Dismantling Our Stereotypes of Bangladesh
I met Marie Sophie Pettersson, representative of UN Women, in Copenhagen coincidently a day before the United Nations International Refugee Day in 2017. We sat in the courtyard of Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen; the gallery’s windows barricaded with more than 3500 salvaged life jackets collected from refugees arriving at the Greek Island of Lesbos. This site-specific installation, titled Soleil Levant, was created by Ai Weiwei especially for the occasion.
With Soleil Levant as our backdrop, I quizzed Marie about her first-hand experience as a representative of UN Women working in Bangladesh’s multi-faceted garment industry. Marie shares the challenges and opportunities faced by young female employees who make up the majority of the country’s 4 million garment workers. We also discuss how different production facilities can generate income without disturbing local communities and little celebrated talents and materials of Bangladeshi people.
Advance Copy: Hi Marie, you’ve worked in Bangladesh, Nepal and Thailand and have had a unique insight into the everyday lives of garment workers in these countries. Could you describe exactly what you do at UN Women and your initial steps into this career?
Marie: I work with UN Women for the United Nations Organisation for Gender Equality at our regional office in Bangkok, responsible for Asia and the Pacific. Usually, I work on women’s rights, LGBTI rights and gender equality specifically in humanitarian sectors. But my first real job after graduating was in Bangladesh in 2011. It was a research project, working with 200 garments factories, everything from H&M to Ralph Lauren. It was very broad, we worked with British Supermarket brands that produced (clothing) in Bangladesh and then with the World Bank, with GO7 and the German government. We were a research NGO looking specifically at conditions for garment workers – those working at the bottom of the supply chain, the sewing operators.
AC: Are these the most entry-level positions for the factory workers?
Marie: Basically yes, I would say 80% or more of those who work in the industry. We were particularly looking at gender dynamics: conditions for women, whether it was an empowering aspect or not, and how we could improve it. We offered a training program to these factories for employees to be trained and promoted to become line supervisors. Our objective was to look at women’s economic empowerment or women’s empowerment in general.
AC: Could you tell us about life and conditions in Bangladesh?
Marie: The context in Bangladesh, and one often told in the media, is that there is a lot of extreme poverty, there is high impact of climate change and there are also big urban slums. Then there is the garment industry with a lot of gender issues and violence against women. Women have very little access to jobs, very little mobility and some parts of Bangladesh are very Conservative, so women don’t leave their homes. Half of the year when the land gets flooded, the husbands will go to the city, to Dhaka, the capital, to work and they will leave food at home so that the women will stay inside for half of the year. That’s the condition; it’s very hard for women to get jobs and to become financially independent. But as the garment industry has grown, 80% of sewing operators are women.
“Our objective was to look at women’s economic empowerment.”
AC: Did you see a general profile for women working in garment factories in Bangladesh?
Marie: Generally, the profile is actually quite young, from poor families and its generally women who haven’t had kids. Which is interesting because that age group is also very difficult in Bangladesh, there is a lot of pressure to get married off early and it really is like getting ‘married off’. You pay a dowry for them to get married and to have kids early and to not work. There is a perception that the more educated the girl is the less valuable she is.
Traditionally, artisanship and sewing have been a woman’s line of work so it was naturally seen as the kind of work that they could go into. Therefore, a lot of women got recruited by garment factories, and it is no longer only men that migrated during the seasons when there are floods or cyclones. There have been a lot of different discussions about this, some say it’s a pioneering example of women’s economic empowerment, that the garment industry is making jobs for women and paying salaries. There’s been quite a lot of research by Naila Kabeer, a Bangladeshi feminist economist, who’s looked into how the garment industry has changed gender norms and roles.
AC: What issues did you notice when recruiting factories to the designed training program?
Marie: I spent my first months in Bangladesh visiting 200 or 300 different garment factories trying to recruit them onto our project. They would be anything from huge factories to apartments that were made into factories, which is not at all in line with proper conditions. There are lots of issues, some stories were told of how women were not allowed to go to the toilets, if they had their periods and they would bleed, they would get beaten up. Especially right outside Dhaka, Gazipur Savar districts, that’s where a lot of the garment factories are, at lunch you would see almost only women walking in rows and you never see women walking on the streets of Dhaka, so it’s such a shock. It also puts them in risky situations, because there is the danger of rape, violence and harassment, especially in a country where traditionally women wouldn’t walk like that on the streets. There are people who live in big slum areas of Gazipur where police report many cases of rape, more than in other parts of Dhaka.
It’s a mixed picture, The Economist would report that it’s a case of economic empowerment but I think it’s very mixed. Then you would have ‘The War on Want’ in the Guardian paint a very negative picture, which also isn’t the case.
“The garment industry in Bangladesh is nuanced.”
AC: Was the program successful in promoting women from sewing machine operators to line supervisors?
Marie: When we were assessing the impact of this training program, we saw that all of the management were also men and not very gender-sensitive. They didn’t see any reason to promote women and they didn’t believe that it would improve productivity, which is how we sold the program. There is also this gender barrier of male managers maybe not wanting to communicate with female workers and that barrier would affect productivity and quality.
AC: Did your opinion about clothing manufacturing change during these initial years of working for UN Women?
Marie: When I was working on the training program project my own thinking about the fashion industry was changing and I went from being completely disillusioned and thinking “I’m never going to buy from these brands” to thinking this is actually creating jobs. When you come here you see that the garment industry in Bangladesh is nuanced; there is mafia controlling it, there are also trade unions and government corruption, so it’s complicated.
AC: Could you tell us about the role and activities of NGOs in Bangladesh?
