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
Rescue workers take part in the rescue of the eight-story Rana Plaza building which collapsed in Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, 25 April 2013. More than 1,134 workers perished in the collapse. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
Relatives mourn as they find the body of their missing son on the seventeenth day of the Rana Plaza building collapse, in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 10 May 2013. Reports state that the death toll at this point rose to over 1036 and many more people still missing. 588 bodies had been handed over to relatives after identification. The eight-story Rana Plaza building which collapsed on 24 April 2012 housed mostly garment factories. It is the deadliest disaster in the history of the industry. Reported death toll was 1,134 workers and over 600 more workers were disabled. For these victims, life is a painful struggle. The headlines are soon forgotten in the West, while the victims pay a huge price for producing cheap, fashionable clothes. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
Body of a female garment worker trapped under the debris of the collapsed building at Savar, Bangladesh. 1,134 workers died and thousands were critically injured on 25 April 2013. It was the deadliest disaster in the history of the industry. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
Workers collect denim after dyeing from a machine in a factory at Gazipur, Bangladesh. 11 July 2013. The deadliest disaster in the history of the industry occurred on 24 April 2013, when Rana Plaza, a complex with five garment factories, collapsed. Reported death tool was 1,134 workers and over 600 more workers were disabled. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
Burnt sewing machines are seen after a fire at SMART factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh 26 January 2013. At least seven garment workers died and many more injured in a stampede that occurred as a fire broke out in the factory, fire service reports. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
A factory worker removes the iron rods from the damaged machines after a devastating fire at the dyeing section of two-storey Aswad Composite Mills at Maona, Gazipur, Bangladesh 09 October 2013. The fire killed nine people including workers, fire fighters and an officer that arrived around 6:00pm on 08 October 2013. The cause of the fire is yet to be confirmed. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
Rescue workers recover body of a female garment worker from the damaged part of the eight-story building Rana Plaza which collapsed at Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, 25 April 2013, the deadliest disaster in the history of the industry. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
A woman cries for her missing son on the seventeenth day of the Rana Plaza building collapse, in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 10 May 2013. On this date, report stated that the death toll rose over 1036 and many more still missing while 712 bodies were handed over to their relatives after identification after the eight-story building Rana Plaza housed mostly garment factories which collapsed on 24 April 2012 in the deadliest disaster in the history of the industry. The reported death tool was 1,134 workers and over 600 more workers were disabled. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
Rebeca (20) and her husband Mustafiz. Rebeca had underwent 8 operations in her two legs following the building collapse at the Rana Plaza in Savar in Dhaka, Bangladesh 30 June 2013. The collapse was the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry occurring on 24 April 2013, when Rana Plaza, a complex with five garment factories collapsed. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation
Rehana, one of the survivors of the Rana Plaza building collapse visits the building site in Savar, Bangladesh, 14 June 2013. On this date, reports stated that 1,130 workers died and nearly 2,500 were rescued alive after the eight-story building Rana Plaza that housed mostly garment factories collapsed on 24 April 2013. It was the deadliest disaster in the history of the industry. The final death toll was 1134 workers and more than 600 more workers were disabled. Abir Abdullah/Alexia Foundation