I arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on May 25th, 2013. It was less than two weeks after the searches following the Rana Plaza collapse came to a close and the official death toll of 1,129 was released — making the event the deadliest garment factory incident in history. An otherwise electric Dhaka was heavy with national mourning and, as I sat in the back of a CNG from the airport to the city center — isolated from the outside streets by a screen of rusty bars — I felt an unstable flutter in the city’s pulse.
I’d arrived on the tail end of six months of travel through Australia and Asia. I’d seen so much — from the mist-threaded highlands in Northern Sumatra to the glacial bite of the Himalayas. But this was the first time I’d arrived in a country at the epicenter of a global human rights debate.
Most of the international world was calling for the factories to be shut down. My friend Marguerite — who’d been in Dhaka for six months already for an internship — had warned me that things felt like they’d been turned upside down. She’d met two Italian PhD candidates completing their theses on the country’s garment industry who’d had their interviews cancelled in a single day. A city once fabled for hospitality toward strangers suddenly felt suspicious and cold.
I took Marguerite’s word for it and planned my escape.
Within minutes of arriving in the sweaty city, I withdrew a brick of Taka (Bangladeshi currency) and slipped west, across the Padma River and into the Sundarban region, hoping things would settle in Dhaka. I boarded a riverboat in Khulna and spent the next three days weaving through the mangroves, stopping in fishing villages filled with sunbaked smiles and the occasional red-brick mosque.
It was while cruising down the silt-filled river that I met Ricardo and Fabrizio, the two PhD candidates who’d had their research abruptly halted by the event back in Dhaka.
Late one night, we sipped chai while river dolphins danced between the swollen belly of our boat.
“You know I studied in Guelph for a bit,” Fab told me when I mentioned my Canadian nationality. “What do you do? Very few people come to Bangladeshi without a cause.”
“Well, I write…” The blood left his olive cheeks so I quickly corrected myself. “Mostly as a hobby right now. I’m on vacation. Don’t worry, I didn’t come to write about the collapse.”
“That would make things difficult,” he said. “When we get back, I’m going to introduce you to my friend Abrar.”
Sure, the collapse had been a tragedy. But I found it strange that nobody wanted to talk about it.
This was a country born out of a series of violent events — first through its partition from India in 1947 and then from Pakistan 1971. Since then, cyclones, famine, and rising tides of climate change have all shaken the low-lying delta nation. Just last year Dhaka was in the news again due to an armed assault in the neighborhood of Gulshan — the 18th in a series of attacks on ethnic and religious minorities, academics, and bloggers. International papers began to ask: “Is Bangladesh becoming a failed state?” This was the conversation people were willing to have.
What I found upon my return to the city was a friendly and curious population of free thinkers. I stayed just down the road from Dhaka University, and each day I struggled to walk more than 15 minutes without being interrupted by a student eager to hear my opinion of his country. Politics were brought up within minutes. The Rana Plaza was not.
I decided to go see Abrar.
Abrar was a young fashion designer. He owned a store in one of the city’s many malls and controlled the production of much of his own product.
“Come with me next time I visit the factory,” he told me, and then, noticing the camera around my neck, “You’ll get some good snaps.”
After an hour of weaving through the congested arteries of downtown Dhaka, we arrived at a dusty old building next to a swamp. I was greeted by a golden-skinned man, his beard orange with henna. When I asked if I needed to sign myself in, he just smiled and pointed to the nearby stairs.
The factory was packed but well ventilated. The workers were mostly women. They moved quickly, but each one I passed afforded me a smile. What I saw was a job I certainly wouldn’t want to do, but one that didn’t match up with what was currently being vilified in the global news.
“Most of them come from the country,” said Abrar. “They make a better wage here than they ever could at home.”
We visited two other factories that day and, by the end of the afternoon, I understood why no one wanted to talk about the building collapse a few weeks before.
Rana was a tragedy for those affected by the deaths, but it also represented the first chink of a much-needed success story. In the last 40 years, poverty in Bangladesh has fallen from 80 percent to 30 percent — largely due to the rising industry now responsible for producing much of the word’s cheap clothing. Between 2001 and 2013, Bangladesh’s total exports grew from $5 billion to just over $30 billion — 90 percent of which was from clothing and accessories. The employment of women at many of these factories has started to chip away at a traditionally patriarchal society as women were suddenly allowed to leave their homes to earn wages.
But just as the industry was experiencing growing pains, the rest of the world was calling for it to be boycotted all together.
A country so painfully under-represented in the global media had been thrust into the limelight by a national tragedy and was at risk of having its story hijacked altogether.
I don’t doubt that exploitative labor conditions exist internationality. As consumers of these products, we should condemn the conditions in which they are currently produced. The outcome of an inquest into the Rana Plaza Collapse exposed that the building was excessively overloaded, a response to international pressure to scale up production capacity. On June 1st, 2013, 42 different people were charged with murder, including the owners of the building. Only nine of the 29 brands identified as having sourced projects at the factory agreed to compensate the victims of the collapse.
But, we also shouldn’t be prescriptive with our solutions either. You do not save someone from an unsafe working environment by forcing them to starve. I, like so many who were sickened by the lives lost in the Rana Paza collapse, had neglected to see the larger story — that millions of lives were intrinsically linked to an industry people were calling to shut down.
Part of this was innocent naivety, but another part was a fallacy I believe to be endemic to consuming news at a distance. Unlike our newspaper print, these issues are hardly black and white. But words on a page are just words and statistics are just numbers. This is how travel has the ability to enhance our understanding of the world around us. Only by breathing in the air of a place does it truly become real.
It’s easy to overlook the human being at the center of the story. But once you’ve looked into their eyes, they’re impossible to ignore.
Travel doesn’t turn you into a global citizen. It makes you realize you already are one.