Marie: My second job as a Gender Advisor focused on economic empowerment, working with 40 local and international NGOs. We worked with the poorest people, slum dwellers who lived on the streets on less than $0.30, in areas that are prone to flooding. We were trying to create jobs and engage them in any kind of income generation because they don’t have anything asset-based or access to microfinance that they could use. From this job, I started to learn about many great initiatives and local NGOs. Many handicrafts NGOs work with the poorest people, those who have not migrated to Dhaka, including women who could do tailoring or Kantha stitching, traditionally used in saris. There are other NGOs who work with indigenous communities that are ethnic-religious minorities and do traditional weaving with hand looms.
“Garment factories are good for the economy but moving this to a village setting is more aligned with peoples’ lives.”
AC: Is there a particular example of a successful NGO program that stands out to you?
Marie: I got to know about one initiative that was setting up garment factories in rural settings so that people could stay in their villages, fit into their traditional norms and work close by. I visited one factory that was making rugs from recycled fabric scraps. The factory was close to the village where its female employees lived, it had a child care facility so some of the kids would go to school and others stayed at home in the village. The women would go home for lunch, go back to work again and come back at 5 PM and they had a steady salary. These initiatives work better. The garment factories are good for the economy but moving this to a village setting is more aligned with peoples’ lives and promotes traditional artisanship. Big brands also work with such initiatives, but it was nice to see that there are also smaller collectives.
AC: Would you mind recommending some NGOs for customers and brands who are looking to make a positive change to garment workers in Bangladesh?
Marie: There are many handicraft organisations, some smaller than others, Tarango, was probably one of the only ones that I saw that was successful and exporting. Brac is a big Bangladeshi NGO, which also works in other countries and has one of the biggest handicraft brands in Bangladesh, Aarong.
AC: Do products made by NGOs sell locally in Bangladesh?
Marie: Yes, they do at local markets in Dhaka because there is an elite class. Those are the people who are the owners of garment factories and rice production. Handicraft fairs in Dhaka happen in beautiful places, with both foreigners and local affluent class attending. That’s where I came across a lot of the smaller brands and I started seeing how much amazing raw material there is in Bangladesh; raw silk and things made out of pineapple fibres or jute, there is so much.
AC: What historical skills or textiles did you take note of that are perhaps more unique to artisans in Bangladesh?
Marie: There are many types of traditional stitching and weaving that have been handed over for centuries, for example, Jamdani stitching. Using natural dye, jute and making blankets out of saris are also practised traditionally.
“I was tired of the story that everybody knows about Bangladesh.”
AC: It’s interesting to hear that there are many initiatives trying to preserve traditional crafts and keep them in their communities. These examples sound sustainable and optimistic.
Marie: Exactly, and that was something that I think I started to realise. I was tired of the story that everybody knows about Bangladesh, the general image that people have is that of sweatshops. There are many positive stories you could tell about craftsmanship in Bangladesh.
AC: Could you tell us about some grass-roots projects that you have taken part, that allowed you to apply your extensive knowledge of local garment manufacturing and understanding of workers’ conditions?
Marie: Yes, through friends I met someone who specialises in sustainable textiles, another friend worked in climate change and sustainable livelihoods while my interest was very much in women’s economic empowerment. It was right after the Rana Plaza factory collapse and at the start of the Fashion Revolution movement, we brainstormed and very naturally decided that we should do something. We had an idea of setting up a supply chain of things that could be made in a way that supports local artisanship and local ways of living. It started with one organisation that was working on the border of the south-west of Bangladesh with India, Meherpur district which is where a lot of human trafficking into India takes place. This organisation was working with survivors of trafficking, with people who came back. They also worked around prevention to engage people with agriculture and handicraft. This Bangladeshi organisation was struggling, we saw them every few months at handicraft fairs in Dhaka, they were using beautiful materials and trying to appeal to foreigners but these products would never sell. Our thinking was that they could achieve so much more and appeal to people in places like London. We started collaborating, visiting their base in Meherpur and coming up with ideas. We were a big group working for free on everything from design, workers’ conditions, finance to legal aspects. It was so energising and we were trying to do something differently.
Gradually, we collaborated with other organisations, one that worked with indigenous people doing natural dye and weavings, another that was making pineapple fibre and silk. Generally, we would work with whatever the partners were already making, we were not trying to change their designs and we wanted it to be led by the organisations.
AC: How did this group project and brand develop?
Marie: We ended up creating our own brand called Tripty, which is the name of the leader of the first organisation that we partnered with and it also means ‘satisfaction’ in Bangla. This became our narrative, the idea of connection and satisfaction and of telling a positive story about things that are made in Bangladesh. We were thinking about how we could integrate all of these different artisanship skills into different products to export them abroad, which would make them more profitable. That was something that we could add because we could provide an idea of the kind of fashion that was popular in Europe or the US and the mindsets of consumers who bought ethically made products.
AC: What lessons did Tripty teach you about designing and distributing ethically made fashion to affluent customers in the West?
Marie: It was an interesting journey I would say that with time we started focusing more on quality control and making our items simpler. In the beginning, we would make many different things because we were not sure what our niche could be. Then we narrowed it down to just backpacks and changed our marketing strategy to focus on talking about how the items are made and what part of Bangladesh they came from. With time you start to realise what gaps there are and how we can better tell the story about Bangladesh, how we can reach the consumers. The question for me is still – how to bridge that gap.
Looking back at our meeting in 2017, Ai Weiwei’s installation remains relevant and a continuous reminder of the on-going displacement of people. Since this conversation, Marie Sophie Pettersson has returned to Bangladesh as part of a crisis response team in Cox’s Bazaar, where approximately one million displaced Rohingya people are living in the world’s largest refugee camp.