Bangladesh’s Disaster Capitalism

Climate change is driving Bangladeshi women out of the countryside and into exploitative garment factories.

Melted ice caps, habitat loss, encroaching seas, violent storms, crop failure, hunger, death — the list of global warming’s ill effects is long. Yet for some, climate change has been a windfall. In Bangladesh, businesses in sectors like the garment trade are profiting from the influx of poor women into urban areas, driven off their land by climate change.

Masses of women have flocked to the city because of the scarcity of job opportunities for them in rural villages. But as my visit to the slums of Dhaka in late 2014 and early 2015 revealed, many are also being expelled by severe weather and forced into exploitative work arrangements in the capital’s ready-made garment (RMG) industry.

Many women recounted the financial and personal hardships they faced in their village in the wake of floods, droughts, storms, and erosion. They sought employment in urban garment factories in an attempt to detach their income and food supply from increasingly destructive weather patterns.

Roxanna’s (all original names have been changed) experience was emblematic:

Our house was badly affected, and it dropped and fell apart. I had problems getting food. Suppose I needed extra money to repair my home — where would I get that from while I was facing problems managing food? I was thinking if I could come to Dhaka, then my children would get a better life, and I would be able to manage our food.

It will likely only get worse. Already one of the countries most exposed to climate change, Bangladesh is expected to experience increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

If those predictions hold, more and more women will flee delta villages for urban areas, seeking work wherever they can get it. And the influx of migrants will give garment employers even more power to dictate wages and working conditions, all while providing a swelling labor pool from which the industry can draw upon to expand.

Tragedy and Profit

The Bangladeshi garment industry has grown dramatically over the past three decades — the annual value of RMG exports jumped from $116 million in 1985 to $25.4 billion in 2015. A beneficiary of the country’s high population density and limited employment opportunities, the industry now employs roughly 4 million workers, most of whom are female rural-to-urban migrants.

As Joshna, a garment worker, described it:

All my coworkers have moved from rural areas to this city in search of a better job and life. They were all struggling in their village and faced many hardships to fulfill their family’s needs . . . We people from the rural areas are poor and we will do anything and everything which people from Dhaka won’t do.

Across the globe, only Sri Lankan garment employees make less than their Bangladeshi counterparts ($66 per month versus $68 per month, as per the new minimum wage in Bangladesh). Inexperienced RMG employees in China, by contrast, start at between $156 and $266 monthly.

In addition to paying rock-bottom wages, the industry keeps down costs by neglecting basic workplace safety and refusing to recognize workers’ rights. For the RMG factory workforce, this profit-driven calculation has been deadly. In 2012, 123 garment workers died in a fire at Tazreen Fashions, and the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building killed 1,138 and injured over 2,500 garment employees who were working on the upper floors.

Maya — a twenty-year-old who left her village after a violent storm destroyed her house, forcing her family to build a makeshift shelter out of clothes — arrived in Dhaka a month before the Rana Plaza collapse, and spent two days asking for work in the vicinity of the building. She counts her blessings her search was unsuccessful. “I just thought that if I had gotten the job in Rana Plaza, I would have been dead by now,” she told me.

The Rana Plaza tragedy has spurred efforts to improve wages and working conditions for Bangladesh’s garment factory employees.

In 2013, trade unions and two hundred clothing companies — mostly from Europe, including H&M, Primark, and Inditex (the owner of Zara) — signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year binding agreement with regular factory inspections, corrective action plans, and training programs, all overseen by NGO observers. In the same year, brands like Gap, Target, and Walmart formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, promising to respect workers’ rights through similar commitments (but without trade union involvement or third-party observation).

More oversight has brought some improvements. Since the Rana Plaza collapse, at least thirty-five structurally unsafe factories have been closed, unions in the industry have more than tripled, and governmental labor inspectors have increased threefold. The minimum wage for garment workers has risen by 77 percent, a response to large protests by garment workers in the capital.

However, significant problems remain. Only 5 percent of garment workers are unionized; few of the garment workers I spoke with even knew what a trade union was. Three months after the mandated wage increase, around 40 percent of factories in Dhaka were reportedly still paying below the legal minimum. And even if workers receive the full minimum wage, they still don’t earn enough to feed a family in Dhaka.

“Without any overtime I get 6,000 or 5,000 taka,” Shokhina, a factory worker, told me. “If I spend 4,000 taka on rent, how much do you think I have left? It is a big problem to feed five people with 2,000 taka monthly.”

Intensifying climate change threatens to quash any further improvements for Bangladeshi garment workers.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, Bangladesh has seen a steady increase in temperature, along with rising sea levels and more frequent, more powerful storms. In recent years, Cyclones Sidr (2007) and Aila (2009) both ravaged the country, affecting millions of Bangladeshis, especially in the southern coastal region.

The stories of the women I spoke to were harrowing: lost homes, destroyed beyond repair or washed away with river bank erosion; dead crops and starving families after weeks of flooding; income loss for farm laborers and their families when the crops they were hired to tend were damaged or destroyed; and growing debts that would loom over whole families for years to come.

Some were displaced immediately. For others, the effects were more gradual. But the net result has been a steady flow of migrants into big cities — particularly Dhaka and Chittagong, the hubs of the RMG industry. Over the past two decades, the industry has absorbed 2.8 million additional workers (growing from 1.2 million in 1995 to 4 million in 2015).

Women are particularly vulnerable in such a slack labor market because they have few employment opportunities or potential sources of income outside of garment work. The power disparity fosters an environment in which displaced workers, eager to regain their financial and material footing, are treated as expendable. And despite struggling with poor wages and working conditions, the female workers I met were reluctant to complain to their employers or protest.

All the better for capital. While profitability varies from firm to firm, it is clear that increasing urbanization — facilitated by climate change — has bolstered the RMG industry’s capacity to expand and drive economic growth in Bangladesh.

Doubly Oppressed

The women I interviewed are hence doubly oppressed by unfettered global capitalism.

First, they suffer from a climate crisis they did little to create. Their carbon footprint is vanishingly small, yet due to an abundance of cheap fossil fuel, they bear the consequences of the Global North’s cumulative emissions.

Second, in a context in which foreign direct investment is free from binding international regulations and union density is low, they endure dangerous working conditions, abusive employers, and long hours of fast-paced labor. While they are paid poverty-level wages, multinational branded retailers make extortionate profits.

The two also reinforce each other: climate change pushes women out of rural areas and into urban factories, where unrestricted production boosts global capitalism’s massive carbon emissions.

Many other countries with large rural agricultural populations are also highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. When flooding in the Mekong Delta, for example, accelerates migration to Ho Chi Minh City’s garment production zones, how will Bangladesh’s garment industry cope with the additional competition?

Four million Bangladeshi factory workers are now dependent on the continuation of foreign investment in the garment industry for their livelihood. A higher level of competition between Ho Chi Minh City’s workers could enable Vietnamese employers to lower wages and offer potential investors cheaper production contracts than Bangladesh. In such a situation, would Bangladeshi factories follow suit and underbid Vietnam to keep them from relocating?

In a footloose industry like apparel production, climate change increases competition between workers in Dhaka on a local scale and on a global scale, pitting entire populations of climate-affected people against one another in a race to attract investment.

Climate change is not just a tale of hardship and woe. It is also a tale of wealth and excess. The Bangladeshi garment industry illustrates how global capitalism and climate change are intertwined — how the latter both stems from social inequalities and simultaneously widens those same inequalities. The fight for climate justice is inseparable from the fight against capitalism.