Rescripting Empowerment? Post-COVID Lessons from Bangladeshi Garment Workers
“The work of social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction, building new stories around facts that are often disregarded, invisibilized, and taken for granted as acceptable and unremarkable features of social life.”
- Kimberlee Crenshaw (2020; emphasis mine).
Only at moments of spectacularized violence – of what we might call an emergency – do the laboring bodies of Bangladeshi garment workers come to occupy the global stage, or so it seems. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 – resulting in almost 1200 deaths and many more injured – represents the most iconic of such moments (Siddiqi 2017). The more muted violence of pandemic-related mass job losses last year constituted another “emergency” in which Bangladeshi workers found themselves under a global gaze, including from young Northern feminists’ intent on holding accountable individual Euro-American brands for reneging on their contractual obligations. This sporadic, if intense, attention is doubled edged at best. Among other things, focus on the spectacular serves to obscure or normalize the everyday slow violence, the structural or systemic problems that garment workers navigate on the shopfloor and beyond. After all, frames of emergency implicitly assume that in “normal” times, all is well.
Bangladesh is considered to be an outstanding development success, “the smiling, more often than not sweetly female, face of global capitalist development,” in the words of Naomi Hossain (2017, p. 8, emphasis added). The figure of the empowered garment worker lifting herself, her family, and the nation out of poverty features centrally in national and global narratives of Bangladesh’s success.1 In “normal” times, the state, factory owners, and international brands mobilize various iterations of empowerment discourse for multiple, not necessarily overlapping, agendas.
What critical facts are routinely “disregarded, invisibilized, or taken for granted” (in Crenshaw’s words from the epigraph) in the global telling of Bangladesh’s garment workers’ empowerment? What is normalized and what is invisibilized within the logic of supply chain production? A (contextually-specific) neoliberal logic inflects the way stories of the Bangladeshi garment industry are told, which stories are worth telling, and which simply do not (cannot?) circulate in non-emergency times. In this telling, the market is innocent of power relations; access to waged labor assures empowerment; and the apparel supply chain is a neutral mechanism whose efficiency is interrupted either by local inefficiency/corruption (as in the case of Rana Plaza) or through acts of nature beyond the control of humans (COVID-19).
Recuperating silences and erasures, re-centering, and re-signifying that which is obscured, remains a critical task for any project of advancing labor rights. Such narrative reconstructions are also fundamental for forging meaningful transnational feminist solidarity.
Naturalizing the Pandemic
By late March 2020, in the face of a precipitous decline in consumer demand, Euro-American buyers of Bangladeshi garments canceled or postponed orders worth $1.44 billion (Anner 2020, p. 5-6). Many brands refused to pay for orders already shipped or under production. By mid-year, $ 3.8 billion worth of export orders had been either suspended or cancelled, affecting 2.2 million workers in 1150 factories. According to press reports, Kohls – which canceled $50 million worth of orders with its Bangladeshi suppliers and refused petitions from suppliers to renegotiate payments, paid out $109 million in dividends to tax holders.
A New York Times report from April 1, 2020 begins with the following account of the post pandemic life of Bangladeshi garment worker Shahida Khatun:
Her fingers ached from stitching pants and shirts destined for sale in the United States and Europe, but the $30 the young woman made each month meant that for the first time, her family had regular meals, even luxuries like chicken and milk. A decade later, she was providing a better life for her own child than she had ever imagined. Then the world locked down, and Shahida Khatun, like millions of low-wage workers around the world, found herself back in the poverty she thought she had left behind. (Abi-Habib 2020, emphasis added)
In this account, Khatun’s working conditions (her “aching fingers”) appear to be an unremarkable feature of her life, presumably justified by her ability to earn enough for her family to rise out of poverty. That, after all, is the promise of the postcolonial developmental state, and its embrace of empowerment discourse. If we are to take the story at face value, the $30 a month Shahida earns is enough for regular meals and even the occasional “luxury” food item. Hers was the happy face of capitalist development, a story of third world female empowerment through waged labor, until it was rudely interrupted by the pandemic. Bangladeshi labor activists who have been struggling for years to increase wages would be surprised to learn that $30 a month – far lower than the current legal minimum of $96 and below the local living wage – was enough for Ms. Khatun to support her family. Further down, the news report refers fleetingly to Ms. Khatun’s husband, who had also been employed in the same garment factory. Though it remains unsaid, it is likely that they were able to cobble together something like a living wage through their joint income, one that allowed them to dream of a better future for themselves and their son. Yet the focus is exclusively on Shahida. With her husband written out of the script – the story of individual female empowerment remains undisturbed.
