Silver threads, frayed seams

Until

Garment workers on their way to work, early in the morning, in Dhaka. Bangladesh earns more than $12 billion in garment exports, mainly to the United States and the European Union. The sector has employed about 2 million workers, mostly women, with the official minimum monthly wage for a new garment worker starting at 3,000 takas ($45). Dhaka, Bangladesh. September 12, 2012.

Drik Calendar 2014

Well-worn flip flops walk briskly along well-travelled footpaths. Brightly coloured bangles jangle against tiffin carriers. Clutching vanity bags with lipstick, mobile phones and perhaps a photograph, they smile and chatter, take a quick glance at their watch. These are the new professionals. Proud, confident, skilled and determined to take charge of their destiny.

The garment industry is undeniably a significant force in Bangladesh. Generating some three-quarters of its foreign exchange earnings and employing some three million women, the sector has provided alternatives for working class women. Led to the nation’s robust economic growth.

The repression of labour movements and woefully inadequate working conditions have left festering wounds resulting in stoppages and unrest. While not all owners are guilty, large numbers have taken the simple route of profit at all costs. Culpability lies at all levels. The end users who don cheap clothes without insisting on ethical employment conditions, buyers and retailers who turn a blind eye to faulty production practices, factory owners who live plush lives while ignoring the inhumanity of working conditions and below-poverty wages and governments who cater for a powerful owner lobby while ignoring and repressing workers.

Recent disasters are by no means the only accidents. Neither are these factories the only unsafe ones. It is time to come clean. Sheltering guilty owners does nothing to improve the health of the industry. It also undermines the owners who do run safe factories with good working conditions, and provide a fair wage.

Until the ‘business plan’ includes decent living conditions for workers, until workers are recognised as fellow human beings, until death caused by willful negligence is recognised as homicide and appropriate punishment meted out – the Ranas and Tazreens will be mere flagposts  along  a path mapped by workers’ blood.

Until those who profit from worker’s toil are prepared to wipe the worker’s brow, the clean clothes we wear will continue to bear the indelible blood stains of our lost brothers and sisters.

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The class difference between owners and workers, the power relationship between buyers and producers and the nexus between the owners and the government are reinforced through complex documents, generally in English, that determine the terms of engagement. These documents help preserve the 33-fold wage difference between a Bangladeshi worker and one in the US. Present day exploitative conditions remind us of earlier times when trade in Indian cotton textiles enabled Europeans to purchase slaves in pre-colonial Africa and helped develop the Atlantic economy in the eighteenth century.

THE CRUSHED REMNANTS OF AN OFFICE FILE DETAILING WORK ORDERS, FOUND UNDER THE RUBBLE OF RANA PLAZA, SAVAR, DHAKA. JUNE 2013. PHOTO © AYON REHAL

 Anu Muhammad, “Bangladesh RMG: Global chain of profit and deprivation,” opinion.bdnews24.com, May 17, 2013 and, Kazuo Kobayashi, “Indian cotton textiles in the eighteenth-century Atlantic economy,” www.blogs.lse.ac.uk, June 27, 2013

Abir Abdullah, ASM Rezaur Rahman, Binimoy Printers Ltd., Doli Akter, Emad Uddin Fazlullah, Md. Moinul Hassan Tapu, Md. Mostafa Sorower, Md. Shafiul Azam Khan Tushar, Munem Wasif, Rabi Shankar Ain, Rahnuma Ahmed, Saydia Gulrukh, Shahidul Alam and Tanzim Wahab were involved in the production of this calendar.

—————————————————————————————————————–January I borrowed them, the sari, necklace and bangles from my friend Mita, to get my studio photo taken. − Sumaya

Mita died in the Tazreen factory fire. Sumaya, a survivor, is on her deathbed as this calendar goes to press, dying due to an aggressive and rapidly escalating tumor behind her right eye, possibly triggered by the chemical fumes she inhaled when trapped at Tazreen.

STUDIO PORTRAIT OF SUMAYA, BARELY SIXTEEN, AND EMPLOYED AT TAZREEN FASHIONS IN NISCHINTAPUR. ASHULIA, DHAKA. EARLY-2012. PHOTO © RATNA STUDIO, NISCHINTAPUR

February The garment industry employs more than three million workers, mostly women.

