In December 2010, 29 Bangladeshi garment workers perished in a fire at a factory making clothes to be sold in US at stores like JC Penney, The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Kohls, and Target. The factory, located near the country’s capital, Dhaka, was owned by the Hameem Group, which describes itself as “a top ranking apparel manufacturer” whose 2011 annual revenues totalled $US350 million.
Over the years, hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers, mostly young women, have died in similar fires. The deaths sparked an international campaign to improve worker safety at the 5,000 factories where these workers work. Last week, PVH, a clothing corporation based in the US, announced that it was committing $1 million to improve safety at Bangladeshi factories that make its products.
This is a hopeful first step, but even if the plans to improve worker safety are carried out, the lot of a Bangladeshi garment worker will still be grim.
That’s the impression I had after I previewed a documentary entitled The Machinists, a film viewed by millions in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East that will make its US debut at the Workers Unite Film Festival in New York on May 5.
The Machinists directors, Hannan Majid and Richard York, spend little time on sensational stories like the fatal fires; instead, they focus on the quotidian misery that defines the lives of Bangladesh’s garment workers.
This misery is the result of the Capital/labor relationship in which Capital always comes out on top. The ready-to-wear garment industry produces Bangladesh’s largest export product and makes healthy profits for factory owners and multi-national clothing and retail corporations, said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in a brief interview at the beginning of the film. But “the reality of the workers’ wages and other conditions is really very poor.”
The Machinists allows three garment workers to tell their own stories in their own words. “We wanted to humanize them by showing their every day lives, their struggles at home and at work, how this job and the long hours they have to work affects their family lives,” Majid said.
Take Nargis for instance. She looks to be 15 or 16 years old, but she’s either 19 or 20. She has worked in a garment factory for eight years. She started when she was either 11 or 12 years old. She’s a single mother, who shares a one-room apartment with seven other family members including her mother, her father, and her child.
As she walks to work, she asks her sisters, “I wonder if they’ll pay us today? Do you think they’ll pay us this week? The supervisor says there’s a chance we could get paid on the 10th.”
As their trek, continues Nargis compares life in a garment factory to prison. “Once you start working in garments, you’re trapped.” Days off are few and far between, maybe once a month. Overtime is frequent and mandatory even though the country’s labor laws forbid forced overtime.
On most days, Nargis returns home just in time for a brief visit with her child before bedtime. Nargis’s mother takes care of the child. She says sadly that the child calls her Mum instead of Grandmum. Nargis says that her child calls her “Auntie.”
During most of the film, Nargis wears a sweetly demure smile that belies the desperation in her voice, but near the end, her smile turns joyous as she heads home from work. The factory’s electricity had gone out and the boss sent everyone home early. Tonight, she beams, I’ll be able to eat dinner with my child.
The machinists’ stories demystify the narrative that has shaped our image of the ready-to-wear garment trade. For most of us, this image is based on advertising copy showing happy actors playing satisfied customers buying new clothes at low prices. For others, the image is based on the healthy bottom lines of corporations that own brands like Tommy Hilfinger, Ralph Lauren, and Banana Republic and retail giants like Walmart.
But the reality is much darker. While the garments may be cheap in the stores of the US and Europe, they come at a high price. Life is grueling even for relatively well off garment workers like Mohammed, who says, “It’s always a struggle for us.”