This Girl Walked Through Fire So We Can Get Jeans for $9

This Girl Walked Through Fire So We Can Get Jeans for $9

Low production costs have made Bangladesh the world’s second-largest producer of ready-made fashions. What’s the real price we pay for cheap clothing?

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Shumaya, 16, was injured in a fire in the garment factory in Bangladesh where she worked.

(Photo by Ayon Rehal)

December 16, 2013       By

      Joseph Allchin is a journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes regularly for the Financial Times.

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The evening light is fading as Kala Begum carries her 16-year-old daughter out of their tiny tenement room and down the alley. It’s been another long day of scraping by on handouts to pay for Shumaya’s medical treatment; swelling around her badly injured eye, contorting her young face, has grown much worse since I first met her, several months ago. Kala walks past idling onlookers toward the small pharmacy where she spends their meager savings on medicine in the hope of stemming the girl’s horrendous pain.

For a time, Kala and Shumaya worked side by side in a garment factory here in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Hundreds of such factories employ millions of Bangladeshis, and many have escaped extreme poverty. Shumaya, though, has been unable to work or attend school for more than a year because of her poor health, and Kala limited her hours so she could tend to her daughter.

Shumaya started working at age 11. She began at her last employer, Tazreen Fashions Ltd., which towers over the dusty suburb of Nischintapur, Ashulia, just outside Bangladesh’s capital, at 13. It was the only factory in the neighborhood that would take her at such a young age. A typical day meant sewing 90 pieces an hour—T-shirts one day, dresses the next—with no toilet breaks outside of lunch hour; days could be long, sometimes more than 12 hours, six days a week. Tazreen was known for its place on the lower rung of a subcontracting system common in Bangladesh, whereby factories accept orders they can’t complete and farm out the work to other producers, which can be less compliant with recognized safety standards.

Shumaiya was sewing together hoodies on Nov. 24, 2012, when the lights went out and a commotion began. A fire had started on the first floor. As it spread through the building, panic proceeded and death followed. On the fifth floor, Shumaya recalls, smoke was so thick she couldn’t see. In the scrum to get out, Shumaya sustained several blows to the face, knocking her unconscious. Coworkers helped pass her out of a window to an adjacent building.

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