Fashion Victims

How the denim industry’s downward price pressure exposes Bangladesh’s garment workers to lung disease

At Dhaka’s Latest Washing and Blasting Industries, workers only have a cotton rag to protect them. ALLISON JOYCE FOR THE CARAVAN
At Dhaka’s Latest Washing and Blasting Industries, workers only have a cotton rag to protect them. ALLISON JOYCE FOR THE CARAVAN
01 July, 2010

About 24 kilometres from the centre of Dhaka, in the gritty industrial suburb of Savar Upazila, down a narrow path, a small sign reads ‘Latest Washing and Blasting Industries.’ It’s not much more than a large corrugated metal shack with room for three young men, who work shoulder-to-shoulder. In the centre of the shed is a waist-high mound of white sand from the nearby Jamuna River. The young men are armed with pneumatic guns that shoot the sand onto the denim jeans, their hands protected by heavy gloves. A few spurts on each side are all that’s necessary to give the denim that worn, softer look that the fashionistas crave.

There’s no ventilation, save for bullet-sized holes in the metal roof where rays of sunshine look like tangible cylinders from the fine dust and sand in the air. As the men work, there is a cacophony of noise and dust and it’s nearly impossible to breathe—with or without a flimsy cotton face mask that is supposed to provide protection to visitors.

The men who blast this river sand onto the denim jeans have even less protection: their faces are shrouded in

cotton cloths, nothing more. Nearby, a boy a few years shy of puberty carries buckets of sand to feed the machines

as men in their 20s blast away at the garments, only their eyes visible between strips of colourful cloth wound tightly around their heads.

Going through 2,200 cubic feet of sand per month and employing about 30 workers, Latest Washing and Blasting is a medium-sized operation, says manager Mohammed Toiubur Rahman. On the days there aren’t power cuts, it runs 24 hours a day in three shifts. Rahman says there are about 100 factories of similar size in the country. They turn out 150,000 pieces per month.

Rahman says his workers are paid 6,000 to 7,000 taka (4,000 to 4,700 rupees) per month, a decent salary for what he admits are uncomfortable working conditions. “This is hard work, so I give them more money,” he says.

It’s hard to say where these jeans will land. In Rahman’s office, at the far end of the shack where the blasting can still be heard, he offers a business card that boasts: 100% Export Oriented Garments Sand Blasting Industries. There are stacks of denim jeans with labels of no-name brands, but Rahman claims he sandblasts jeans bound for Wal-Mart stores and branded for Gap, H&M, Liberty and Primark.

This is where it gets tricky. Most of these brands deny their jeans are handled by subcontractors (ie. small operations like Rahman’s) pointing out that this explicitly contravenes their codes of conduct. Rahman could be boasting of associations that don’t exist or brands may have less control over their supply chain than they’ll admit. It’s nearly impossible to verify.

But what is undeniable is that the sandblasting of jeans with silica-rich sand is toxic. And the practice that takes place in this metal shack on the outskirts of Dhaka is exposing young men and boys to highly dangerous conditions. The workers here seem unaware of the hazard. “We just have our mask and that’s enough for our protection,” says 20-year-old Mohammad Masud Rana, who’s worked here since he was 18 and lives nearby with his shift-workers in Savar. He seems reluctant to speak further.

Like most of Bangladesh’s sandblasting plants, Latest Washing and Blasting contracts for the export market. ALLISON JOYCE FOR THE CARAVAN

Even Rahman, who seems sincere, earnest and perhaps even flattered to have foreign visitors to his workshop, says the process is safe. “There’s no chemicals, only sand,” he says. “They take two bandannas and that’s all they need. It’s not harmful.”

But this isn’t true. For years, the process of pre-fading jeans for the export market was outsourced to Turkey. But political agitation led by doctors, artists and trade unions eventually forced the hand of the Turkish government, which banned silica abrasives in sandblasting in March 2009. For good reason. The sand used in the machines—natural sand from the beach—contains silica. One of the most common minerals in the earth’s crust, when inhaled it does irreparable damage to the lungs. This causes a disease called silicosis. There have been 600 confirmed cases of garment-industry silicosis in Turkey, with as many as 44 deaths in the past decade.

For years, silicosis was unheard of among textile workers. It’s an occupational disease mostly found among labourers digging in the ground or crushing rocks. In India, silicosis is prevalent among workers who grind and polish gemstones. The Ancient Greeks were known to have identified silicosis among quarry workers, but it took a large-scale industrial disaster involving Union Carbide to bring the disease to the fore.