In the early morning, Dhaka becomes a city of women. − Jeremy Seabrook

OFF TO WORK, MIRPUR, DHAKA. SEPTEMBER 12, 2012. PHOTO © AM AHAD

March Things are a bit better now, says [Mushrefa] Mishu, who has been organising workers, and fighting for their rights for the last thirteen years. It was far worse in the beginning. − from ‘She had a dream,’ 2008

ELEVEN MEMBERS OF A GARMENT WORKER’S FAMILY SLEEP AT NIGHT, CRAMMED INTO A SMALL SPACE. MIRPUR, DHAKA. JUNE 11, 2009. PHOTO © TASLIMA AKHTER

April Salma, barely twenty, felt ill, and wanted to go home. Forced to work overtime,  she crawled under the machine at night to rest. The next day, she died at home.

Garment workers stage a demonstration against the death of a fellow worker Salma, who used to work at the Esco Garment in Mirpur, Shawrapara area. She died because of working mandatory overtime in her illness. Dhaka, Bangladesh. January 15, 2008.

May As the stench of rotting corpses lodged in the crevices of Rana Plaza wafts over the country, it marks out the vast majority − grieving for [their] brothers and sisters sacrificed at the altar of capital − from the small minority, who wield political and economic power, and feed off human flesh. − rahnuma ahmed

RANA PLAZA, WHICH HOUSED FIVE GARMENT FACTORIES, COLLAPSED LEADING TO THE DEATHS OF MORE THAN 1,130 WORKERS AND SEVERE INJURIES TO THOUSANDS MORE. SAVAR, DHAKA. APRIL 25, 2013. PHOTO © RAHUL TALUKDER

June This image, while deeply disturbing, is also hauntingly beautiful. An embrace in death, its tenderness rises above the rubble to touch us where we are most vulnerable. By making it personal, it refuses to let go. This is a photograph that will torment us in our dreams. Quietly it tells us. Never again. − Shahidul Alam

Embrace of death. Nobody knows who they are or their relationship, but the cruel reality made them come closer. Perhaps they were trying to save each other in the final moment of their lives amid the death trap of Rana Plaza. Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. April 24, 2013.

July The struggle of man [sic] against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. − Milan Kundera

Rehana, one of the survivors of the collapsed building of Rana Plaza, visits the site in Savar on 14 June 2013. She was trapped under the damaged building for six hours and got injured in her back bone. Reports state that 1,130 workers died and nearly 2,500 were rescued alive after the eight-storey building that housed mostly garment factories, collapsed on 24 April 2013. Savar, Bangladesh. June 14, 2013.

August How long do family members wait for those “missing”? An ember still burns refusing to be gutted out. What if…?

Poster of a missing garments worker named Asma Akhter on the wall of Adhad Chandra High School in Savar, Near Dhaka, Bangladesh. May 7, 2013.

September It is of course a tragedy of enormous proportions but by terming it (only) a ‘tragedy,’ we shield those criminally responsible. It leads us to think, such is the destiny of the poor and the illiterate, no one is to blame. But is that true?

Bangladeshi youths stage a demonstration against the deaths of the garment workers, in a devastating fire accident at the Tazreen Fashions Limited, in Savar, late on 24th November 2012. Reports state that more than 100 people were killed in the accident. Dhaka, Bangladesh. December 16, 2012.

October We were thrilled to be invited to perform at the factory site… [but] we were a bit scared… to perform as part of a movement which is up against such overwhelming odds… We did the show, we joined the procession, we felt we belonged. − Saiful Islam Jarnal, Prachyanat

Prachyanat stages Agun Khela, a street play, near the devastated Tazreen factory in Nischintapur, Dhaka. January 25, 2013.  Photo ? AM Ahad
Prachyanat stages Agun Khela, a street play, near the devastated Tazreen factory in Nischintapur, Dhaka. January 25, 2013.
Photo ? AM Ahad

November Our main problem with the enormously wealthy and all-powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), is that it rushes to protect killer factory-owners whenever factory fires or other disasters occur. For the garment industry to survive, the BGMEA must fundamentally change its philosophy and agenda. − Rokeya Bahini

Relatives and victims of the collapsed building of Rana Plaza, Savar, staged a rally in front of BGMEA building for compensations. Dhaka, Bangladesh. July 21, 2013.

December An amorous secret shared? A faux pas? A half forgotten nothing? It is joy stolen from the rubble. Life celebrated, against all odds. Defiance till the last. − Shahidul Alam

Bangladeshi garment worker Mariyam, 30, who worked on the 6th floor of Rana Plaza, shares a joke with her sister at Enam Medical College, in Savar, near Dhaka. Mariyam had her right arm amputated to free her from the rubble when she was rescued nearly 72 hours after the building collapsed. Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. June 19, 2013.

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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