Category Archives: Bangladesh

Interview // Artist and activist Robin Pacific, TakeActionFAST campaign

As we mark the 106th anniversary of Triangle (25 March 1911), I wanted to share the work of Canadian artist and activist Robin Pacific. Since 2013 she has been working on a community project to raise awareness on the realities of work and life for garment workers in Bangladesh. In May she is launching TakeActionFAST, a labour rights campaign she has organised with partners in Bangladesh and in Canada (details below).

I first heard of Robin’s work when I was in Dhaka conducting part of my fieldwork in 2015. Recently I was lucky to connect with her and learn a bit more about her work.

Mary Hanlon:  To get started, could you tell us a bit about the F.A.S.T. campaign and how it came about?

Robin Pacific: We are now calling it TakeActionFAST (because the Heart and Stroke Foundation launched their own FAST campaign – cheeky!). In 2013 I received some funds from the Ontario Arts Council to do research on possible art projects about who makes our clothes. I turned the research into a collaborative community project and invited 30 women in groups of three to my house. I cooked for them, and gave a 10 minute talk about art, fashion, globalization, free trade and workers’ rights. Then the conversation just flowed. It was at one of these gatherings that someone came up with the idea for a logo called FAST – FAIR living wage, ADULT labour only, SAFE working conditions and No unpaid overTIME.

The idea for a campaign to tell retailers we will pay 5% more for our clothes if those conditions are met evolved over time and went through many variations. The necessity that I must go to Bangladesh if I wanted to speak on behalf of garment workers there also came about during those dinners.

MH: You’ve partnered with various sponsors and supporters. How did these partnerships come about, and how important was it for you to connect with groups in Bangladesh?

RP: This whole project has been about never giving up, and just relentlessly continuing even when it seemed there was no support. So I just kept e mailing people I heard about in Bangladesh, and at UniGlobal, and various Canadian trade unions. When they didn’t answer I emailed them again. When they still didn’t answer, I phoned them! Eventually the first trip came together. We made art with 100 garment workers represented by The Solidarity Centre/Bangladesh led by Alonzo Suson and Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Centre led by Kalpona Akter. We were very, very lucky to work with these outstanding trade unions. It was inspiring and transformative to meet young women who were risking their jobs—and sometimes their lives—to form a union.

If we hadn’t had the support of these two groups I think our visit to Dhaka would have been more or less futile.

We also were very graciously hosted at a luncheon by then Canadian High Commissioner Heather Cruden, and one of her staff suggested we connect with some survivors of Rana Plaza. This too was a profound experience, and humbling – meeting these people whose bodies and psyches were so shattered.

While in Bangladesh and after, I kept meeting artists, individuals, trade union members, members of NGOs, and I also go a little connected to the Bangladeshi community here in Toronto. All of these connections have immeasurably enriched the work I’ve done.

MH: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far?

RP: The biggest challenge I’ve faced, in a way, has been my own despair at all those points when things weren’t working out, when it seemed things would never come together. My challenge is not to take it personally and get discouraged when people aren’t interested, or reject various proposals for exhibitions, etc.

MH: As you move forward, what keeps you inspired? What scares you?

RP: What keeps me inspired is the heroism of the young women and men I met, and also the fact that I fell in love with Bangladesh, the way one does, inadvertently, with the people, the culture, even the insane traffic. I’m committed to social justice, and taking on this one issue and really working on it exclusively has kept me inspired. Also, I did put this on a long timeline. I wanted to accomplish one thing – the TakeActionFAST petition. Along the way I got to do some fun and meaningful art projects and meet so many extraordinary people.

The issue is off the radar of the media completely. This is what I call the Politics of the Aftermath. The media lurches from one disaster to the next, disaster porn as it’s been called, and no one seems to think of the long term after effects on the survivors of these horrific crises. I’m really counting on millennials to pick up the torch. I’m afraid that I’m just too much of an outlier – an artist trying to create a social justice campaign, not really encouraged by the local art world here, and a social justice activist who is an artist, so viewed skeptically, on occasion, by trade union people and activists, because I’m working alone. Everything I’m doing is hope and prayers that I can bridge these two complex communities.


If you’d like to support Robin and the campaign project, or learn more about her work and this community project, check out the project website here.

I particularly enjoyed seeing project photographs and listening to the audio recordings from interviews with workers, here.

While the campaign is live now, there will be a launch in Toronto in May. Here are the event details:

When? May 4 – May 5, 2017, 7 PM-12AM

Where? The Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. West, Toronto M6J 1H3 (at Dovercourt)


  • Online action campaign;
  • Canadian and Bangladesh bands, singers, dancers and food;
  • a pop up fashion market of indie Canadian designers;
  • a ‘Mock Sweatshop’ where participants can sew giant t-shirts with garment workers from Workers United Canada;
  • a Rana Plaza Memorial;
  • and art by and about Bangladeshi garment workers

Counting factories, counting heads: garment work in Bangladesh and the trouble with numbers

How many garment workers in Bangladesh?