Why such “pathways to women’s empowerment” prove to be so precarious – so easily undone by one “natural disaster” – is not addressed. What constitutes meaningful development and empowerment are taken for granted in the narrative arc of the story, which casts the pandemic as a force of nature whose fallout and consequences are out of human control. Once the pandemic is naturalized, questions of human agency and accountability are obscured, displaced or erased altogether. Cancelled contracts, massive job losses, and workers on the edge of starvation do not call for explanation. These are “facts” understood to be beyond the control of factory owners or international brands, something akin to a natural disaster.
Pandemic conditions, if only temporarily, punctured critical myths around the workings of global apparel supply chains and the place of gendered, racialized labor from the global south. In places like Bangladesh, COVID-19 showed up cracks in the story of female empowerment and the premise of national prosperity through neoliberal economic growth policies. These liberal and imperial myths – translated into global common sense – are dangerously seductive, producing popular consent to otherwise exploitative systems.
The first myth is of empowerment, of women, especially Muslim women, lifting their families out of poverty through factory work. To be clear, the argument here is not that individual women and their families do not benefit at all from waged work. Rather, the conditions under which they labor are profoundly precarious and uncertain, and leave most workers with minimal savings or resources, as the desperation of workers last year showed.
For brands, the narrative of lifting third world women out of poverty and into productive labor helps to justify cheapened racialized labor. Most draw on a version of the smart economics (gender equality is good for growth) embraced by the World Bank, prominently embodied in Nike’s Girl Effect initiatives.2
The Bangladeshi state and factory owners have cultivated powerful myths of their own, mobilizing tropes of nationalism and gender along the way. Calls to save the economy are folded into calls to save the garment industry and by extension the livelihoods of (poor) Bangladeshi women (Siddiqi 2020). Otherwise commendable private initiatives – such as the Pathways for Promise program at the Asian University of Women (AUW), which provides opportunities for garment workers to access higher education – effectively gloss over and normalize existing structures.3 Empowerment here is one individual at a time, with broader structures of inequality left intact. Arguably, the rhetoric of women’s empowerment under persistently precarious and unjust conditions can be sustained only through the lens of what cultural critic Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism (2011) – the aspirations or organizing fantasies of the good life. A miniscule number of the roughly 3 million workers who toil in Bangladesh’s garment industry will make it to the AUW program, for instance. For everyone else the acquisition of a college degree and its associated promises will remain a fantasy.4
Second is the myth of ethical business. In the early months of the pandemic, brands made their priorities clear – the rights of share-holders to receive dividends took precedence over those of workers demanding outstanding wages. Cancellations, broken contracts, and refusal to pay for goods already delivered clearly signaled a disengagement from any moral obligation to the lives of workers. This is not specific to the apparel supply chain, of course. As others have noticed, “capital has all too often made clear where it falls when the choice is between sustaining profitability and sustaining life, it will always choose the former” (Samour 2020, p. 54).
Third and related is the neoliberal myth of free, equal trade. For how was it that international retailers were able to unilaterally exit the binding obligation of formal contracts, legally? They invoked the (until recently little-known) clause of force majeure inserted into all their contracts. Indeed, international trade arrangements have long evolved to protect profits, not workers, along uneven capitalist, neo-colonial, racialized lines. This “fashion racism,” as Minh-Ha T. Pham (2019) calls it, is built into and builds on trade liberalization policies of the 1980s and 1990s that sought to expand Euro-American corporations’ labor and consumer markets.
