Bangladeshi firms seek to shed 'sweatshop' label

9th January 2010, Comments 0 comments

Like 2.5 million others in the impoverished country, Suria works in the textile business, making items exported to the US and Europe, but unlike most other workers she has not had to leave her rural home for a job.

Narsingdi -- In the small Bangladeshi town of Narsingdi, Suria Begum sits in a small hut, a short walk from her house, with two dozen other women where she knits children's hats, mittens and blankets.

Like 2.5 million others in the impoverished country, Suria works in the textile business, making items exported to the US and Europe, but unlike most other workers she has not had to leave her rural home for a job.

"I have a five-year-old son so I can't work in Dhaka, but having this job gives my family a bit of extra money. Plus, it's nice to sit around and chat with the other workers. It's very relaxed here," the 30-year-old said.

Most of Bangladesh's 4,200 garment factories, some of which come under fire from rights groups for shabby health and safety standards, are in cities like Dhaka or Chittagong, meaning workers have to move to urban areas for work.

But British woman Samantha Morshed, who created the centre where Suria works and 31 other centres like it across Bangladesh, has a different vision for the country of 144 million people, 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

"I wanted to prove that it's not impossible to create employment in rural areas in Bangladesh," says Morshed, who started her business four years ago by teaching a dozen women to knit and crochet in her living room in Dhaka.

Morshed represents a growing number of businesses pushing to channel Bangladesh's cheap labour into ethical, fair trade labels.

She now employs more than 3,500 women in rural areas who make 30,000 items a month that are exported to developed countries and fashionable shops, including London-based retailers JoJo Maman Bebe and TopShop.

"Bangladesh has huge potential. It's not the sad, flooded, charity-prone place it's made out to be. It's full of dignified people who want the opportunity to progress," Morshed said.

The textile trade is Bangladesh's biggest export earner, with garments sent abroad totalling a record 12.35 billion dollars in the year to June 30, 2009, but poor factory working conditions frequently hit the headlines.

An 18-year-old woman was last year "overworked to death" in the factory where she made jeans supplied to German-based retail giant Metro Group, according to a US rights group, the National Labor Committee.

Metro Group issued a statement saying it was "deeply saddened" by the death and had immediately terminated its contract with the Bangladeshi supplier that used the factory.

Last year Spanish fashion firm Zara forced the closure of a supplier's factory in the capital Dhaka after workers said they were being abused.

According to Bangladeshi-based ECOTA Fair Trade Forum, products from its 39-member companies are worth about 29 million dollars -- or less than one percent -- of those exports.

David Mayor, who owns a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, set up a training centre for garment workers 18 months ago in rural northeastern Bangladesh.

The three-month course teaches 12 women how to sew, as well as basic mathematics, English and life skills, and once they complete the training they get an internship in Mayor's factory, with most landing jobs there afterwards.

"We wanted to be practical with the objective of giving them a job," said Mayor, originally from Spain.

While on the course, workers make designer clothing pieces that are sold online and where customers -- from Japan, Canada, France and Spain -- can see the entire "DNA" of the product, including details about the woman who makes it.

Run completely separately from Mayor's factory, the products have a huge profit margin, which goes back into the training centre.

"We are a factory. Prices are tight. Every single cent is important. We are not an NGO, but in addition we have this social concern," Mayor said.

Stories like this are encouraging, said Rodney Reed, who moved to Bangladesh three years ago to set up a consultancy firm that encourages corporate social responsibility.

"If you have fit, healthy, well-paid workers they will make better products," said Reed, from Britain.

"I think the private sector has the potential to solve the poverty problems here and I think there's an opportunity to have fair trade in big factories."

With signs that the runaway growth in the garment trade is beginning to slow because of the global financial crisis, Reed said Bangladesh could set itself apart from other garment-producing countries by becoming a fair-trade hub.

"In the same way we see organic coffee and organic vegetables in the UK, people pay more money for products if they are environmentally sustainable," Reed said, adding that fair trade could become vital to the country's survival as a leading garment producing nation.

"At the moment Bangladesh's only advantage is its cheap labour, but that may not always be the case. Someplace else will come along offering cheaper labour, most likely sub-Saharan African countries, and shops will send their orders there instead," he said.


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