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The RMG Industry

Jeopardising Lives of Workers

Anu Muhammad ( teaches economics at Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World’s Garment Workers edited by Rebecca Prentice and Geert De Neve, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017; pp viii + 291, 7,652.

This book is a compilation of studies/research papers from three countries: Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka. The editors have acknowledged that this book builds upon Ellen Rosen’s work (Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the US Apparel Industry, 2002). The objective of this compilation was to give “visibility to the health concerns of ready-made garment (RMG) workers across the globe and by placing the whole spectrum of work-related health and well-being issues at the centre of analysis.” However, this volume has done more.

The book is divided into three parts. Every part is enriched with a number of well-researched papers. Part I deals with “The Rise and Fall of Labor Standards,” Part II is on “From Structures to Actors and Back,” and lastly, Part III is on “Rethinking Health as Well-being at Work and Home.”

From New York to Savar

In the first article in Part I, Jennifer Bair, Mark Anner and Jeremy Blasi have foc­used on the deadly factory disaster in New York in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and made an attempt to draw parallels with the deadliest contemporary disaster in Rana Plaza, ­Savar, Dhaka in 2013. In the case of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the authors have identified two outcomes: one, “the government responded to the 1911 fire with far reaching efforts to strengthen worker protection laws;” and two, “the apparel industry union succeeded in ­securing binding agreements (known as ‘jobbers agreements’) with the lead firms that ultimately set the terms and conditions for the workers employed in New York’s sewing shops.” Actually, nothing comparable to these happened in post-Rana Plaza Bangladesh. It was certainly expected that the government would be active in changing the flawed legal structure, ineffective monitoring system, and would take strong measures against this corporate genocide. That did not come true. On the contrary, inter­national bodies like the International Labour Organization took initiative for compensation. Accord and Alliance were formed to take safety measures in response to a global protest. Their limitations are discussed in another chapter. Even public outrage appears as much less in Dhaka than in New York as the authors found that “the fire provo­ked a massive response. More than a quarter million people attended a public funeral for unidentified victims on 5 April” (p 36); and also “membership in the ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) increased its upward swing, following the uprising of 20,000; by 1913 the union had more than a quarter of a million members making it the largest union in New York” (p 38). On the contrary, the formal and informal obstructions, fear and threat against workers to become union members remain intact in Bangladesh. It is found that most of the unions allowed to form since the Rana Plaza incident were actually pocket organisations of the owners/government.1

Initiatives to Make a Change

Florence Palpacuer, in the next article, examines “European Anti-sweatshop Movement” which “gathered a variety of civil society groups including feminist, fair trade, consumer, and development organisations, as well as labor unions” (p 64). In analysing the movement, the author identifies a trade-off for movements between “retaining a capacity to engage with a broad audience including consumers, global buyers, intergovernmental institutions, and NGO partners in the global south” and “targeting the ‘root causes’ of labor abuses by challenging the global mobility of investment and trade activities, at the risk of becoming marginalised” (p 80).

In this context, in another article, Caitrin Lynch and Ingrid Hagen-Keith investigated attempts for ethical garment production and marketing. In particular, this chapter explored the challenges that an entrepreneur faced when creating a clothing brand that would “simultaneously be fashionable for the consu­mers and good for workers’ and its five-year efforts to create a line of ethical clothing” (p 89). That company “drew up a code of conduct for suppliers to sign on to, based on information from nonprofit groups, members of labor unions, and workers-and modeled on one widely used by the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC)” (p 95). This is not surprising that the attempt could not continue and had to suspend its activities in five years’ time to prove that the hegemony of global brands is still absolute.

The case of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) was also discussed in detail as an important initiative to build counter-hegemonic power in the global market. It developed from an organisation called “Students against Sweatshop” that was formed in 1997 at Duke University. In the process, multiple university student labour rights groups joined, and the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) was formed in 1998. In 2000, “USAS joined with others to form the WRC.” By July 2016, WRC’s membership included “more than 180 universities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom” (p 111). We know that this WRC ­remain active in many countries including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan till date and are regularly producing investigative reports on the situation of workers.

Export Processing Zones

Part II of the book begins with investigations on export processing zones (EPZs) by Patrick Neveling. In this article, the term “export processing zone” is used as the umbrella term for special economic zones (SEZ), free trade zones (FTZ), foreign trade zones (FTZ), free enterprise zones (FEZ), bonded warehouses and alike. It is true that “EPZ regimes emer­ged much earlier from neoliberal states” (p 135) and began in Puerto Rico in 1947. It started with nearly 4,000 workers there, now has reached to more than 70 million workers worldwide. Encouraged by the World Bank and similar organisations, several measures were taken by the governments in different peripheral countries to facilitate this zonal app­roach. In this article, six of these mea­sures are identified: (i) tax havens, (ii) ready-made infrastructures prepared by the state, (iii) favourable exchange rate, (iv) no trade union, lower wage, (v) subsidised export, and (vi) global arran­gement (pp 126–27).