It should come as no surprise then that risks along the supply chain are unevenly distributed because power relations among the various actors are highly asymmetrical. This asymmetrical distribution of power and risk renders global garment chains deeply problematic, with workers at the lowest end of the chain who suffer the most. Under current apparel supply chain convention, manufacturers are responsible for all costs until final products are shipped. For small factories that often operate on razor thin margins, this arrangement makes timely payment difficult at the best of times. Pandemic conditions magnified this vulnerability, leaving small enterprises with minimal or no cash. Hundreds of factories closed down overnight, without notice, and without paying outstanding due to its workers.
So it is that in post-COVID Bangladesh, the sight of garment workers defying social-distancing protocols to protest publicly has become all-too familiar. In the month of June, 2020, the Industrial Police recorded more than 100 incidents of “labor unrest” in the country’s six industrial zones, primarily over non-payment of wages and/or arbitrary dismissal. These protests are rarely successful; on the contrary, demonstrators face violent attacks, job suspension, and court cases.
These incidents cannot be understood exclusively as a pandemic phenomenon, however. Deferral or the non-payment of wages and unannounced factory closures without compensation are routine practices in many garment factories – especially those involved in subcontracting.
Last week, I received an email from activist and photographer Taslima Akhter, who is also the coordinator of Garment Sromik Shonghoti (Solidarity with Garment Workers), a non-registered grassroots organization in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Akhter’s message contained an update on the group’s activities, including an upcoming rally that would formally launch a program to demand higher wages and protest ever increasing targets (quotas) imposed on individual workers. “This is a really critical rally/gathering for us,” she wrote in bold. She had attached a photo of Shongoti members painting protest signs with the message: “Stop harassing workers in the name of (meeting) targets.”
Low wages (nowhere near local living wages for most workers and currently the fourth lowest in the world) have long been a source of grievance in Bangladesh’s garment industry. “Speeding up” or increasing individual worker’s daily quota in order to cut down on total labor costs, is regular practice in times of crisis, though until now, resistance against it has rarely been articulated so strongly. This happened in 2008 post-recession and after the Rana Plaza collapse when Bangladesh’s damaged reputation provided “leverage” for international brands to drive down their buying prices. In turn, many local manufacturers sharply increased individual quotas, and “trimmed” their workforce. In this respect, what the pandemic has exposed is how much has not changed since the Rana Plaza collapse – widely understood to be a key moment of rupture in the dominant discourse on sweated labor.
In 2013, attention was focused squarely on the pathologies of the local, on shoddy building material, corrupt government officials, and the general indifference of owners. Framed through the lens of third world backwardness, Bangladesh as a national space was culturalized, cast as an ethically deficient supply base, in need of correction or discipline from without.
The discursive containment of “the problem” within the territorial borders of the nation displaced attention from transnational connections and the structuring role of the supply chain (such as increasingly short lead times), and disappeared questions of accountability. It also allowed for attention to focus exclusively on the “failed building” (Ashraf 2017). The disciplining of “the errant arm” of the supply chain by those further up the chain (Sen 2021) produced the much-heralded Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (henceforth the Accord). Dubbed a “game changer” this multi-stake holder, legally binding, model of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was billed as a model for other places, especially since it included the voices of labor unions. Once brands signed on, they were committed to contracting only from suppliers whose factories had been upgraded to meet specific safety standards.
Two features are worth noting. First, the Accord arrived very much in an imperial mode, a multi corporate agreement recast as an agreement among multi-stake holders. Neither the Bangladesh government nor the powerful (and admittedly labor unfriendly) factory owners’ association were included in its making or implementation. Bangladesh was like a child being disciplined, with only the adults allowed at the table. Even the much-vaunted union voice was limited to those with institutionalized international connections. Second, the corporate friendly Accord basically left supply chain dynamics, its basic structural or systemic contradictions, intact. Conceptualized as a technical problem, the response was a depoliticized technical fix. Finally, since it only applied to Bangladesh, the Accord left local factories and by extension, the workers, more rather than less vulnerable because of the threat of foreign capital relocating to other countries. .
