The Deadly Cost of Cheap Clothing: Dangers in Bangladesh's Garment Industry
2013 professional winner
Both man-made arson and accidental fires are an omnipresent threat bringing death and injury to the working class communities of Dhaka in the basti (slum), garment factories and the shopping malls. Corrupt officials who ignore building codes, and greedy businessmen who bypass fire protection have both made home and work spaces are death traps. Because the city has grown too quickly, lack of fire safety precaution is everywhere.
The impact, however, is most visible in the garment industry of Bangladesh, which is also the country's most successful business sector, earning $19 billion from exports last year alone. Factory fires have killed 600 garment workers since 2005.
Global headlines came with the horrific fire at Tazreen Fashion factory in November 2012. At least 112 people were confirmed dead in the fire (and activists claim more bodies were "disappeared" by authorities), making it the deadliest factory fire in the nation's history. 53 workers bodies could not be identified due to severe burns and were buried in mass grave.
Tazreen's clients, either directly or through subcontractors, included global giants Walmart, Sears, Disney, and Enyce. As a result, this fire became the symbol for the high cost paid by third world workers for western consumer's fashion desires. The issue has been brought all the way to US President Barack Obama, via a letter signed by US Senators.
In one haunting instance, a son called his mother, knowing he would not survive. "Ma (mother), I have no way to save my life,” Palash Mian told her on the phone, calling from inside the factory. "I cannot find any way to get out. I am in the bathroom of the fifth floor. I am wearing a black T-shirt. And I have a shirt wrapped around my waist. You will find me in the bathroom.”
Dead bodies were lined up with white bags in a school ground near the factory. Palash’s mother, Ms. Begum unzipped a bag and found a corpse wearing a black T-shirt.
I have been photographing fire risks in Dhaka for the last couple of years, including terrible fires at slums, garment factories, homes, shopping malls etc. But even with all that experience, I paused while photographing a charred face. I didn't know her name or didn't have time to wait for the relatives to identity her so that I could get her name. She could have been a mother, a wife or a daughter – to me a human being, and sadly now a corpse.
Army soldiers had cordoned off her body along with others. It was difficult for me to take that photograph of a small ornament visible on her destroyed nose. I felt grief and anger and guilt for taking such a gruesome portrait. But I also know that news agencies will clamour for this photograph. The world only gives such people importance and headlines when they are dead, ignoring them when they are alive. The price of your cheap, fashionable clothes is those deaths.
With the support of Alexia Foundation, I will continue to document the living and working conditions and vulnerability of the garment workers. I want to use photography to raise global awareness and pressure powerful global brands like Walmart, Nike, and Disney to pay fair prices so that labor and safety standards can be implemented in these factories. Photography can convey the stories in a way that endless essays, op-eds, and seminars cannot. I want to dedicate my work to saving this industry, bringing an end to the exploitation of 3 million workers (60% of whom are women) who toil away in the shadows of this industry. Let us not wait for another tragedy, before we take action.
Abdullah is a part time teacher at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute
and a stringer photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency
A fireman attempts to extinguish a fire at the Kung Keng textile factory. Unsafe working conditions have led to repeated accidents. Export Processing Zone, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 26 August 2005. Abir Abdullah
A Bangladeshi injured worker is carried on a stretcher by fellow workers during a fire at a garment unit of Ha-Mim Group in Savar, Bangladesh, 14 December 2010. At least 24 people died and hundreds were injured when the fire broke out on the 9th and 10th floors of the building. Abir Abdullah
Fire fighters carry an injured person during a rescue operation. Four people died and many were injured at the Kawran Bazaar, Dhaka according to a fire service report - 25 February 2007. Abir Abdullah
A panic-stricken person rescues himself by climbing a rope from one building to another during a blaze at the Kawran Bazaar, Dhaka. 25 February 2007. Abir Abdullah
Workers put the bodies in line as they bury unclaimed bodies from an accidental fire in a mass funeral at a grave at Jurain in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The government handed over the bodies of 52 unidentified workers to Anjuman Mofidul Islam (a social organization) for burial after taking DNA samples. More than 100 people were killed after a devastating fire took place at Tazreen Fashions Limited garment factory at Nischintapur, in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, late on 24 November 2012. Abir Abdullah
Body of an unidentified female garment worker lies down on the floor of a under constructed mosque. The death toll rose to 112 and hundreds were injured after the fire incident due to electrical short circuit at night on 24 November, fire service reports. Nischintapur, Savar outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi civilians help to firefighters extinguish a fire at a shopping mall in the New Market area, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 20, 2009. More than 25 people were injured including fire fighters and garment workers. Abir Abdullah
Slum dwellers collect the burnt remains of their houses after a fire. When fire occur, slum dwellers are not able to save or remove their belongings and they become homeless for many days. Dhaka - 27 February 2010. Abir Abdullah
Family members mourn as they visit their parents' house in Nimtali, Dhaka 6 June 2010 where they lost four members following a fire that gutted eight houses and over 20 shops. At least 117 people died, while more than 150 people were injured after a fire that took place on the night of 3 June 2010. Abir Abdullah
Civilians often take part in the fire rescue operation as volunteers, risking their lives before the arrival of any official rescue groups. 1 February 2006. Abir Abdullah