India is officially the first Asian country to have an EPZ; the “Kandla Foreign Trade Zone” (KFTZ) ope­ned in 1965. It is not surprising but interesting that in Bangladesh, establishing of an EPZ was first recommended by World Bank president Robert McNamara in 1976 (p 136).

Sponsored Activism

The next article is dedicated to analyse the “discourse of compensation” and its “nor­malisation of negligence” based on the experience of the Tazreen Factory fire in Bangladesh in 2012. The authors Mahmudul H Sumon, Nazneen Shifa and Saydia Gulrukh themselves have experienced the process of compensation and legal procedures as not only active participants but also actors to challenge the course. They formed a group of activists–anthropologists immediately after the Tazreen fire and “after months of inaction by the government,” they “filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the High Court of Bangladesh to charge the factory owners with negligence” (p 147). In this article the group of activists–anthropologists explored the process how, since the Spectrum garment factory collapse, different activist discourses have come to echo the “issue of compensation” to the neglect of broader “structural issues and criminal negligence.” They questioned the “narrowing and depoliticisation of health and safety issues” and listed several international and local organisations and argued that “both these global and local voices redirected attention away from questions of structural inequality and responsibility” to compensation only. They also feared that “exclusive focus on compensation evades questions of responsibility and criminality” (p 160).

The authors are also highly critical of “a new kind of unionism” that emerged in Bangladesh. Before 2013, only two trade unions (TUs) were registered; in 2013, 96 TUs were registered; as of 2014, a total of 222 unions were listed as registered with the Bangladesh Department of Labor (p 161). But, these unions are far from a body that represent workers’ rights as mentioned earlier. On the contrary, “new trade unions operate much like NGOs” that are “run by foreign donations,” and “they accept any inter­national labor-related campaigns and donor prescriptions uncritically, and they take up the role of local implementers of these campaigns.” And also, these organi­sations “often receive funding from the CSR offi­ces of international brands” (p 161). The authors also find the working patterns of these so-called unions highly problematic where they spend money and pay workers for attending programmes. Actually, “in the absence of a standardised compensation process, medical and other rehabilitation services are made available as charitable donations” through different projects (p 166). Certainly, this form of work makes politically moti­vated garment organisations difficult to work and “political solidarity is replaced with economic transactions between the organisers and ordinary workers” (p 167).

Prison or Factory

Alessandra Mezzadri focused her article on the Indian garment sector and argued that poor health and safety issues were closely linked with dominant labour ­relations and “in the context of declining welfare state provisions, processes of labor informalisation further limit ­access to health services” (p 177). She correctly observed that health outcomes were not isolated disastrous events, but the “systemic result of processes of accumulation and their correspondent labor relations.”

The Indian garment industry is, as the paper points out, “characterised by high degrees of informal and informalised labor” and “India also stands out as the country with the highest rates of informal labor” (p 179). The majority of the garment workers under this study were from Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The authors also find that the industry relied heavily on contract labour arrangements, and the rates of unionisation among garment workers were extremely low (p 181). Caste and class become inter­linked to ensure the hege­mony of capital.

For the living arrangements of the workers, “more than five workers share tiny rooms,” where “access to water is an ­issue and workers share filthy common toilets, and these are ‘generally managed’ by the many local housing contractors and landlords who thrive in the slum economy” (p 182). On the issue of occupational health, it was found that a third of all workers report back pain and 39% reported eye strain, by the age of 30; workers bodies are hugely affected by the intensity of work (pp 184–85). Subcontracting is found as a regular practice. The study also reveals “waves of fainting” as a result of malnutrition and hard work. The author agrees with Julia Wallace (2014) in using the new slogan “workers of the world, faint!” to express the seriousness of workers’ vulnerability.

In Part III, Kanchana N Ruwanpura and Sandya Hewamanne bring the Sri Lankan experience in garment industry in two articles respectively. The first one is based on fieldwork for more than seven months in two factories along with visiting experience in other factories and ­interviews with relevant people. It is evident that Sri Lanka is in a much better condition in overall public healthcare, security, wage and gross domestic product (GDP) compared to India and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka also provides better legal protection and facilities compared to many other countries. Therefore, it is not unusual to find that “Sri Lanka’s commendable human development achi­eve­ments gave apparel industrialists an educated and healthy workforce” (p 221). Despite this comparative achievement, primary investigations confirm that everyday health and well-being of the workers are still facing serious problems.

The second article on Sri Lanka is based on long-term ethnographic rese­arch at Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ). The research findings proved that despite its growth and employment generation, “garment girl” is still suffering a lowered social status. Female workers’ area is called as “love zone,” “whore zone” (p 238) As female workers repor­ted, “as the cart follows the bull, FTZ stigma follows us” (p 240). It is clear that the FTZ stigma is like caste in Sri Lanka. The authors found relevance of the idea of disposability for the garment women who become a “form of industrial waste that can be discarded and repla­ced easily” (p 227).

The study also finds that the barbed-wire fenced FTZ area with “well-maintained roads, flowering bushes, and street lights” did not reflect the conditions of the workers. Because the area where workers lived had “poorly lit streets and lacked adequate public transportation,” and after long work, “they face many dangers on the streets outside: thefts, sexual assaults, abductions, and rape” (p 238).