A recent report from the Workers’ Rights Consortium points out that prices paid to garment factories do not reflect true costs of labor or for most factory owners to maintain some kind of reserves. Clearly the existing and failed supply chain model must go.
The logic of the technical fix, embraced by many Euro-American progressives, precluded other stories from being told or circulated internationally. In the summer of 2014, workers of the Tuba group went on a hunger strike demanding three months of back pay and reinstatement of jobs. Ironically, for striking Tuba workers, the factory building proved to be a much needed refuge, albeit temporarily (Siddiqi 2015). Although the strike was front page news in Bangladesh, neither the international media, nor those clamoring for Euro American brands to sign on to the Accord paid much attention.5
The logic of technical fixes forecloses other fundamental questions. Why on that fateful day of April 24, 2013 did garment workers feel compelled to report to work, even though state authorities had declared the building unsafe the day before? It was toward the end of the month, and they had yet to be paid. Threatened with non-payment or worse, workers had little choice: chance death or face possible starvation.
This is normal, non-crisis time practice. It is revealing that when garment factories re-opened in the early months of the pandemic, often with minimal or no social distancing protocols on the shop floor, garment workers expressed a similar sentiment: our choice is between dying of starvation and risk dying of the virus. In this they occupy a necro political space, compelled by “the cruel compulsion of capitalism that leaves them with no choice but to work to live at the risk of exposure to death” (Samour 2020, p. 56).
Forging Transnational Feminist Solidarity
Now in its fourth decade, Bangladesh’s garment industry still fails its workers in fundamental ways. If workers are not paid enough to set aside savings; if there’s still no assurance of being paid on time, not to mention job security; and the government cannot provide a coherent social safety net in times of crisis, then clearly the stories of individual empowerment and national prosperity through export industrialization ring hollow.
How might we extend feminist solidarity in this difficult situation? It should be evident from the preceding analysis that there cannot be any quick or individualized fixes to entrenched systemic problems. Well-meaning actions that target individual brands, such as the #PayUP campaign provide only piecemeal solutions, leaving the systemic features of the supply chain untouched.
They also reveal a certain innocence about the operations of global capital. Agreements like the Accord are a stop gap measure, at best. Further, interventions of this kind do not take into account the agency of workers themselves. They are premised on the assumption that workers in the global South are unable to determine the causes and solutions to the exploitative practices they endure (Bonacich et al. 2008, p. 11). This line of thinking only reinforces a global racialized hierarchy, constructing workers as victims.
What can feminists “elsewhere” do? We have to begin by attending to the task of narrative reconstruction – dismantling stories of the ethical register in which supply chains ostensibly operate. To refuse the seductions of mainstream empowerment theory, which traffics in Orientalist fantasies of saving impoverished brown bodies “elsewhere” calls for a different kind of knowledge and action. Over the years, numerous books and policy reports have been written on Bangladesh garment workers, on recalcitrant owners and an indifferent or corrupt state. We know much of the miseries (and occasional pleasures) of factory work. It is time to study up, familiarizing ourselves with the politics of international trade agreements for instance, rather than accepting racialized, colonial social hierarchies.
- 1. The argument presented here is not incompatible with the impressive improvements in social indicators made over the last two decades. These include gender parity in primary and secondary school education. Notably, such improvements are the direct outcome of sustained state policy rather than free market neoliberal policies.
- 2. See: Kathryn Moeller (2018 ); Michelle Murphy (2017).
- 3. See: NBC news Dec 31 2020, How a program in Bangladesh is preparing garment workers for college.
- 4. I am grateful to Rakhshanda Saleem for a conversation around empowerment discourses in South Asia and the relevance of Berlant’s work.
- 5. The lack of attention to the Tuba strike in either scholarly or activist circles in the US – until very recently – is deeply disconcerting and points to the silencing effect of well-meaning “progressive” international efforts.
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