Climate change is wreaking devastation across South East Asia, particularly Bangladesh. With the traditional farming industries in ruins, many are seeking a new life in the bulging cities, but both living conditions and working conditions there are treacherous. Those who seek refuge and travel oversees in search of security and safety often find that their situation as undocumented migrants affords them neither.
In November last year, over 100 garment workers died in a fire which consumed the Tazreen garment factory. A decade after the Triangle Shirtwaister fire which killed nearly 150 workers, mostly young women, the women of Tazeen also found themselves unable to escape the burning building with exits padlocked and legally required fire exits non-existent. The salary paid to the Tazreen workers also bears similarities with the Triangle workers, in both cases – 100 years of inflation apart – just $40 per month. The families of the Triangle workers eventually received $75 each in compensation after a long legal wrangle, while the insurance company paid the factory owner $400 per lost worker. In Tazreen, many of the families of the deceased and those who injured escaping from the building still wait for compensation. Many more have died in fires since, as the consequences for factory owners for unsafe working conditions are negligible compared with the profits that can be made.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building last month which claimed the lives of over 1,000 workers has brought the sweatshop working conditions of the garment factories of South East Asia back into the spotlight. Since 2006, over 500 garment workers have been killed through poor working conditions, mainly in fires – which are rife in the poorly designed and unsafe factories where workers are crammed in to perform 11 hour days for little pay. In the month following the Tazreen factory fire alone, over twenty fires broke out in factories in Bangladesh, but as the death toll of each was in single figures, little news of them reached the West.
Dhaka, where both the Rana Plaza and Tazreen factories were based, is the worlds fastest growing megacity. From a population of 6 million in 1990, there are now nearly triple that number of inhabitants. Climate change is driving rural villagers from the surrounding areas into the city because of crop failures or destruction of their homes caused by flooding. The low lying Ganges area is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and many migrate to the cities in hopes of a better life. Where previously such a move might be temporary until a new home is built or enough money is made to return home, more and more are migrating permanently, forgoing hope that they might ever return to their villages.
But the situation for new arrivals is dire. Nearly half of the population of Dhaka live in hastily constructed slums, with no electricity or running water. Water is obtained from hand-pumps which can be shared by dozens of people while sanitary facilities are communal and consist of little more than open sewers. The infrastructure of Dhaka has not expanded to meet the needs of its bulging population. There is minimal public transport, and the sewage system is grossly inadequate leading to untreated sewage being dumped in nearby ponds and rivers, one environmental disaster begetting another.
With the minimum wage in Bangladesh just $36 per month, just over $1 per day, some seek a better life in countries with greater opportunities. For many Europe is seen as a mecca of safe working conditions and livable wages, but the reality for Bangladeshi migrants can turn that dream into a nightmare. A main port of entry to Fortress Europe is Greece, where Bangladeshi migrants, exhausted from their long and dangerous trek across Asia, cross the Evros river from Turkey. A bridge provides easy access between the two countries for tourists, but the heavy border security make it a no-go area for migrants. Instead they take their chances in small boats, risking getting shot at in the crossing; dozens have drowned or been shot in the attempt.
Once in Greece, many Bangladeshi migrants find themselves drawn to the strawberry fields of Manolada, an economic miracle in the midst of the Greek crisis, where farmers have seen their incomes rise by up to 30% while the rest of Greece sinks. A miracle indeed, but this is no feel good tale of innovation, but one of brutal explotation of undocumented migrants, primarily from Bangladesh. The slums around the villages house the migrants in conditions less crowded, but only slightly more well equipped than that of Dhaka, where the workers pay €1 rent per day, plus €5 for meals and €3 for protection, from a daily wage of €22, giving them a net wage of only €13 for a seven hour day, well below the, already miserly, Greek minimum wage. Much of this income goes on paying back the traffickers who brought them to Greece.
That is of course, when they get paid. With no documents there is little that can be done officially should a farm owner refuse to pay them. Should a worker get too uppity and start demanding the wages that s/he is owed, the farmer always has the option of calling in the immigration authorities and handing them over to be sent to one of the many internment camps dotted around Greece. Worker report that some farmers take on labour at the start of the strawberry picking season, refuse to pay them, then call in the immigration authorities who will sweep the area looking for undocumented migrants, while they hire a new labour force.
Last month, when a group of 200 workers demanded the six months backpay they were due, the farm hands opened fire, shooting at the crowd with rifles. Thirty four were shot as they ran for their lives, it is sheer luck that no one was killed. The immediate response of Dendias, the Greek minister for Public Order, was to demand the arrest of the injured workers. Four were taken to detention on their release from the hospital where they were being treated, before a public outcry eventually saw reassurances that the injured workers would be given asylum, whether that actually transpires however remains to be seen. On 29th April a major demonstration called by the labour unions saw 2,000 migrant workers march through Manolada, demanding workers rights and legal papers to work as well as the establishment of a Union of Migrant Workers. Yet on May 10th, two more Bangladeshi workers were stabbed and beaten when they too went to claim their wages.
When your mind calls up dangerous and risky jobs, it tends to think of the military, mining, nuclear waste technicians not nice pleasant things that you might do for recreation, like sewing or picking some berries. But for Bangladeshi migrants these pleasant sounding occupations can be deadly. As migrants, either within their own country or seeking refuge in more prosperous circumstances, Bangladeshi workers find themselves pushed into dangerous environments with little regard for workers rights or safety, while we snack on the strawberries, as we shop for cheap chic clothes.
First published on Union Solidarity International on 13th May 2013