"Made in Bangladesh"; Inside a Bangladesh garment factory by Alisha Siraj
This is an exclusive piece written by guest and friend Alisha Siraj.
A label we see often on the back of our jeans and tops. For some, it is just that – a label we do not pay much thought to. For others, it has come to symbolize the growth and prosperity of the ‘RGM’ (ready-made garments) industry of Bangladesh.
Leaving a tailored blemish across borders and oceans all over the world. With the
rise of globalisation, the industry demonstrates the various methods employed by
international markets to meet global consumer demands.
The first time I visited Bangladesh I was 3 weeks old. My mother told me she was
very excited to introduce me to my extended family. Ever since then, I have
periodically visited throughout my childhood, always staying at my late grandparents’ apartment in the Gulshan area of Dhaka. Situated on the floor below us is the office of Cyan Fashion. A buying house that overlooks product development, material sourcing and production of ready-made garments. They partner with European-based retail outlets and supply everything from shirts, trousers, shorts, tops, jackets, jeans and accessories. Growing up, I never paid much thought to what they did. I’d usually just race up the stairs with my cousins past their quiet, closed doors. As I’ve gotten older, I have naturally come to question my clothing choices more and more. What material is this? Where was it made? Who stitched this perfect hem along my shirt? So, on this particular visit, I saw an opportunity to learn more about garment production and began chatting with one of the merchandising managers while walking up the stairs one afternoon. He passionately described to me the various brands they partner with and the different lines they distribute clothing to all across the world. Curious and intrigued by their vast operation, I asked if I could visit their factory myself.
It is located in the heart of the Tongi industrial complex, one of the largest industrial output areas of Bangladesh, and approximately an hour drive from Gulshan. Here, I got to witness for my very eyes the transformation a piece of fabric undergoes, and the many hands it passes through before it is ready for shipment to retail outlets. The meticulous craftsmanship of employees being of utmost importance in the success of the operation.
From this relatively small enterprise of 500 employees (80-90% of them women) I
gained insight into the prominent place the textile industry here has on global
garment production. Particularly in the area of fast fashion, a rising phenomenon
characterised by a prevailing culture of excess and a desire for ‘more’. The impact of which has boosted the economy of Bangladesh, as well as international trade with global brands like Ralph Lauren, Puma, Levi’s, and Zara to name a few. Bangladesh is currently the 2nd largest exporter of garments and textiles in the world, closely following China with approximately 80% of its exports coming from this sector. Once described as a ‘bottomless basket’, the growth of the industry is now regarded as a ‘basket filled with wonders and possibility’. The foundation of which lies in the determination of a newly independent nation devastated by War.
Driving through the industrial complex of Tongi I observed numerous buildings and
factories towering high side by side. My guide explained to me how the government heavily invested in export production sites during the 80s’ for a range of commodities- bike parts, garments, fabric dying etc. This period in time is of
particular significance for apparel export. After Bangladesh gained its independence from Pakistan in 1971, pivotal contributions were made in attempts to rebuild the country. This was seen most evidently through the golden day exports of Jute. With its decline over the years, the vision of the apparel industry was born by pioneers such as ‘Nurool Quader Khan’ who established the first factory, Desh Garments, a venture rooted in partnership with Daewoo of South Korea.
Cyan consists of 6 levels – including the roof where the dining hall and prayer rooms are located. Each floor is designated with specific production duties, whether this is patternmaking from the designs of buyers, cutting material, sewing, quality checks, packaging and delivery. An employee explained how a pair of jeans in the current line had up to 80 different processes. They emphasised the care and detailed eye required for a small section of the garment. For example, a delicately stitched pocket, which ultimately comes together with other sections to create the desired piece.
Walking around the operation line my eyes could not help but scramble from one
place to another. The noise of sewing machines rang furiously throughout the floor
and behind them sat women and men deep in concentration as they diligently moved and manipulated material. I was struck by all the colour that surrounded me.
Particularly through the bright dye and neon dupattas (scarves) of the busy women. I was introduced to one of the most skilled sewing operators of the floor, ‘Miss Poppy’, enraptured by the speed she worked as she moved from one fabric to another. Shy and smiling wide, she showed me the current piece she was working on. Miss Poppy learnt to sew in 2013, shortly before beginning her career in a garment’s factory like this.
Visiting Cyan illuminated how the ready-made garments industry can sustainably
operate in developing countries. Their vision first and foremost, supporting and
protecting the rights and safety of employees. Cyan holds a range of certifications
including ‘BSCI’ (Business Social Compliance Initiative) which aims to monitor and
empower international labour standards and United Nations guiding principles of
global supply chains. These practices are also implemented and safeguarded by
groups such as BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters
Association), which aims to promote the growth of the industry while ensuring the
maintenance of equitable social and environmental standards. BGMEA has
approximately 4500 member factories but there remains a small percentage of
garment factories that are not a part of this initiative.
Reading this from the other side of the world, where does this leave us?
In an immensely crucial position.
The piece of clothing you are wearing right now has a story. Its unique roots lie in the delicate hands and minds of someone you most likely will never know, someone perhaps like Miss Poppy. If you decide you no longer want it, this story will continue to unfold elsewhere.
Recognising the agency we have over our consumption and consciously purchasing clothing is an effective way we can ensure brands do not have an avenue to exploit and take advantage of workers in the garment industry that may suffer as a result of the demands of fast fashion (through poor wages or unsafe working conditions for example). These are, after all, the brands we invest in and armour on our backs.
Our responsibilities as global citizens involve questioning how systems around us
operate for, they can never exist without flaws. No matter how feeble it may seem,
our choices matter. They are important, and through these choices, we can impact
profound change in the lives of our global brothers and sisters.