The Shirts Off Their Backs

After the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 500, Rosemary Westwood calculates the cost of cheap clothing:

According to a 2011 report by the consulting firm O’Rourke Group Partners, a generic $14 polo shirt sold in Canada and made in Bangladesh actually costs a retailer only $5.67. To get prices that low, workers see just 12 cents a shirt, or two per cent of the wholesale cost. That’s one of the lowest rates in the world—about half of what a worker in a Chinese factory might make—and a major reason for the explosion of Bangladesh’s garment industry, worth $19 billion last year, up from $380 million in 1985. The country’s 5,400 factories employ four million people, mostly women, who cut and stitch shirts and pants that make up 80 per cent of the country’s total exports.

For that $14 shirt, the factory owners can expect to earn 58 cents, almost five times a worker’s wage. Agents who help retailers find factories to make their wares also get a cut, and it costs about $1 per shirt to cover shipping and duties. Fabric and trimmings make up the largest costs—65 per cent of the wholesale price.

Sarah Stillman spoke to Bangladeshi garment worker Sumi Abedin:

Last November, Abedin was sewing clothing for Walmart and other American brands at a factory called Tazreen Fashions, on the outskirts of Dhaka, when she heard a colleague yell, “Fire!” She thought of sprinting toward the stairs when the factory owner said, “He is lying,” and padlocked the doors.

As the air of Tazreen Fashions filled with dark smoke, Abedin told me, “I was running around the factory floor, screaming, crying for help.” After the power went out, she followed the dim light of other workers’ cell phones to the factory’s third production floor, where she saw a man removing the bars from a window. She decided to leap.

“I didn’t jump to save my life,” she told me, much as she has told reporters, students, and anyone who would listen over the past several weeks of touring the country. “I jumped to save my body, because if I stayed inside the factory I would burn to ash, and my family wouldn’t be able to identify my body.” When she landed, she broke her foot and arm. She considers herself lucky; a hundred and twelve of her colleagues died in the Tazreen fire. The parallels to New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in 1911, where doors were locked and a hundred and forty-six workers died in the space of twenty minutes, are obvious.

(Photo: Garments Factory in Bangladesh by Fahad Faisal from Wikimedia Commons)