In 1927, about 3,000 labourers in the US state of West Virginia were working on a tunnel to divert a river in a hydroelectric project. When the workers encountered a high deposit of silica, they were asked to mine it for Union Carbide. No masks were provided and the workers breathed the silica dust as they crushed the mineral. Subsequent hearings by the US government caused the first laws against silica-exposure to be put in place.

In the early 1990s Turkey was emerging as a booming centre for textile exports. This success lured thousands of young men from impoverished areas—ethnic Kurds in the southeast as well as migrants from former Soviet republics like Georgia and Azerbaijan.

“I was a kid when I started in this sector,” recalls Abdulhalim Demir, a 29-year-old ethnic Kurd who at the age of 15 was one of thousands from his predominately Kurdish Bingöl province in eastern Turkey to work in the garment industry. He found work in a shop sandblasting denims to give the pants the worn, slightly distressed look coveted by trendy consumers. “It was easy—they let me sandblast for an hour and then take a 20-minute break.”

Demir did not realise the dangers to which he was exposed. “There is no specific treatment; there is no cure,” says Doctor Zeki Kilicaslan, a professor of pulmonary medicine at Istanbul University and leading activist for afflicted textile workers.

Demir says he worked almost five years as a sandblaster and foreman in shops finishing jeans destined for the international market. He’s since lost half his lung capacity. His condition has stabilised but his doctors say a new infection could be fatal for the father of three.

Now activists in Turkey charge that international brands have taken their business east, where health and safety laws are even weaker. “It’s typical behaviour of a multinational—just jump, jump, jump,” says Engin Sedat Kaya, a trade union leader in Istanbul. “This technique has been

strongly banned in market countries. Maybe this is legal but it’s not ethical.”

One of the few economic success stories to come out of Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, is a garment industry that has grown phenomenally over the past 25 years. Last year garments made up about 80 percent of the country’s 15.5 billion dollars in exports.

Abdhulhalim Demir is at half his lung capacity from silicosis. JACOB RESNECK FOR THE CARAVAN

Major international brands such as Levi Strauss, H&M, Gap and Wal-Mart have shifted more production to a nation where labour is cheap yet has been able to produce quality products. With legions of unemployed men and women desperate for jobs, garment workers have not seen a rise in the minimum wage since 2006, when, after eight years, it was raised from 930 taka (611 rupees) to 1,662 taka

(1,092 rupees) per month. Most now agree that this isn’t enough to survive on—and many opt to work excruciatingly long shifts in order to earn overtime. Outbreaks of violence over pay are not uncommon, which have led the government to agree to form a commission to consider a rise in minimum wage.

Most international brands deny using suppliers that sandblast with silica. Heightened awareness—at least in Turkey and Europe—successfully led to agitation that put brands on the spot. The Gap says it has prohibited the use of silica sand since 2006.

“We’ve not placed any denim orders requiring (silica) sandblasting since 2006,” says Daniel Rubin, a Gap spokesman, via phone from the company headquarters in San Francisco. Other brands take a similar line. “Sandblasting material must contain less than one percent crystalline silica due to health reasons,” H&M spokeswoman Andreas Roos wrote in an email from the company’s headquarters in Sweden.

Rather than use silica-rich natural sand, many brands require aluminium oxide grit be used as an alternative. According to H&M’s own reports, in 2007 three quarters of its suppliers in South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan) were found to be using silica-rich sand. Its follow up report claims that this figure dropped to 18 percent in 2008. Even when aluminium oxide grit is used, some workers are offered no protection at all. But even the more dangerous silica-rich sandblasting continues in Bangladesh and verifying the claims of suppliers and international brands is extremely difficult. “I think it’s a real challenge, monitoring the supply chain,” admits Rubin, the Gap spokesman.

“We require and check that manufacturers take the appropriate steps to avoid silicosis. We apply the same requirements regardless of country of manufacture,” insists Roos, the H&M spokeswoman.

Primark, a budget brand popular in the UK and Ireland, released a statement through a public relations firm in London. It doesn’t deny that its suppliers may use abrasives with silica but rather used the rationale that it follows industry norms. “In general, more than 95 percent of factories that supply Primark also supply other high street/international retail brands,” the statement reads.

In the statement Primark further claims to have invested in a number of measures, including warning signs in factories so that workers are aware of the dangers of exposure to crystalline silica dust. But there is a caveat in the statement: “while third-party suppliers may be aware of the dangers, and have put in place mechanisms to protect workers, these are not sufficient in every case.”

