“It’s all about fashion” sagte schon Diana Vreeland, legendäre Chefredakteurin der US Vogue in den 1960er Jahren. Es ist “fashion”, wenn ich backe und später das Pflaumen-Knäckebrot von Kunden genascht wird. Es ist “fashion”, wenn ich mit dem Schäfer in der Heidelandschaft stehe und seine Schafe fotografiere … Diese Erlebnisse, Bilder, Stimmungen trage ich weiter mit mir und addiere sie zu dem, was ich trage, was entwerfe, was ich produziere … 

Schafe HeidelandStretch Blazer

“Fashion” ist aber auch eine Industrie, in der Milliarden von Dollars gemacht werden, in der Milliarden von Kleidungsstücke in den Geschäften hängen und in der Menschen (stein-) reich werden und andere Menschen ausgebeutet. Und das sind andere Bilder, die sich festsetzen und deren Erinnerung ich nicht auf meiner Haut tragen möchte. Ein Artikel hat mich heute morgen wieder mit besonderer Abscheu erfüllt … “Fashion is killing us”, aus Business of fashion

Business of fashion

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Kalpona Akter worries when things go bump in the night. Thoughts of calling the police don’t offer her much solace. She has spent enough time behind bars and rubbed enough powerful people up the wrong way in her native Bangladesh to know she needs to be wary of the authorities. “When I’m inside my apartment and I hear a police siren in the middle of the night, I panic. I know I have enemies,” she says carefully, before continuing with the faintest hint of guilt. “My mum has double fear now because my brother is also a union organizer.” Kalpona pauses, allowing the silence to envelop her for a moment. You can almost hear her inner debate as she wrangles with how much to disclose and which words to choose. “My life is in danger,” she admits.

Lowering her voice by a decibel, she explains further: “When my colleague got killed, we were targeted together. [Their plan was] if they don’t get me, then they get Babu. If they don’t get Babu, then they get me.” It takes some coaxing to persuade Kalpona to reveal who she means by “they.” One thing is for certain: “they” is the murderer of Aminul Islam, a labour rights activist who worked with her for years. Kalpona affectionately called him by his nickname Babu. The pair had been comrades and at one point were imprisoned together. Babu worked for the organisation Kalpona founded seventeen years ago called the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). “He was not only a colleague, he was my friend too,” she says.

The Extortionate Cost of Integrity

One ordinary day in April 2012, Babu simply vanished. His body was found two days later, 100 kilometres from where he had last been seen. Someone had abducted and tortured him — his toes had all been broken — and left him to bleed to death by the road side. The spectre of his murder looms large over Kalpona Akter to this day. When pressed for an explanation about the perpetrator, she relents — but only reluctantly. “Who murdered Babu? It’s difficult to say,” she hesitates. “There was a mole posing as a union organiser for years. He was paid by national security [forces] and [the] army. But, you know, I don’t have evidence; I can’t point at anybody,” she trails off into what seems to be a conclusion of uncertainty, before having second thoughts.

“The security forces,” she says more forcefully than she intended. “And, you know, they’re maybe influenced by [local] garment industrialists. Do you understand?”

As founder and executive director of the BCWS, Kalpona has a good reason to hesitate before suggesting who is responsible for the death of her colleague. It’s not just the worry of ending up in a ditch like Babu that upsets her; it’s the sense of impunity surrounding his murder. Representatives from Human Rights Watch have accused the Bangladeshi authorities of “washing their hands” of any responsibility to find his killer. Reports at the time alleged that, on the day he disappeared, Babu was trying to resolve a labour dispute at factories that produce shirts for several high-profile American fashion brands.

For years, Bangladeshi workers have been exposed to severe state repression, including violent crackdowns on peaceful protests by the country’s notorious “industrial police.” Thugs are regularly hired to threaten, intimidate or physically attack striking workers and union organizers. Kalpona Akter is one of the most high-profile union organisers around. She has engaged with UN agencies to demand greater respect for garment workers; her US Congress testimony helped frame legislation against slave-labour conditions for apparel manufacturing; and she was a key player urging Western brands to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord following the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013.

