Inside Bangladesh’s garment factories: life and work in a dangerous industry

By Homa Khalil The Guardian.

Gazi Nafis Ahmed’s photographs of clothing factory workers in Bangladesh reveal some of the grinding poverty and ever-present dangers they face day after day. Nafis is an alumni of Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and in the VII Mentor Program

A mother preparing supper after a nine-hour shift in a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She has worked in factories for 34 years. ©Gazi Nafis Ahmed /VII Mentor Program

Workers rush injured colleagues away for treatment after an explosion in a boiler room at a garment factory in Dhaka. © Gazi Nafis Ahmed /VII Mentor Program

Khadija is cradling her 12-hour-old baby in her arms. All she wants, she tells photographer Gazi Nafis Ahmed, is for her daughter to have a better life than she has had: which means enough food, shelter, education and healthcare.

The garment factory worker is just one of countless men and women whose lives Ahmed has documented in the past four years for his poignant series of pictures, entitled Made in Bangladesh.

Shahana, aged 22 (left), and Hasina, aged 18 (right), at work in the sewing section of a garment factory in Rampura, Dhaka. © Gazi Nafis Ahmed /VII Mentor Program

Although the fashion they create fills our high-street shops, Bangladeshi workers are among the lowest-paid in the industry anywhere in the world, and they often have to toil in terrifying conditions.

Toxic industrial waste seeps into the ground from a dyeing factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh. © Gazi Nafis Ahmed /VII Mentor Program

This week the country is reeling from the collapse of the Rana plaza – an eight-storey building in which garment workers were apparently forced to work despite warnings it was unsafe, had large cracks in its walls and the police had ordered that it should be evacuated. So far at least 377 people are thought to have died.

Tin-shed housing in Gazipur, Bangladesh is typical of the sub-standard housing occupied by workers in garment factories. © Gazi Nafis Ahmed /VII Mentor Program

But the latest tragedy is just one in a long line of disasters that have claimed the lives of Bangladeshi clothing workers. In November last year112 workers burned alive in a factory with no fire exits. In 2010 27 people died and more than 100 were injured in a fire in a factory that made clothes for high-street retailer Gap.

Yet Ahmed’s work highlights the less eye-catching dangers, too. One picture shows the aftermath of a boiler explosion that injured six people, and another the grinding poverty that keeps six members of one family living in a bamboo hut. One woman, pictured staring bleakly at the camera, explains how she was forced to hide in the toilet for two days by her employers in case buyers who had come to inspect the factory she works in discovered she was pregnant. Later she was sacked instead of being given maternity pay.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

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