We go to one of the washing plants where the denim jeans are finished before they are ready to ship. Latest Washing and Blasting contracts with about a half-dozen of these washing plants. One of them is S-Bright, just down the road.

Kamal Hossain is the washing plant’s owner and he says “100 percent” of his garments are for export.

Business may be booming but price pressures from brands and larger suppliers further up the chain are causing him grief. “We struggle with price,” he admits. “Buyers, they force it down.” He rattles off figures. Sandblasting, once about 5 dollars per dozen, is now about half that. Washing was once 1.5 dollars per dozen but has dropped to less than a third of that. He complains that only the big players, who control the politically connected Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, are benefiting from Bangladesh’s garment industry miracle. “The BGMEA are getting big money from the brands, but it’s not coming down to me.”

At Mark Sandblasting in a Dhaka suburb, workers lack proper safety gear. ALLISON JOYCE FOR THE CARAVAN

The race to the bottom has a devastating effect on the rights of Bangladesh’s garment workers. Babul Akhter, president of the National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh, which claims 12,000 members in 20 different factories, says, “In Bangladesh, there are a lot of unemployed workers so we cannot really bargain with the owners.”

Less than one percent of Bangladesh’s garment factories are unionised, according to the United States Agency for International Development. This is despite the existence of more than 40 labour unions and around ten labour federations. “The trade union movement in readymade garments has traditionally been very weak,” says Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think-tank. Some of the trade unions are even created by the entrepreneurs in order to give a semblance of an organised workforce.

Khorshed Alam heads the Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society, a non-governmental organisation that—among other things—keeps tabs on other NGOs. “This country is flooded with NGOs,” he says. “It’d be better to open a grocery store than another NGO.” He complains of corruption and incompetence among labour unions that often fight with each other rather than organise workers. “It looks like the unions are pushing for [higher wages] but I saw how the unions were playing a very negative role, joining hands with the owners, taking bribes.”

Getting trade unions to work toward a common cause has also been challenging, agrees Gagan Lal Rajbhandari, deputy director of the International Labour Organization’s mission in Bangladesh. “As in some countries—especially developing countries—there is multiplicity in the trade unions so we are working on ways to bring them together,” Rajbhandari says. “One might say there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

This is evidenced by speaking with ZM Kamrul Anam, the president of Bangladesh Textile and Garment Workers League, which claims a membership roll of 52,000

textile workers. Sandblasting or silicosis aren’t even on

his radar. “In Bangladesh we have not yet heard

anything of this because people are unaware of these safety issues,” he admits.

A dingy high-rise in the commercial centre of Dhaka, the Ministry of Labour’s Inspectorate of Factories has few computers or signs of recent investment. Stacks of papers in binders are piled high among desks, only some showing signs of being used. Shafiqul Islam, a statistician in the department, prints out the roster of workers in the department.

In March of this year, it showed that the factory inspector division had 37 vacancies out of a total of 65 jobs.

“It’s a government policy,” he says with a simple shrug to explain the empty chairs. But that’s not all. “Our main problem is logistical support,” he says, explaining that the department has no vehicles and inspectors are required to ride crowded public buses to visit work sites. “If we had our own transportation we could easily go there.” But instead inspectors are wary of spending half their day sitting in traffic as the clogged buses inch their way through traffic. He relates anecdotes of inspectors falling prey to pickpockets on the bus and being “completely helpless” in garment centres like Gazipur, a two-hour drive from the headquarters in Dhaka.

But factory-level activists seem even more fearful of authorities here.  “Not only my phone, all the people’s phones are monitored,” says Nazma Akhter of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation. As an 18-year-old she began organising in a t-shirt factory where she’d worked alongside her mother since the age of 11. “We were blacklisted, sacked, beaten by police and the management was bringing [in] the goons.”

Three members of Bangladesh’s Special Branch—the intelligence wing of the nation’s police—even pay me a visit while reporting this piece. Akbar Doulat and his two silent colleagues arrive promptly at 9 am in the hotel lobby. They wear ironed shirts, pressed slacks and expensive mobile phones are holstered on gleaming leather belts. They gently question me over coffee. “Garments here is a lot of money,” the policeman says, fingering his yellow collared shirt to emphasise his point. “It’s made here so cheaply and sold out there for so much.”

Being a visitor on a tourist visa, admitting my interest in health and safety in the garment industry would be tantamount to signing my own deportation order. After about an hour, the inspector releases me with a warning. “You are welcome here as a tourist,” says Doulat, his gaze steady. “Stay away from NGOs.” The police have an army of informants, he adds, who would report back on my movements.