“You can’t pay for any life with any amount of money. [What fashion brands paid out for that] wasn’t enough, but it’s a start. At least it’s more than past factory compensations,” she says. Sometimes Kalpona publicly names and shames the factory owners who don’t comply with the European Union’s Bangladesh Sustainability Compact. She helps conduct investigations to ensure worker groups are involved in the initiative designed to improve conditions in Bangladesh. Needless to say, this doesn’t make her popular among wealthy industrialists with multi-million dollar contracts hanging in the balance. Hers is a strange predicament. Kalpona’s affiliation with big international institutions has helped lessen the danger she faces from some vested interests in Bangladesh, but the international spotlight that comes with it makes her an even bigger target for others.

“When I start my morning, I can’t tell [my mum] with certainty that I will return home [at the end of the day],” she says. “I don’t walk alone or go anywhere alone now.”

A Survivor Defending Survivors

Kalpona Akter began working as a seamstress in garment factories at the age of 12. She says factory managers fired her when she was 16 because she began rallying her fellow workers after they had not been paid for overtime. “I learned that my shift should be no more than certain hours — wow, that one just blew my mind — and I learned that management are not supposed to slap me in my face [as discipline] any time they want and I learned that the building should be safe,” she recalls.

“Factory management started harassing us and retaliating [against our strike] using community leaders and the police. Later management fired me. They made my life miserable. They made it so difficult that I didn’t even have money to put food on the table.” There’s no doubt we need these jobs. [The question is] do we need them at any cost? She goes on, “They [later blacklisted me] so I couldn’t get a job anywhere else too. [But] luckily I was hired by the union as a full-time organiser.”

Two decades later, Kalpona Akter’s mission is to campaign for fair wages, factory safety, the right to form labour unions and collective bargaining for those at the beginning of the global supply chain. “My mum taught me that if there’s an injustice, somebody has to speak out. I believe that all the stakeholders share the responsibility to make improvements: the factory owners, our government, consumers and the international brands [that manufacture here],” she says.

Tragically, it took several catastrophes for these injustices to come to light in the West. While there were many more before them, the two disasters that received the most media attention abroad were the 2012 Tazreen Fashions factory fire (killing over 100 people) and the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 (killing more than 1,100 people.) Most of the dead were garment workers making clothes for some of the biggest fashion retailers in Europe and America. 

Gruelling But Life-Changing jobs

The market reality today is that trends change faster, and clothes cost less, than ever before. What makes Kalpona’s work especially important for the global fashion industry is the fact that vast numbers of Bangladeshi factories are dedicated to making clothes cheaply and quickly for Western brands. Target, Gap and Topshop’s parent company Arcadia, H&M, C&A, Walmart, Kmart, Zara’s parent company Inditex, Primark, Next, Esprit… the list of brands that have sourced from or manufactured in Bangladesh goes on and on. There are too many to mention, but suffice to say that if you walk through any American shopping mall, or down any of Europe’s high streets, there are masses of clothes that have been knitted, sewn, assembled or embellished in Bangladesh.

“The RMG sector [‘ready-made garment’ manufacturing], they’re the backbone of our economy,” Kalpona explains. “This is why the factory owners are so powerful. Some of them are even members of parliament. And our commerce minister is so pro-management, he always has factory owners’ backs. So does our prime minister [Sheikh Hasina].” It hasn’t helped that, periodically, senior politicians have branded Kalpona and other organisers “enemies of the nation” for disrupting an industry that is critical to the economy. In some cases, their political intervention has stoked the harassment or incited the violence that union organisers like Kalpona endure. “Whenever we raise our voices, they say, ‘oh, look, it is a foreign conspiracy to ruin our industry,’ [but] it is not even close to true. If you open your eyes, you can see the truth.”

To understand why so much is at stake for everyone involved, you need to get a sense of just how reliant the Bangladesh economy is on income from the global fashion industry. According to the latest figures from BMI Research, garments account for a staggering 84.1 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports. To put that into perspective, that makes Bangladesh as dependent on stitching clothes as Saudi Arabia is on pumping out oil. The glaring difference between the two, of course, is that they are on opposite ends of the prosperity spectrum.

