6th February saw the airing on mainstream TV in the UK of a documentary on working conditions in garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The film shows how far the transformation of working conditions in these factories has yet to go. What is distinctive about this film is that it was shot inside the factories, by Bangladeshi women hired as workers, who wore hidden cameras to film work on the production line, and how it is ‘supervised’. The results are shocking. This is how some have described it:
The appalling loss of life at Rana Plaza last April exposed the dangers of Bangladesh’s vast garment trade to the world when more than a thousand people were killed when a factory building collapsed. … But until now, the pressures, abuse and shockingly, the violence that also takes place behind the closed doors of Dhaka’s sweatshops has remained a secret. For the first time tonight, An undercover ITV investigation reveals a factory with links to a major UK brand where verbal and physical abuse place takes place, child workers are reduced to tears, being slapped and kicked for not working quickly enough, and another factory with fire exits that are kept locked and vital health and safety checks being manipulated. … The legacy of the Rana Plaza disaster was meant to include an effort right across Bangladesh’s garment trade to improve conditions and stamp out the dangers. Our investigation reveals quite clearly, not everyone has been willing to change.
The film was shot bytwo Bangladeshi women, who went undercover in two garment factories in Dhaka, to show the dangerous and inhumane conditions that worker’s face. The secret footage shows, a fire escape padlocked shut in a factory where workers were making shirts for British firm JD Williams, and BHS shirts were found in storage. Footage also captures workers, including girls as young as 14 years old, being kicked, slapped and hit with a fabric roll, as well as being verbally and physical abused.
Difficult viewing it might be, but programmes like Exposure play a vital role in illuminating tough issues, such as labour rights abuses. Fashion Factories Undercover reiterated the need not only for a change in health and safety standards but in wider labour practices across Bangladesh’s sector. While there are examples of good practice in Bangladesh factories, last night’s episode highlighted that there is still a long way to go for the sector as a whole. A cultural shift must happen in order to address endemic abuse and discrimination and international brands must play a role in this. It is morally unacceptable that workers should spend their working hours in terror and fear, without safe channels for reporting discrimination and abusive behaviour.
One important means to tell stories of factory exploitation is to do what might elsewhere be seen as unethical, using deception to gain access to a place that would otherwise be ‘out of bounds’, filming people without their consent, putting research team members in danger and, after the research is done and the researchers have gone away, leaving vulnerable research participants with any fallout. But what are the motivations of those who are prepared to take such risks?
One of the workers who concealed a camera for the ITV Exposure documentary explained her reasons for taking part: “It’s really important people know what we are going through, because they don’t know what we do. They only see that we make clothes. They don’t know about the working conditions in this country. How we do our work. How much we suffer. We are doing this to let the world know.” Her colleague said of her factory experience: “About 40 children are aged between 11 and 15. Their family situation is really bad, which is why they work in the garment factories. The children said after they meet their targets, they immediately have to do more work. They don’t give them any time to go to the toilet. If they make one mistake they get slapped, kicked or they get fired.”
There is, of course, much more that could be said about the issues that this documentary raises. This post is just a starting point.
If your university subscribes to the Box of Broadcasts database, you can watch the whole film here.