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The Tragic Number That Got Us All Talking About Our Clothing

A Bangladeshi worker participates in a protest outside a garment factory in Dhaka.
A.M. Ahad
A Bangladeshi worker participates in a protest outside a garment factory in Dhaka.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlin Kenney