on the third floor. After the accident, I was inside the building for three days unconscious, lying on the floor. Then I was rescued and taken to hospital. When I got my senses back, I saw my mother was missing. My mother was working alongside me in the factory.

KENNEY: The reaction outside Bangladesh was immediate. Twenty-six North American brands, including Gap, Wal-Mart and the Children's Place, got together with another group of European brands and came up with stricter factory inspection standards.

Jeff Krilla is head of the North American group.

JEFF KRILLA: Before Rana Plaza, the factory owners had 26 brands that were coming to them with different requirements. Now you've got the 26 brands of the alliance that are all speaking in one voice. We all now have one set of standards.

KENNEY: With the world suddenly watching Bangladesh more closely, workers in the country saw an opportunity. This was going to be their moment to push for better working conditions and higher wages.

I was in Bangladesh a couple of months after the tragedy, reporting on the manufacture of T-shirts. And yes, people were talking about Rana Plaza and talking about safety. But again and again, the number one thing factory workers told me that they needed was to make more money.

Thirty-two-year-old Shumi Hossain worked as a quality inspector in a factory making boys' shirts.

SHUMI HOSSAIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEY: Shumi told me some things that a lot of workers in Bangladesh told me: Her number one concern was not safety in the factories but her salary and how much she got paid for overtime. Her number two concern was abusive managers. And so, to fight for changes in these areas, Shumi and the many other workers, like her in Bangladesh, are joining unions.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAINING CLASS)

KENNEY: I met Shumi at this training for new union members at the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies. Sultan Uddin Ahmed was leading the training. He told me before Rana Plaza, the government was reluctant to give unions official recognition.

SULTAN UDDIN AHMED: There is a negative mindset that if there is a union, then it will disturb the growth of the industry. But because of, you know, all the disaster and everything, there were numerous pressures on government, so government is slowly changing their position.

KENNEY: Ahmed says the government approved close to 100 unions in the six months following the collapse. These unions can now have official negotiations with factory owners, but they are also taking to the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)

KENNEY: Our translator in Bangladesh, Salman Sayed(ph), captured this sound: police sirens, tear gas and rubber bullets at a big protest outside the capital city of Dhaka in November. The protests continued for months. Factories were vandalized and forced to close, some workers were killed in clashes with police.

The result of this activity after Rana Plaza was a new number, a new minimum wage. On December 1st of this year, eight months after the collapse of Rana Plaza, Bangladesh increased its minimum wage from about $39 a month to $68 a month. But, like a lot of agreements like this, it's a number that not everyone is happy with.

Sirajul Islam Rony was on the government wage board representing the workers.

SIRAJUL ISLAM RONY: (Through Translator) We are not overly happy about it but we are fine with it. With this rise, maybe the workers' situation will improve a little bit, but not much. It won't be a really meaningful improvement.

KENNEY: The increase was much less than the workers were asking for - they wanted over a hundred dollars a month - and way more than the factory owners wanted to pay.

RUBANA HUQ: It's going to be good for the workers. It's going to be a little tough for the owners, but I think we shall survive.

KENNEY: Rubana Huq runs a group of garment factories in Bangladesh making dress shirts and blazers. She says Bangladesh's competitive advantage has been its cheap labor. She worries that if wages were to go too high, Western brands might leave the country. And that worry is part of why the country arrived at this number, at $68 a month.

With that new number, Bangladesh has narrowed the gap between its wages and the wages of other big garment producers, places like India and Vietnam. But even with the increase, Bangladesh is still the cheapest place in the world to make a T-shirt.

Caitlin Kenney, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.