Last week, by a massive stroke of luck, I had the chance to meet Professor Mohammed Yunus, together with Transparency International founder Peter Eigen, talk about a new initiative of theirs, the Garment Industries Transparency Initiative. Details of the initiative are still being worked out, but it was Professor Yunus' speech about the effect that the garment industry has had on Bangladesh that left me thinking.
The story we've all heard is one of exploitation. Especially since the recent and tragic factory collapse at Rana Plaza, which left over 1,100 people dead, hundreds still missing, and devastated the lives of thousands more – injured survivors, dependent family members, and those in mourning, there are (justifiably) negative connotations that come with any item 'Made in Bangladesh'.
But as Professor Yunus insisted, the garment industry hasn't been a source of only evil in the country. The hard facts:
Garment exports came to $21.5 billion in the year ending June 2013. This is almost 20% of the country's entire GDP
Over the past 10 years, labour force participation for 20- to 24-year-old women more than doubled
80% of the 3.6 million people who work in the garment industry are women
Numerous poverty indicators show that “Bangladesh has had disproportionate poverty reduction for its amount of growth” including life expectancy increased by 10 years (4 years longer than Indians), infant mortality has more than halved, and literacy rates have almost doubled, since 1990.
According to the World Bank, 16 million people were lifted 'out of poverty' in the last 10 years, with labour income as one of the major factors.
It's difficult to comprehend how these awful working conditions could bring anything other than unhappiness to those involved – but actually, for millions, the garment industry has been a source of empowerment and social advancement.
Professor Yunus made the strong argument that actually, the garment industry has been a catalyst for positive social change in the country. It has, in an otherwise traditional culture where women play the role of housewife and mother, and men are the breadwinners, provided a culturally acceptable alternative.
This opportunity for employment has provided millions of women with their one opportunity to leave their village, to earn their own living, and even to send money back to support their family. That is, in effect, the definition of empowerment. The conditions, however, are the epitome of exploitation.
The challenge now is to keep the first, while getting rid of the second. Pressurising companies to leave Bangladesh and stop employing these women is not the solution – this leaves them again with nothing. Professor Yunus' point was that the global community should encourage foreign companies to keep investing in Bangladesh, while improving working conditions for the workers, not simply giving up on them.
So what does that mean for us, the consumers? We could try and hold companies accountable for their actions. We could ask them to be transparent about where they are sourcing their clothes from. Or, if the Garment Industries Transparency Initiative goes ahead as Mohammed Yunus and Peter Eigen suggested, we could pay an extra dollar or two to make sure that the clothes we are buying were not made with slave labour.