Getting inside a garment factory isn’t easy. Plants are constantly the site of unrest over late payments of wages or worker safety. Unless you’re there to do business, the gates are often highly secured. Economic Development Zones—sprawling industrial areas like Savar Upazila on the outskirts of the major cities of Dhaka and Chittagong—produce for international brands with household names.

Getting access to the factories, unless pre-planned and scripted, is even more difficult for doctors. “Even we can’t enter—they don’t allow sometimes,” complains Dr SK Akhtar Ahmad, director of the National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine in Dhaka. “Normally, they don’t allow visitors. If they allow [inspectors] it’s a visit with very limited access.”

It was Turkish doctors that sounded the alarm over silicosis amongst sandblasters. A published study in 2008 found that of 145 former sandblasters examined, 83 percent had respiratory problems and more than half had developed silicosis—evident from chest x-rays. “Considering the high prevalence of silicosis in such workplaces, further problems are inevitable in the future unless effective measures are taken,” wrote lead researcher Dr Metin Akgun at Ataturk University in Erzurum, Turkey.

But medical professionals in Bangladesh have yet to make any connections between lung patients and sandblasting. Dr Mohammad Abul Faiz is a former Director General of Health Services, the office responsible for overseeing the country’s health. He listens intently to a description of the hazards workers blasting jeans are exposed to and admits to being ignorant of the practice but says he’d like to learn more. Clothing manufacturers are often shielded by the government. “The garment industry is a big source of foreign currency for Bangladesh,” he says. “Occupational health is always not addressed appropriately for a variety of reasons.” Faiz says regulations and protections exist but are not always possible to enforce, a point heard again and again in this country.

Levi’s has admitted that Opex Washing’s safety standards are inadequate. ALLISON JOYCE FOR THE CARAVAN

Whether garment workers have fallen ill from silicosis is a question that remains unanswered. Doctors, nurses and even labour advocates have little to no awareness of the risks and it seems unlikely that an impoverished garment worker could reach a lung specialist even if he were to fall ill. “We on the medical side cannot know the technical data because of the lack of studies,” admits Dr Mohammed Shahedur Rahman Khan, assistant professor at the National Institute of Chest Disease and Hospital. An impromptu tour of his hospital’s wards, the second largest in the country, fails to turn up a single former sandblaster, though some had worked around sandblasting and were familiar with the practise.

“I saw with my own eyes that from river sand they treated jeans and other things,” recalls 28-year-old Mohammed Abul Kalam, a patient who had been admitted a week earlier for coughing up blood. “The guys that worked there, the company did not supply them with masks and some could not afford them.”

Most shops we saw had at least paper masks but fell far short of the expensive respiratory masks required when working with silica-rich natural sand. “It’s inadequate,” agrees Dr Mirza Mohammad Hiron, head of the National Institute of Diseases of the Chest and Hospital. “Those paper masks give no protection.” But the only silicosis victims he’s encountered have been stoneworkers.

Yet diagnosing silicosis is difficult, as it shows common symptoms found in other respiratory diseases like asthma or even tuberculosis. “We receive patients with respiratory distress but we often treat it as asthma,” says Dr Ahmedul Kabir, an assistant professor at Dhaka Medical College.

And it’s telling that Dr Mohammad Nazibur Rahman Khan, who runs the largest health clinic in the area and sees many garment workers, says that “in Savar, [in February] there were 95 confirmed cases of tuberculosis.”

With an emasculated labour ministry and ineffectual and corrupt labour sector, policing the health and safety of garment workers has largely been left to the international brands themselves who are most concerned with seeming like good corporate citizens.

Consumer pressure is the only weapon they have to force brands like H&M to protect worker safety. “The power is held in our country, where our companies are inflicting this on the rest of the world,” says British activist Anna McMullen at Labour Behind the Label, a rights group based in England. Around the corner from her office in the English port city of Bristol, the shops advertise brand new fashion jeans for as little as 15 pounds (1,015 rupees) a pair. The downward pressure on consumer prices translates into more pressure on suppliers to produce quickly and cheaply.

McMullen argues that this kind of cheap fashion has a high human cost. This was illustrated in Dhaka when a garment factory under contract with H&M caught fire last March. Workers were locked inside, fire escapes were blocked and 21 people perished while another 50 were seriously injured.