This blog post was inspired by an email I recently received from a colleague. She was doing some writing related to the garment sector in Bangladesh, and she asked me a very simple question:


“Is there a standard or particularly good reference on the garment industry in Bangladesh, or even on the numbers of people working there?”

Actually not a very simple question at all.

Immediately, I was reminded of a recent study out of NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights—a study I wanted to write a blog post about a while back, but didn’t.

I wanted to share the study, because I so love its presentation. It’s not very often that academic research is packaged in accessible and engaging formats. And this one was! You may have already come across it, and if you have then you know exactly what I’m talking about—it’s cool. It attempts to map factories in Bangladesh, and you can zoom in and out, and there are images, and statistics—who doesn’t love easy to digest figures? It’s very interactive, and its presentation reminded me a bit of the “The shirt on your back” interactive from The Guardian (launched on the 1 year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse). I wanted to share it with you as an example of how researchers can share findings in new and exciting ways.

The reason I didn’t share it with you is because—as usual—it’s all a bit more complicated than it seems: the research has been contested.

The study in question is “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s forgotten apparel workers” by Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly. According to the researchers, there are more than 7,000 factories in Bangladesh, with more than 5 million workers. These figures are a big jump from previous stakeholder estimates, which typically cite over 3,500 factories (sometimes estimated at 4,000-4,500), with approximately 4 million workers (sometimes cited as just less than this).

Researchers at Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights, alongside other academics, have critiqued the report.[1] These researchers determined that the Stern results were inflated as a result of a flawed research methodology (specifically with respect to data collection) and sought clarification. Here’s how it all went down:

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and Just-Style offer summaries that break this all down, but I recommend reading the original documents and responses listed above.

So, the official numbers are being challenged, but that’s not really the main point of the critique. What the researchers have seemingly found most problematic, is Stern’s use of the iceberg analogy—with ‘tip of the iceberg’ implying that efforts underway in Bangladesh to secure building safety since Rana Plaza (Accord, Alliance and the national initiative, specifically) are only just cracking the surface.

Essentially, all of the researchers agree that factory remediation in Bangladesh post-Rana Plaza is moving far too slowly. However, the Stern researchers have argued that the sector is much, much bigger than anyone cares to admit. And in doing so, they have determined that worker safety is just barely being addressed.

Now back to that email from my colleague: how many factories? How many workers? Estimates only at the moment, I’m afraid. In the end, I directed her to recent(ish) ILO figures (see here, for example).

It’s crucial to remember that the entire industry has trouble with numbers, not just Bangladesh. Accurate data on global fashion and apparel production is difficult, because so many of its moving parts (and people) remain out of sight.

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on modern slavery at the University of Edinburgh. We know garment work ≠ modern slavery in and of itself. But we also know that working conditions in fashion and apparel supply chains can sometimes mirror that of modern slavery. And we know that forced labour exists in this system. At Social Alterations we work to support rigorous research, and we want that research to be sensitive to, and respectful of, context. Because it has to be. The workers’ perspectives are those that matter and are those that should be prioritised.

But research also needs to be open and accessible, hence my original intrigue with the Stern interactive site. This is just one of the reasons we’re supporting research initiatives like Safia Minney’s Kickstarter project: Slave to Fashion. Check it out, and get involved if you can.


[1] It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time research out of Stern on the garment sector in Bangladesh has been questioned. On 22 May 2014 a group of very prominent labour and human rights academics published this open letter.

On the importance of birth certificates in Bangladesh

A screenshot of one of the stop motion animations in 'My Birth Certificate!'

A screenshot of one of the stop motion animations in ‘My Birth Certificate!’

Birth certificates in Bangladesh. A crucial issue, not often discussed.

In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, media, research, company and campaign attention in/on Bangladesh has typically focused on such issues as disaster relief and compensation, building and worker safety, wages and trade unionism, etc.—all issues we know are important to labour rights (and not only in Bangladesh).

It’s time to add the importance of birth certificates to that long list.

My Birth Certificate! is stop motion animations made (written, produced, directed) by children in Bangladesh. It is the result of a collaboration between Rainbow Collective, Alex Nobel (EMG Initiative), TRAID, ChildHope UK and Nagorik Uddyog in Bangladesh.

