Bangladesh can truly be called today, the garment capital of the world. This year, it is reported that Bangladesh has exported more than $18 Billion worth of ready-to-wear garments to developed world, which also works out to about 80% of the country’s overseas exports. Every major brand in the western world like H&M, Wall Mart, Gap, Next and Marks and Spencer today purchases garments from this country. In the process, Bangladesh has become world’s second largest exporter of ready to wear garments only after China. With increasing labour costs, rising inflation and a strengthening currency, China is fast losing its foothold as the world’s lowest cost manufacturer of ready to wear garments and countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh are the biggest winners. It would be no wonder, that in few year’s time, Bangladesh takes over the top position held by China today.
Behind this rosy picture however, are hidden long hours of painful labour, low wages and unhygienic conditions, suffered by the textile workers of Bangladesh. There are more than 4000 garment factories in Bangladesh and many of these operate in dingy little places with poor ventilation and lighting. The workers are paid poor wages, yet they are forced to work because of the general poverty and lack of jobs in general. Work shifts, as long as 11 hours at a stretch and wages equivalent to US$ 70 a month are very common.
One specialty of the Bangladesh garment industry is the garments made from blue Denim cloth such as Jeans. Since 1990, a new type of denim finish became very popular in western world denim users. It is called distressed or already worn look. The new garments with this look, appear as if they have been used for years. Such a finish is created by actually sandblasting the denim garment with sand. This is done by mixing fine sand with compressed air with the help of an air compressor. This compressed air with suspended sand particles is blasted on the garment by means of a hose fitted with a nozzle.
One can imagine the effect of this on the factory environment if such a process is carried out inside a factory. The air within the factory would be thick with silica particles and each and every person working in the factory would keep on breathing this air for long periods up to 11 hours.
The immediate effect of this is watery and painful eyes and extreme tiredness due to lack of fresh air. The long term effect is known as Silicosis, where small silica particle get deposited in the lungs. It causes shortness of breath, coughing, weakness and weight loss. If affected person continues to work under such environment, it could turn fatal for him. There is no known cure for Silicosis.
Disastrous effects of this sandblasting came to light for the first time in 2004 in Turkey, which is also one of the big exporters of denim Jeans. In the Bingol region, which is in the east of the country, a doctor in a village was conducting medical tests on some candidates hopeful of entering military service. He found that many of them were suffering from Silicosis; After further investigation, it was found that all these men were previously working in the sandblasting denim factories of Istanbul. This disease is usually observed in the construction and mining workers and it was detected for the first time in Garment industry workers. In Turkey, 46 garment workers have died because of Silicosis and there are 1200 registered cases. Real number of cases could be much higher. In 2009 , Turkish Government banned the process of Sandblasting from garment factories. This year it has agreed to pay disability allowance to workers suffering from this disease.
Neither the Bangladesh garment industry or the authorities have bothered to take any action about sandblasting being done in the Garment factories so far.
Some western garment distributors such as Armani say that they have banned use of sandblasting in their garments. However there are many brands, which do not say anything about sandblasting. An international pressure group, Clean Clothes Campaign has been now formed. This group is trying to force all major garment purchasers to ban sandblasting. They are also making efforts to request European Union to ban sandblasted garments and have requested WHO to include garment sandblasting as hazardous occupation. They also want that the workers suffering from Silicosis adequately compensated.
It might take some time before sandblasting disappears from Bangladesh garment factories. Meanwhile poor garment workers will continue to be sandblasted unless the Bangladesh Government takes some concrete steps.
3 October 2011