Made in Bangladesh, For Better or Worse

My father came back a couple of weeks ago with a suitcase full of presents from Bangladesh. We were in the living room and he unpacked scores and scores of colorful saris and shalwar kameezes. He then reached into suitcase number two and pulled out a stack of plastic wrapped T-shirts. "I got these from your uncle's factory," he said with pride in his voice. "They export these to Europe! They even export to Wal-mart!"

I hesitated. My dad was so proud that his Bangladeshi relatives owned clothing factories in Bangladesh. You could hear it in his voice because as far as Bangladeshi standards are concerned, they had made it because they were exporting to Wal-Mart.

I didn't know what to say, really, to my dad about that. In my Western frame of mind, I would never be caught dead in a Wal-Mart, I save up money to purchase sweat-shop free clothes from American Apparel, and think that Kathy Gifford was bad when her line of clothing was discovered to be made by children. But looking at it from my dad's point of view, these were his family members that pulled themselves up by the bootstraps from the village to owning a large factory in the big city of Dhaka. They own property. They export to Europe. They have huge contracts with Wal-Mart. They are khubi boro loak, "very big people."

Is there a middle to this? A way for me to be happy for my Bangladeshi relatives while supporting fair international labor practices? I'm not sure. If I ever did make it back to the mother land, high and mighty with my Western ways, I'm not likely to be taken seriously. "You don't know what it's like to live here," I picture them saying, "and why aren't you married yet?"

Making a living in Bangladesh is hard and when you don't have many choices, you take what you can get. I would never choose to own a clothing factory, but if I lived in Bangladesh, I might not have a choice.

Economically speaking, it does take fewer hours of labor to produce a shirt there than here, and thus the opportunity cost of producing a shirt is less in Bangladesh. So as long as they are paying a wage workers can live on and they don't hire children under the age of 14 (per Bangladesh's proposed Child Labor Deterrent Act of 1994), should I really be interfering?

Most people would say yes. As a matter of fact, young women are coming from Bangladesh to organize American people so that they can become aware of the conditions in these factories. They talk to activist groups about what it's like to work in the factory, what it means to start unions and to strike, to get a paid holiday.

But another message you hear is don't stop buying clothes from Bangladesh. Don't take away their jobs, just give them the opportunity to make a decent living while doing the job that they do. If the factories move out of Bangladesh due to unstrategic boycotts, then the women are left unemployed with no other choices. What we need are jobs along with fair labor practices in Bangladesh. In fact, this past September Wal-Mart workers on four continents (including Bangladesh) sued the company in the California Supreme Court, maintaining that they failed to ensure that "Wal-Mart failed to meet its contractual duty to ensure that its suppliers pay basic wages due; forced them to work excessive hours seven days a week; obstructed their attempts to form a union; and made false and misleading statements … about the company's labor and human rights practices."

Every time I go through the racks of clothes while shopping, my eyes immediately go to the "Made In …" label. When we were little and shopping with Mom, it turned into a game of trying to find the clothes that were "Made In Bangladesh," and yelling out to my mom that we had found one. Maybe it came from one of our relatives' factories! When I see the "Made in" label now, I'm torn. Should I not buy the shirt and support American-made, or should I support Bangladeshi-made clothes and take the risk that it came from a sweatshop?

In the end, all I said to my father as he sat on the carpet with T-shirts strewn about from our relatives' clothing factories in Bangladesh was, "Thanks, Dad." What else could I say?


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