Check it out:

WATCH // Modern Slavery: Are we complicit?

photo (5)


Earlier this month I was invited to participate in a panel on modern slavery at the University of Edinburgh, organised by the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

The panel addressed a lot of issues, including the (potential) impact of consumer boycotts and buycotts. I called on consumers to remember they are more than consumers, and to also consider/imagine alternative ways to support workers.

The event was recorded, and I’ve embedded it below for you to check out.

During the discussion, I mentioned a website I had used to calculate ‘how many slaves’ work for me. I mentioned this was an interesting tool to help consumers think through linkages, but also voiced concern that context was lacking. I realise that I never mentioned the actual name of the site, so in case you’re interested and not already familiar, here it is. Bangladeshi labour rights activist Kalpona Akter shared some thoughts on this tool with Design and Violence last year, here.

On the panel with me was Kathy Galloway, Head of Christian Aid Scotland, Karen Bowman, Director of Procurement at University of Edinburgh and Mei-Ling McNamara, a PhD Student in School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at University of Edinburgh. Chairing was Michelle Brown from the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

We would love to hear your thoughts on modern slavery in general, but also in the unique context of the global fashion and apparel industry. Please share in the comments, or with us on Facebook or Twitter.

WATCH // Udita (Arise): a film on garment making in Bangladesh


Udita Poster


On April 24th 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh. Over 1,130 workers were killed and thousands more were left injured. These workers were producing garments for consumers in Europe and North America.

We have now marked the two year anniversary of the collapse, yet the ILO trust fund established to support victims and their families remains nearly 3 million dollars short.

Rana Plaza was not the first industrial accident of its kind in Bangladesh, and building (and fire) safety is not the only challenge faced by garment workers.

Udita, the latest documentary from The Rainbow Collective, brings together footage capturing garment work in Bangladesh, collected over a five year period.

The Rainbow Collective premiered the film in East London at the Unite The Union Community Centre to a packed house on 24 April, marking the 2nd anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse.

Udita Trailer (full documentary below):


Udita asks its audience to listen to the testimonies of workers and organisers. No simple solution is presented. No judgements are passed. Viewers are left to draw their own connections.

Thanks to The Rainbow Collective for making Udita free and accessible.

Please watch and share through your networks.

Udita (full documentary):

Note: This blog post was also published on Routes blog, with permission. 

READ // Last Nightshift in Savar by Doug Miller

Doug Miller - Book Cover

The polls have now closed on Bangladesh’s 10th parliamentary election. The election is contested (see debates) with opposition parties having boycotted the vote as a result of the current government refusing to step down and make room for a caretaker government to temporarily manage the country for the run-up to, and during, the election — an electoral process typically followed in Bangladesh. The head of the leading opposition party, the BNP, is reported to be under unofficial house arrest, and violence over political clashes has intensified (a reported 200 people have been killed since the end of October). Reports that the political instability has hit the country’s ready-made garment sector have already emerged (see also here). How will today’s results further impact the industry? Any investigations will require some historical analysis.

You may recall the #BangladeshProject SA ran in 2010, resulting in this letter. We built the campaign because we felt strongly workers were not receiving enough media attention as they fought for an increase in their minimum wage. Since the tragedy at Rana Plaza, the plight of the Bangladeshi garment worker has received mass international coverage. We’re hoping it continues, but not just for these workers, for all garment workers world-wide.

In December, a plan to provide Rana Plaza victims and the families of victims with financial compensation was announced. The plan is chaired by the International Labour Organization (ILO), and so far the arrangement has been signed by four brands, and eight stakeholder organizations: the Bonmarché, El Corte Ingles, Loblaw, and Primark and the Ministry of Labour and Employment (Bangladesh), the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers’ Association (BGMEA), the Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF), IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC), the National Coordination Committee for Workers’ Education (NCCWE), Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), IndustriALL Global Union, and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC).

You may now be wondering how it could have taken these stakeholders eight months to announce a compensation plan. For context on just how complicated the aftermath of such an industrial disaster can be, check out Doug Miller’s (2012) book Last Nightshift in Savar, which tells the story of Bangladesh’s Spectrum Sweater Factory Collapse (April, 2005). Miller gave a talk on the story and the book back in September 2012 – click on the audio below to listen, and here for the slides.

Doug Miller Audio

I have now added it to our required reading list, and suggest you put it on yours for 2014!

As for the impact of Bangladesh’s current political turmoil on the industry? We’ll have to wait and see.

Preventing Workplace Violence: Fair Wear Foundation reports preliminary project results

FWF: Preventing Workplace Violence Report - November 25, 2013


You might recall this post from 2011 announcing a grant had been awarded to the Fair Wear Foundation for work in India and Bangladesh, in partnership with SAVE and Cividep, in India, and the AMRF Society and Awaj Foundation, in Bangladesh.