“Bangladeshi factories work on thin margins. If a factory fails to meet a shipment deadline due to labour unrest or strikes, that could lead to bankruptcy and thousands of workers would find themselves out of a job,” explains Muhammad Atiqul Islam (no relation to “Babu” Aminul Islam). As president of the Centre of Excellence for Bangladesh Apparel Industries (CEBAI), Islam has had extensive contact, and sometimes been on opposite sides of the debate about workers’ wages and rights, with Kalpona Akter. 

“I know that activists like Kalpona have urged brands not to boycott Bangladesh in the wake of Rana Plaza, and I think that’s a very sensible position,” he adds. In an impoverished country like Bangladesh, apparel jobs are a lifeline for millions of people. No one knows for sure how many are currently employed in the trade, but estimates range from 2.5 million to 4 million. The World Bank estimates that, since 2010, eight million Bangladeshis have moved out of poverty — and despite the shocking low wages it pays, the garment sector has contributed significantly to this upward trend. “There’s no doubt we need these jobs,” says Kalpona. “[The question is] do we need them at any cost?”

Today, Bangladesh comes only second to China (albeit a distant second) in the global ranking of garment exporting countries. And unless a global trade war softens demand in its export markets, Bangladesh looks set to boost its garment manufacturing output in the years to come. Ready-made garments, comprising knitwear and woven items, earned $28.15 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, according to the Bangladeshi Export Promotion Bureau. When you factor in leather goods and other relevant categories, the bureau expects that the country’s fashion exports will end up topping $30 billion this year.

Brands could pack up and go elsewhere, but that looks unlikely. In fact, according to McKinsey’s 2017 chief purchasing officer (CPO) survey, Bangladesh was still named as the number-one sourcing hotspot by small and medium-sized fashion players despite its many ethical issues. For larger players, the country lost ground but still came third after China and Turkey.

Small Mercies in a Big Market

Kalpona Akter doesn’t take naturally to hypothetical situations but, when she sees a clear line to her objectives, she will entertain one or two. If, for example, she were able to gather the owners and chief executives of all the foreign fashion brands operating in Bangladesh into one room for a face-to-face meeting, what would her pitch to them be? “Well, I’d tell them ‘thank you so much for the jobs you are providing,’ this is very important. ‘But we want these jobs with dignity. Have your factories pay a living wage, respect workers’ rights and [let them] exercise their union rights. Please do buy your clothes from Bangladesh but buy from responsible factories.’”

There are between 5,000 and 7,000 garment factories in Bangladesh. Due to tangled webs of subcontractors and rampant corruption, no one can give you a more precise number than this. Deliberately murky business practices have meant that many Bangladeshi factories don’t maintain direct financial relationships with Western brands, using instead a system of agents and subcontractors known as “indirect sourcing” that often fails when it comes to transparency and oversight. Things are slowly changing for the better — thanks to pressure from the likes of Kalpona — but many factories are still completely off the radar; their workers mere phantoms in the black market economy. …

After several high-profile factory disasters that resulted in thousands of worker deaths and life-changing injuries, Bangladesh is in a very unfortunate club of nations. According to the latest 2018 ranking by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Bangladesh is still one of the “ten worst countries in the world for working people.” Another country on the unenviable list is Cambodia, where Kalpona says, “they’re facing the same problem because industrialists are too influential in the government.” …

Women on the Frontline

The Bangladeshi garment sector workforce is more than 80 percent female. Kalpona sighs, clearly frustrated: “Everybody talks about ‘these fashions are great because they are made by women,’ but they never say whether the women are safe or working freely.” – “They are second-class citizens here,” she goes on. “[Many] don’t even have real ownership of their wages. Their husband or guardian, like a father or brother, often takes it at the end of the month, so they don’t even get it.” But worse than that is that “women get verbally, physically and sexually abused by middle management all the time. This even includes me, as [I was abused in the past] many times by my factory managers.” …

Titelbild: Kalpona Akter | Photo: Benjamin A. Huseby for BoF