On 20 May, Super-Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal and Bangladesh with wind speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour. It tore through embankments in the Sundarbans Delta, flooding riverine villages and choking vegetable and paddy fields with seawater. Salt water also got into wells and freshwater ponds, depriving thousands of people of their access to drinking water. Storm water surges – more than five metres high – carried away livestock, houses and entire islands. The winds blew salt water into the trees: guava and palm, but especially mangrove. Now, a month after the storm struck, they look burned by the brackish water, their leaves yellow and red.
Within days of Covid-19 taking hold in the US and Europe, demand for fast fashion crashed. The production line was frozen. There were products in the design stage, fabric on order, fabric waiting to be cut, already cut, sewn, finished, ready for shipping, en route to stores, sitting in warehouses waiting for distribution, hanging in shops waiting to be bought. On any given day, these goods have a total value of billions of pounds. The question, when the crisis hit, was what to do with all the orders: some in progress, some finished and ready for shipping, some already shipped and awaiting sale.
More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Burma’s Rakhine state in the last three months. At least 40,000 unaccompanied children were among those to cross the border, some presenting with bullet wounds. Nearly 60 per cent of Muslim villages in the north of Rakhine have been partially or wholly burned down. Survivors have accused Burma’s military of indiscriminate murder and sexual violence. The army carried out a devastating crackdown after Rohingya militant attacks on security posts in late August.
There was a sign on the floor of one of the boats abandoned off the coast of Aceh this week. ‘We are Myanmar Rohingya,’ it said in white capital letters. Its occupants may have been picked up by Indonesian fishermen, or they may have drowned. In the last couple of days, Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to give temporary shelter to 7000 or more people stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea, some for as long as four months. The Malaysian navy has also begun to look for boats in its own waters. Thailand won’t be joining them, though it has agreed not to turn the boats away for the moment. ‘Our country has more problems than theirs,’ the Thai prime minister said. He may well be right: a mass grave was discovered in the south of Thailand earlier this month, containing the bodies of 26 Rohingya. There are probably more. On 29 May, there will be a meeting in Bangkok of 15 countries including the US, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Burma, which is attending on condition that no one use the word ‘Rohingya’.
The details of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka a year ago have become familiar: the workers coerced into entering the structurally unsound building, the first tremors, the two minutes it took for the factory to fall to its foundations, the 17 days of searching for survivors in the rubble, the tally of 1138 bodies. Despite the photographs and the personal accounts, the event seems oddly distant and too readily memorialised in much of the recent coverage. In the UK, 24 April is Fashion Revolution Day: shoppers are encouraged to wear their clothes inside out to bring attention to the conditions in which they were produced. But the general popular response to the Rana Plaza disaster – aside from the dogged work of long-running campaigns such as Clean Clothes, Labour Behind the Label and Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops – has been limited and fragmentary.
‘While China is starting to lose its attractiveness in this realm the sourcing caravan is moving on to the next hot spot,’ McKinsey’s Apparel, Fashion and Luxury Practice division reported in 2011. The ‘realm’ is the readymade garments industry and the ‘next hot spot’ is Bangladesh.