SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG

Blood Garments - How To Stop The Bangladesh Factory Massacres

Worker sleeping in a garment factory in Dhaka
Worker sleeping in a garment factory in Dhaka
Sibylle Haas

-OpEd-

More than 500 people died on April 24 when a factory collapsed near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In November, more than 100 workers perished in a fire at the Tazreen garment factory on the outskirts of the city. Not long afterwards, more than 50 people were hurt in a fire at a textile factory in the port city of Chittagong.

How many more people are going to lose their lives in Bangladeshi clothing factories?

Bangladesh now stands for death. For exploitation and profit. For labor without dignity, and for owners and brands that simply lack a conscience. Bangladesh stands for corruption and looking the other way. For child and slave labor. In the West, it also stands for $4 T-shirts and buyers with an “I-don’t-give-a-damn” attitude.

The latest factory collapse once again showed that voluntary declarations of responsibility on the part of brands mean nothing. International agreements about minimum standards for workers are no more than statements of supposed intent, good PR campaigns for corporate image. They are useless to workers because they lack the power of sanction. The fact that it was the textile industry itself that began pushing for such declarations in the 1990s speaks for itself – the result is out there for all to see in Bangladesh.

The work day of a Bangladeshi textile worker is rife with human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch asked children employed at tanneries about their jobs and heard about how they got to soften animal skins with chemical solutions, cut tanned skins using razor blades, and work the heavy tannery machines.

Dying in Bangladesh’s factories will continue until changes to the law are implemented and abuses are punished by relevant authorities – because on paper, the laws are already there. Human rights are supposed to be respected, no child or forced labor allowed, health clauses, equal opportunity, the right to form unions... it’s all there. These are core norms of the International Labor Organization (ILO). These are the minimum standards of labor laws in many of the industrialized countries where blood garments are sold.

After China, Bangladesh is the second largest textile producer in the world, and the Europe Union is its largest trade partner. This means that Bangladesh as a country depends on the garment industry in industrialized countries. Which means that these companies have power...! Isn’t it about time that they finally put social standards above getting low-cost garments out to consumers?

They are in a position to demand and get decent work conditions in supplier factories, and indeed have the responsibility to do so. It’s too easy to wiggle out of it, whining that the local company they were doing business with was using subcontractors they knew nothing about. If you’re doing business responsibly, you must know that.

Bribes kill

In fact, Western executives in the garment business know a lot of things. For example, that you can get around laws by bribing people. It starts with building laws. In Bangladesh, building permits are often given based on plans submitted, that alone – no on-site follow-up. This is a recipe for corruption and dirty practices. Bribes take care of a law that says that factories have to be open to independent inspection.

The factory that caved in last month had been built illegally, with no protective systems, -- including against fire. Workers were forced to keep working even as cracks in the walls kept getting wider. The tragedy might have been prevented if client companies had sent inspectors to check up on things – good relations with suppliers mean that sending independent inspectors should be possible at any time. Had that happened, the lack of security measures would have been discovered.

An EU mandatory disclosure law could be a first step: companies forced to report on the work and environment conditions in their supply chains tend to take a closer look at them. That would help counter cheap labor, unpaid overtime, and dangerous abuses of work conditions and the environment.

This week Bangladeshi workers came out in droves to express their outrage. And right they are. They too need to insist on better work conditions, the way people in China did three years ago. By standing up for themselves, the Chinese were able to bring about substantial improvements.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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