A pipeline supplies sand from the Jamuna River to a factory outside Dhaka. ALLISON JOYCE FOR THE CARAVAN

Recriminations flew and the brand was immediately the target of international condemnation. Like its competitors, H&M has a robust Corporate Social Responsibility department (CSR). These are offices on the ground meant to ensure suppliers comply with minimum health and safety requirements lest the sweatshops become an ethical liability for the brands that they supply.

CSR staffers don’t usually talk to the press. But outside business hours in the cafeteria of Dhaka University, a former student turned CSR officer agrees to speak to me, as long as I don’t reveal his name. He’s since abandoned campus radicalism and gone to work for Wal-Mart.

Since 2002, he says he’s visited about 60 washing plants that use sandblasting and very few are outfitted with proper safety masks. As an industry inspector for Wal-Mart, suppliers have no choice but to open their doors to him,

and he’s seen workers in sandblasting shops exposed to deadly hazards.

“I know in some countries it’s already banned—like in Turkey,” he says. “Now they practice it in different washing plants and they’re just using paper and cotton masks.”

The audit teams hired by international brands are honestly trying to prevent lapses in health and safety, even when the business office is focused on the bottom line. “Brands are mostly concerned with quality and punctual delivery,” he says.

Brands have gone to great lengths to clean up their image, translating into grandiose corporate social responsibility reports, factory auditors and, in the case of Bangladesh, even a letter to the prime minister urging the government to raise the minimum wage in the interests of social stability.

“Unrest among the workers in this sector is seen as a risk among our companies and could cause damage to the reputation of Bangladesh as a reliable sourcing market,” reads the letter signed by a dozen brands, including Levi’s, Wal-Mart, H&M and Gap. “It is a discomforting fact that the current minimum wage level in Bangladesh is below the poverty line calculated by the World Bank and thus does not meet the basic needs of the workers and their families.”

Levi’s and wal-mart were both signatories to this letter. Levi’s began supplying Wal-Mart in 2002; by early 2004, they’d closed the last of their US factories and moved all their production offshore. To be fair, the Levi’s facilities in Bangladesh were some of the safer ones. At Opex Apparel in Dhaka’s Narayanganj District, workers were observed using sandblasting guns that sprayed aluminium oxide grit rather than the cheaper silica-rich natural sand. They were even outfitted with respiratory masks with air being pumped into them. Resembling astronauts, they were fully protected from the clouds of metallic grit that ground the jeans. The only apparent lapse was that the workers sorting pairs of jeans alongside them wore no protection.

After contacting Levi’s to report that not everyone

was wearing their masks, the company responded

within 72 hours to say it had conducted a surprise audit

on the factory.

“We confirmed your reporting, that not all workers in the area were wearing masks,” wrote company spokeswoman Kelley Benander in an email to The Caravan. She said the team had told the factory to draw up a health and safety plan that meets the company’s standards. “We will continue to assess Opex on a regular basis to ensure that this corrective action plan has been implemented.”

If only all suppliers were under so much scrutiny. But they aren’t. Many suppliers subcontract their work to make things cheaper and faster, even though they risk losing lucrative supply contracts if they’re caught. “Sometimes the front office, the front factory, is compliant and you know they can’t supply that much product,” explains Mustafizur Rahman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue. “But they are supplying from subcontracts and those subcontracts may not comply.”

But the bottom line remains the bottom line. Rahman says there’s a disconnect between a brand’s inspector and the in-house buyers whose mission is to keep production costs down. On a pragmatic level, brands would like to see higher wages to stave off the industrial unrest that has been known to explode among dissatisfied garment workers.

“If there is some commotion or turmoil in our industrial belt there is not a single entity that can really control the agitation or sit on behalf of the workers,” he warns. Brands realise that this does not bode well for stability in the sector, he says. Past statements from the garment sector’s industry group, the BGMEA, have often tried to lay the blame on foreign agitators bent on destroying Bangladesh’s lucrative industry. But few take this claim seriously.

What is clear is that as long as consumers seek the cheapest garments and brands race to the bottom in prices, there will continue to be a system that will perpetuate deplorable working conditions in places like Bangladesh.

International brands, on many levels, do try to stabilise the situation by pressuring for better workplace conditions. But they, like their customers, are loath to pay the extra premium for safety. “When they are sourcing they go for the cheapest source,” Rahman says. “So there is what we call a hypocrisy between ethical buying and ethical sourcing.”

Jacob Resneck is a freelance writer and radio reporter. Born in California, he has reported for newspapers, magazines and radio from more than a half-dozen countries.