From the heart of Old Dakha, the capital of Bangladesh, one needs to take small rafts to cross the Buriganga river and reach the other shore. On this broad river of pitch black, sewer water, people are ferried on thin canoes with a seemingly unstable balance.
There is a lot of human, animal and tool traffic. For a few cents, they move from the shore where the pink Ahsan Manzil Palace stands, once home to the “Nawab,” to an anonymous neighborhood on the other side of the river flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Full of textile factories of course, one of the great treasures of Bangladesh that every year generates 30 billion dollars in foreign currency for the country.
However, the factories, large or small, are far from the city center: they are in Savar, where the tragedy of Rana Plaza occurred, or in Ashulia, the industrial suburban districts.
Downtown, instead, there’s the heart of the production of another large primary Bangladeshi export: leather. Dozens of factories where leather is tanned: the first and most toxic process transforms the raw material in the base product which can then become a shoe or handbag.
Only a handful of blocks away from the Pink Palace, in the Kamrangirchar area and in its twin district, Hazaribagh, separated by the Buriganga river, workers toil under brutal conditions, with the help of 8-year-old children.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 90 percent of those who work in these factories that dump their poisons in the river, do not exceed the age of fifty. Pavlo Kolovos, the manager of three Doctors Without Borders clinics in Kamrangirchar, explains that “half of the patients in the MSF clinics present work-related problems: skin diseases, poisoning, respiratory failure ….”
Deborah Lucchetti, spokesperson of the Clean Clothes Campaign, says: “Our surveys show that exposure to chromium, when it is treated inadequately and transforms into hexavalent chromium, can also lead to cancer. Not to mention that the processed waste ends up in groundwater and soils, expanding the damage beyond the factory.”
The paradox is that the raw material – cotton or leather – is not always grown or produced in Bangladesh, despite the fact that this country is also a major producer of one of the best cottons in the world.
And the semi-finished products do not always end up, as it was once, in the countries where the big American or European brands are located, which are the true queens of the clothing market, from the skirt to the stiletto and from t-shirts to mocassins.
For example, one of the large world producers of cotton is Uzbekistan. It’s a production as ancient as the world that once made the Fergana Valley famous. And the Uzbek cotton ends up in Bangladesh, which does not produce enough to feed an industry that makes up 90 percent of national exports.
While the leather, before ending up in shoe boutiques in Via Montenapoleone or Bond Street, crosses very different paths. Maybe, it is produced in Serbia or even in Asia, Indonesia, China, Cambodia.
Critical conditions also behind the leather processed in the workshops of Bangladesh.
Two recent surveys help us shed light, although a sinister one, on this back alley of our clothes and our shoes. Let’s start from Uzbekistan.
A report by Human Rights Watch accuses the World Bank of funding several million dollars to Uzbekistan in cotton production. It’s called development aid.
But if you go to visit the real cotton fields, many very unpleasant things are discovered, in the report We Cannot Refuse to Pick Cotton, HRW argues that the cotton is also picked by minors and, mostly, by people who have no intention of picking it (for €5 per day).
HRW is not the only organization to have put the Uzbek cotton industry under the lens, especially its funding. Like the funding for irrigation – more than $300 million – in the districts of Turtkul, Beruni and Ellikkala in Karakalpakstan, where cotton accounts for 50 percent of the plowed land, in a country that is the world’s fifth largest producer and exports to China, Bangladesh, Turkey and Iran.
In those areas, according to the report, forced and child labor continue. And the World Bank knows it, because a mixed group – the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights – has already informed so a couple of years ago. But rather than suspending funding, the World Bank has actually expanded it.
In reality, the World Bank pays attention to the working conditions and, actually, child labor is an absolute priority in the scale of rights to be respected.
But the bureaucrats in Washington do not always have the time and inclination to look beyond the papers and they asked the International Labor Bureau to investigate. The ILO did so and presented a report which describes “progress.”
But the HRW activists point out that, as admitted by the ILO itself, not only one-third of cotton pickers have been forced to work (almost one million workers out of three million), but the authorities had warned the respondents. The same report admits “… many respondents seemed to have been prepared for the questions.”
According to HRW, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC), an agency of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, should immediately suspend all funding until the government can prove that there is no more child labor and forced labor.
And in the Cambodian factories contracted by the most famous sports brands, things are not better..
Moving to Cambodia, a few days ago the British newspaper The Observer published a survey, conducted by the NGO Danwatch, about the accidents in Cambodian factories where some of the best known sports brand products are made: Nike, Puma, Asics and VF Corporation.
Only in the last year, more than 500 employees of four different factories working for Western brands, were hospitalized. Mass fainting. The problem is the heat, lack of ventilation and lack of rules on tolerable limits in workdays even ten hours long.
The chemicals used for the production do the rest. In short, they have to work under these conditions. Far away from the well-lit shops that exhibit shoes and suits. In the asphyxiating shadows of the big Asian supermarket.
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