The last article by Hasan Ashraf is based on 14 months of ethnographic fieldworks in Dhaka between 2010 and 2013, and a later period of fieldwork (May–June 2014) that was “devoted to interviewing owners of factory buildings under Accord and Alliance inspections as well as garment workers, garment merchandisers, and trade union leaders.” For the sake of this research, Ashraf took up a job in a garment factory for six months as a shopfloor worker.

As Ashraf found, workers of the factory link their everyday work experience with a widely shared notion of a “depreciating body.” As workers mentioned, “if you cut open the stomach you might get a couple of kilograms of fabric dust ­inside us. It is not just cotton but cotton with harmful chemicals. We will die ­before our lifetime” (p 259).

The factory was also perceived as a prison by the workers, where two factors are common: Chap (pressure) and Bhoy (fear), that always drive workers. This constant fear arises from not only factory staff’s “various disciplining techniques to speed up production on the assembly lines,” but also, after work, “fear of sexual harassment beyond the workplace” haunts female workers (p 263). More­over, many always fear “sudden announcement of overtime” (p 262).

Within the factory, “highly gendered and male controlled shop floor environment” is very common, “while most of the workers were female, almost all of the supervisory staff were male in Asha garments.” One supervisor made it clear, “if you cannot be a real bad person, you cannot work in a garment factory to ­extract highest output from the workers as malik (owner) wants. It does not let a human being remain human” (p 264). The managers themselves were subjected to a dehumanisation process while carrying out their responsibilities.

He focused on the limitations of technocratic approach for building safety by Accord and Alliance and argued that,

a narrow and technocratic focus on buildings and building safety in Bangladesh ignores and conceals the actual processes and relationships that produce shop floor risks, ill health, and the systemic exhaustion of the body, and that routinely undermine the overall well-being of workers in the garment industry.

He insisted that

the technocratic regime embodied by the Accord and the Alliance depoliticises health and safety by removing it from the global dynamics of outsourcing and capitalist labor regi­mes, which comprise highly uneven rel­ations of power and leverage,

that also produced top-down solutions (p 251).

Growth with Modern Slavery

Since the early 1990s, the rise of ready-made garments as a global industry has been very fast, but still remains highly toxic for workers. For example, because of many factors Bangladesh found favourable conditions to become a growing garment exporting country in the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, its growth has been spectacular; now the country has become the second largest RMG
exporting country after China, and this sector bec­omes the largest export earning source employing nearly four million people mostly women (Muhammad 2011). Certainly, the expansion of this sector has an important role behind the high GDP growth in the last decade. Despite the feel-good numbers of economic growth, the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers, shows the fragility of the sector. In this book, Dina Siddiqi correctly points out that “this horrific event certainly punctured the idea of the brave new borderless world promised by globalization” (p 276).

It is quite clear that, in the garments sector, the high rate of capital accumulation is ensured where there are many parties to get a pie from surplus value extraction, and that is happening not only in the economic sphere, but also at the cost of shame, disposability, fainting, ill health, constant insecurity and fear. As a global industry, RMG reveal globalised capital labour relations under a neo-liberal global (dis)order. A neo-liberal regime is characterised by informalised, part-time non-unionised labour with outsourcing and sub-contracting production systems. The unequal relationships between organi­sed capital and disorganised labour are being reproduced by direct coercive measures from the state in favour of capital. Different studies show how the brands, local owners and ruling elites buying houses are maximising their profits by keeping inhuman conditions in this high-growth industry (Muhammad 2015). Facts reg­arding this sector reveal the system of capitalist high growth with completely unprotected workers, who work in a new form of slavery.

The struggles of the workers in the RMG sector around the world are, therefore, in essence, struggles to get the status of workers instead of modern slaves or hard labour prisoners. But, despite various initiatives, workers’ organisations still remain very weak. The global neo-liberal fascist environment along with national authoritarian rule directly work against the workers’ solidarity and mobilisation. In the absence of that or because of its weakness, fear and inhuman working conditions remain, as it is shown in different chapters of this book.

Nevertheless, since the global chain of garments is carrying a global chain of injustice and deprivation, there is no ­alternative to committed local and glo­bal solidarity and organisations of workers to change the scenario, to give a ­human environment to human lives. This book also confirms that.


1 Research showed how the state–business ­nexus on the one hand blocked attempts to form really representative trade unions, while it encouraged the formation of their pocket organisation on the other. Maha Mirza listed applications and analysed the registration process in her article “garments shilpe rashtra-byabsha antat” (state–business nexus in garments industry) in Sarbojonkotha, Dhaka, May 2015.


Muhammad, Anu (2011): “Wealth and Deprivation: Readymade Garments Industry in Bangladesh,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 46, No 34, 20 August,

— (2015): “Workers’ Lives, Walmart’s Pocket: Garment’s Global Chain, from Savar to New York,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 25, 20 June,


Updated On : 28th Jul, 2020


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