A few years ago the garment factories in Bangladesh were mostly small and concentrated in Dhaka itself, where they fought each other for small contracts from obscure European discounters. But then gangsters, small businessmen and politicians – or some combination of the three – discovered that it took very little capital to start a factory, and that women and children from the crowded countryside were willing to work for almost nothing. Today garments account for around 80 per cent of the national export income; 4.2 million people work in the factories and new industrial slums outside the capital have become cities unto themselves. In 2011, McKinsey prepared a prospectus on ‘Bangladesh’s Ready-Made Garments Landscape’. ‘While China is starting to lose its attractiveness’, it said, ‘the sourcing caravan is moving on to the next hot spot’ – ‘attractive’ here being synonymous with cheap and dangerous.

After the fire in the Tazreen Fashion factory in November, which killed more than a hundred workers, Walmart, which was producing clothes at the factory, issued just one public statement. It began: ‘Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of this tragedy. The Tazreen factory was no longer authorised to produce merchandise for Walmart. A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorisation and in direct violation of our policies. Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier.’ It was an artful piece of deflection. Three other Walmart suppliers had been using the factory in the last year or so. But only one had an order being produced at the time of the fire. The supplier was a New York-based contractor called Success Apparel. They had been asked to fulfil an order for girls’ shorts for Walmart’s Faded Glory in-house brand. Success Apparel sent the order to a Bangladeshi company called Simco, which in turn sent it to a company called the Tuba Group, the parent of Tazreen Fashions Ltd, which eventually fulfilled the order at the Tazreen Fashion factory: the shorts were in production on the third floor of the building when the fire broke out.

Now, it’s clear that Walmart knew that Tazreen was producing their clothes, because in May 2011 a contractor working for a Walmart supplier called NTD Apparel conducted an audit of the factory. Walmart told me that the factory was reaudited again in December 2011. It takes three separate audits for a factory to be disqualified from producing for Walmart, but Walmart has never been able to show that a third audit was conducted, and the closest thing to a third audit the records show was a ‘monitoring report’ conducted in April 2012. When I asked a Walmart representative what the monitoring report found he stopped returning my calls and emails. It’s hard not to conclude that the statement that the Tazreen factory wasn’t authorised to produce garments for Walmart simply isn’t true. But by the time you explain all this everyone has lost interest, which is exactly the point.

After the Tazreen fire no one took a single meaningful step to improve conditions in the factories. The hope, shared equally by Western brands, the Bangladeshi government, Western governments and local manufacturers, was that the world would forget about the fire, along with everything that reporting on the fire had brought to light: the arrests, torture and murder of labour activists by state security services; the thousands of workers who had died in less spectacular accidents, or preventable disasters, or instances of criminal negligence. But then, in April, the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing more than a thousand workers. Three weeks later, H&M, the largest purchaser in Bangladesh, signed a legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety brokered by European labour groups. By the end of the same day Tesco, Primark, the Dutch retailer C&A and Inditex, the parent of Zara, had all signed, and the front-page coverage of the agreement in Western newspapers seemed to take it for granted that the pressure on other retailers to sign would be irresistible.

It took a long time to reach this point. Western labour groups have been petitioning the US and the EU over abuses and low wages in the garment factories since the mid-2000s. Riots over low wages first began to get serious notice from the Western press in 2010, after three activists working for an organisation called the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity were arrested on charges brought by the Nassa Group and the Envoy Group, both suppliers for Walmart, Tesco and other brands. In Dhaka I met two of the BCWS activists arrested over the protests. They had both thought that they were going to be killed, and it’s likely that quiet pressure from the EU and the US was the only reason they were released thirty days later. The third activist who was arrested, Aminul Islam, was abducted from the Ashulia industrial zone in April 2012, tortured and murdered, probably by an agent of Bangladesh’s security service.

Western governments fear that protests against the garment industry may lead to a rise of political Islam. There’s no serious history of violent Islamism in Bangladesh, but the WikiLeaks cables show that the British government has worked with a local counter-terrorist unit called the Rapid Action Battalion, known locally for killing people in what later tend to be described as ‘encounters’. Human Rights Watch’s Asia director has described it as a ‘Latin American-style death squad dressed up as an anti-crime force’. In May, RAB units conducted what amounted to a military assault on an Islamist rally in Dhaka. Local television was reportedly blocked from covering the massacre, and so far no one has been able to establish an approximate death toll, though you can watch videos on YouTube that seem to show the RAB-led force firing randomly into the crowd.

The Bangladeshi government fears that political pressure in the West may cost Bangladesh the tariff protections its exports enjoy. The process has already started in the US, where the Obama administration is thinking about revoking Bangladesh’s favoured-nation status under a programme called the Generalised System of Preferences, which allows a few developing nations to export certain goods duty-free to America. The administration is due to make a ruling this month, but the removal would only be a gesture. Bangladesh exported a mere $26 million worth of goods under GSP in 2011, and garments aren’t among the protected items. Losing the GSP protections in the US, however, is an intermediate step towards losing duty-free access to Europe, Bangladesh’s largest market for finished clothes.

The manufacturers themselves are terrified of everything. They’re scared of the government: one manufacturer I spoke to kept forgetting he was talking to a reporter and several times had to correct himself: ‘the prime minister, no, sorry, I mean the honourable prime minister’. They’re scared of being arrested if one of their buildings collapses or burns: most of them can’t afford, at the prices paid by the Western brands, to make improvements or to raise wages. They’re scared that the brands may simply decide that buying from Bangladesh isn’t worth all the trouble. Still, Western coverage of disasters like the Rana Plaza tends to focus on the owners, who are easy enough to blame. After the collapse, Sheikh Hasina, the honourable prime minister, gave an interview to Christiane Amanpour of CNN in which she said of the building’s owner, who was once a leader of her party’s youth wing: ‘We arrested him. You know that. We arrested him. We arrested all the owners and the engineer and all the people. We have taken all necessary action.’

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