Organizing Bangladeshi Sweatshops

Udita (Arise)

Rainbow Collective (2015)

Film Review

Udita is an inspirational film about the unionization of the female garment workers in Bangladeshi sweatshops (see The Ugly Side of the Fashion Industry) over the last five years.

In addition to exposing the deplorable living conditions of these women and their children, the documentary also profiles two disasters that significantly increased union membership: the 2012 fire in the Tazreen factory that killed 57 workers and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 that killed 1021 workers.

Udita differs from other sweatshop documentaries in that in focuses minimal attention on the western brands (Walmart, Gap, etc) that reap obscene profits from employing third world women in conditions of virtual slavery. This film is more about the lives of the workers, who are often single mothers abandoned by their husbands.

The film begins by profiling one organizer who first tried to form a union in 2010, when the minimum wage in the garment factories was $22 a month. Deducted from this was the $13 a month a typical garment worker paid to live in a one room shack with shared bathroom facilities.

Overtime was compulsory, with workers only getting only one day off a month. They were also subject to beatings and/or firing if they complained about maltreatment or non-payment of wages (it was common for paymasters to dock their pay for non-existent infringements). One of the early grievances the National Garment Workers’ Federation (NGWF) won was the case of 250 workers who hadn’t been paid for three months.

NGWF members grew significantly following the Tazreen fire. The main reason the fatality rate was so high was because workers were doing compulsory overtime on a big Walmart order and the doors and gates had been locked to keep them from leaving. Following the 2012 fire, NGWF held a number of large protest marches and forced the government to increase the minimum wage to $64 a month.

The documentary also profiles a woman forced to assume custody of her two grandchildren after both daughter and a son-in-law are killed in the Rana Plaza disaster. Because she had no money to pay their school fees, both children were kicked out of school (public schooling is virtually non-existent in Bangladesh).

The film ends with a humongous 2014 protest march, in which the woman and her grandchildren participate. The principal demand is compensation from the factory owner for the 1121 deaths.

The Ugly Side of the Fashion Industry

The True Cost

By Andrew Morgan (2015)

Film Review

The True Cost is about the immense environmental and human cost of the fashion industry – all for the sake of a few people raking in immense profits.

The modern trend of “fast fashion” is the most destructive. Over the last few decades, the big fashion brands have sought to make clothes so cheap that consumers only wear them a few times before discarding them and buying new ones.

The average American purchases 80 pieces of clothing a year, 400% more than two decades ago. The US disposes of 11 million pounds of textile waste a year, an average of 82 pounds per person.

Reliance on Sweatshops

Lowering the cost of clothes has necessitated moving 97% of clothing manufacture overseas. Bangladesh, where workers (who are 85% women) earn less than $3 a day,  is the favorite of most big name brands like the Gap.

The women work and live in total squalor. In the past few years , 1,000 workers were killed when the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed. Hundreds more have died in a series of fires. The pay is insufficient for the women to provide housing for their children. They remain with relatives in the countryside and see their mothers at most once or twice a year.

Thanks to Global Exchange and the anti-sweatshop campaigns of the 1990s, all the big fashion brands sign voluntary codes of conduct to makes sure their local contractors respect the human rights of their sweatshop workers (which they never enforce). The big brands also systematically obstruct federal legislation that would make such codes compulsory.

The Second Most Polluting Industry in the World

The environment degradation caused by “fast fashion” is equally horrific. The garment industry is the most polluting in the world (second only to oil). The global proliferation of GMO cotton has had devastating health effects in India and the Lubbock Texas area. Until I saw this film, I was unaware that Lubbock is one of the largest cotton producing regions in the world.

In Texas most of the GMO cotton is Roundup Ready, Monsanto’s best selling pesticide. Heavy exposure is responsible for a large cancer cluster among Lubbock area residents.

In India, both Roundup Ready and Bt Cotton are grown. The former is responsible for a significant increase in birth defects, cancer and mental illness. The latter is responsible for a serious reduction in crop yields (the pesticide Bt Cotton produces kills the soil bacteria responsible for soil fertility). The loss of soil fertility has led to farmers losing their land and livelihood, as well as over 200,000 farmer suicides in the last 15 years.

India is also experiencing massive chromium contamination of the Ganges River and surrounding groundwater, from chemicals used in tanning leather for the western fashion industry.

Spin, Propaganda and Lies

The fashion industry pumps out propaganda that sweatshops are good because they create jobs for people who otherwise would have no alternative. This ignores the deleterious effect of “free trade” treaties that have destroyed the rural economies of many third world countries.

The official narrative also belies collusion between the fashion industry and the Vietnamese government, known for brutally beating and killing garment workers during peaceful protests demanding a minimum wage.

The full film was available on YouTube last week but has been taken down. You can rent it from VHX or iTunes for $3.99: Watch now