Today, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. To mark the occasion, the FWF has released preliminary results from the project, Preventing Workplace Violence.

From the report:

One of the most telling statistics found in the project’s baseline research regards perceptions of yelling: only 20% of managers thought there was a lot of yelling in factories; 60% of workers thought it was common. Workers also reported that the vast majority of problems are with their immediate supervisors, who can change their behaviour when senior managers are on the factory floor. There is also a perception among many managers that while women may be yelled at, or occasionally hit, the environment is still preferable to other options available to poor uneducated women – like prostitution. (pg. 10)

An interesting read; check it out here.


Killer Jeans: Sandblasting continues…



A new report by the Clean Clothes Campaign exposes the continued use of sandblasting in the Bangladesh garment industry, despite it being banned by some big brands and outlawed in Turkey since 2009. The CCC recognise that this problem is not exclusive to Bangladesh, and like the International Textiles Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation [ITGLWF], call for global action on the issue.

”This report shows that a voluntary company ban is simply not enough – governments worldwide should enforce a national ban as well as enforcing import bans.” Clean Clothes Campaign 2012

Sandblasting is a technique used to distress denim and the practice is widely accepted as being dangerous to workers health, including exposing them to the risk of Silicosis, an incurable and potentially fatal lung disease. These concerns are made more worrying where health and safety precautions are inadequate or non existent. The Deadly Denim report contains the findings of research conducted in Bangladesh including interviews from garment workers, suppliers and heath care professionals; it also explores why sandblasting is still widely used despite the known dangers, and offers recommendations to brands, governments and international organisations.

The issue of sandblasting is one which should lead us all to question the real cost of the clothes we buy and whether it is ever acceptable for people to risk their lives in the production of fashion items.


Further Reading //

Sandblasted jeans: Should we give up distressed denim?[article]: BBC World Service

Killer Jeans: A campaign by Labour behind the Label

Deathly Jeans: Sandblasting damages health : Published by Aktive Forbrugere in collaboration with Clean Clothes Campaign

Global Campaign to Eliminate Sandblasting: International Textile Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation [ITGLWF]





Fashion Supply Chain: Special Focus // Uzbekistan + Bangladesh

As a returning supporting sponsor for ECO Fashion Week—Vancouver, we once again contributed an educational/informational card to the SWAG (gift) bags. For the September event, our card focused on the life-cycle of a regular T-shirt, taking the learner on a contextual journey through nine countries: Uzbekistan, Dubai, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Canada (Vancouver), USA (New York), Japan, and Tanzania. Information on this journey is available in [Lesson 2] Connect // Key Players. For this past event, we centered our attention on providing ‘fast facts’ for two special focus touch points: Uzbekistan and Bangladesh. If you would like information on how to deliver these educational/informational cards in your classroom or business, please contact us for templates.

[Images below depict the front, inside and back of the card, printed on recycled hemp]

Front of card:

Fashion Supply Chain: Special Focus // Uzbekistan + Bangladesh 

Inside of card:


Back of card:

New York Fashion Week vs. the Ready Made Garment Sector in Bangladesh: whose interests are protected when ‘special’ police hit the streets for fashion?

The fashion industry is often seen as a complicated paradox. So much so that many professionals working in the field of worker rights and environmental security frequently shy away from using the word ‘fashion’ itself. In its place, they vote for ‘garment,’ ‘apparel,’ ‘textile,’ etc. While it’s natural for industry jargon to vary—different circles will have their own set of terminology—it is important to recognize that in the end we are all talking about the same thing: fashion.

Fashion, after all, designs the stage and sets the pace for the performance. For our part, if we cannot connect human and environmental security issues taking place within the industry’s supply chain to the fashion runway, we haven’t dug deep enough.

We were reminded further of this truth this week with a recent Ethical Style post on the special NYPD ‘fashion’ police slated for New York Fashion Week. According to the article, the plain clothed officers are placed amongst the crowd (positioned on either side of the runway), to keep the peace from anti-fur activist protesters.

Continuing our coverage on Bangladesh, we’ve been meaning to write a story on the government’s reported consideration of a special “industrial police,” dedicated to keeping workers in the ready made garment (RMG) sector in line with an “iron hand,” according to a newspaper in Bangladesh (Clean Clothes Campaign).

So, on either side of the supply chain, the industry flexes its muscles against unrest. But, when it comes to the systemic oppression of basic human rights, coupled with unchecked environmental degradation, whose interests are being protected?

The truth is, when it comes to security there is no real paradox—the violations may be clear as mud, but we know where there are and how they got there.

Image Source: Anna Wintour targeted by PETA via Ethical Style and Bangladeshi garment workers via Fashioning an Ethical Industry