Five women lived in the room altogether. Three of the women, Aisha, Akhi and Miriam, lined up on one bed. I sat on the other.
The room had corrugated iron for roof and walls. There was a black-and-white television flickering in the corner and a fan overhead to make the hot evening bearable. "We've lived here for two years," said Akhi, the most talkative of the women. They worked shifts of 11 hours, and sometimes more, in a nearby garment factory in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
I had travelled to Dhaka to find where the jeans I was wearing came from, and the numerous other cheap garments labelled "Made in Bangladesh" on sale across Europe. I anticipated finding the unacceptable face of Bangladesh's garments industry, and discovering where sweatshop labour was even cheaper than in India. I was right on both counts. But I also discovered a strange flowering of female emancipation. These three young women, and hundreds of thousands more in this teeming city, were the first in many generations of their families in conservative, rural, Muslim Bangladesh to have any sort of economic independence, or personal rights beyond those allowed by their husbands. Life here was better than in the rice paddies and prawn farms. It was freedom and wealth, of a sort.
I had found the women by ducking beneath a flyover in the Mohakhali district of Dhaka, one of the city's many garment manufacturing zones, then taking a dark lane down beside the railway tracks towards a food market and entering a warren of alleys through an unmarked door. There were 84 families packed in here, each occupying a single room. This was typical of where the seamstresses and occasional male co-workers of Dhaka's huge garments industry live.
Aisha, Akhi, Miriam and the two other absent women each paid 500 taka a month for their room. Or £3.70. You wouldn't expect much for that money. But on wages of 1,660 taka a month, it was all they could afford. The overcrowding was severe.
I could not visit their factory, but I saw others. Dark, dingy sweatshops up narrow flights of stairs, often with bars on the windows and blocked fire exits. The noise of sewing machines could be deafening; the managers could be intimidating; the drudgery unimaginable.
One of the women hemmed trousers, another sewed collars on to shirts, the third put in zip fasteners. Day in and day out. "Officially, we get one day off a week, but if there is extra work we have to carry on working," Akhi said. In Bangladesh, there is a legal maximum of 50 hours a month overtime, and employers are not allowed to require women to work after 8pm. But sometimes, she said, they work all night and could clock up a 120-hour week. I had no way of checking these figures, but no reason to dispute them.
Whom do they cut and sew and press shirts and jeans for? You and me, of course. The biggest customer at the factory where two of the women worked was H&M, or Swedish fashion company Hennes & Mauritz. My daughter buys a lot from H&M. And H&M buys around half of its cotton textiles from Bangladeshi garment-makers. Most analysts believe the company is the biggest European customer in the whole of Bangladesh. So my daughter will very likely have something from this factory in her wardrobe.
I asked these women what they thought about H&M, expecting an angry reply. But no. The garment workers constantly swap notes about working conditions, and H&M has a better than average reputation. The company pays more attention to their needs, they felt. So it was disturbing to hear claims that even H&M, for all its goodwill, was being hoodwinked.
The buyers – the brands' representatives in Bangladesh – make regular inspections of the factory, the women said. But "they always inform the owners first. Before they come, the managers come through the factory with megaphones. We are told to prepare the factory, to clean up. And they instruct us what to say about working hours and holidays and conditions. We have to lie about holidays especially." I asked about other brands. Of one, they said, "they are only concerned about the product." There was one factory where that company was the only customer. "That is the worst factory in Mohakhali."
Most of the 4,000-plus garment factories in Dhaka have English names. They have uplifting names. Harvest Rich and Sunman Sweaters, Glory Garments and Niagara Textiles. Some companies do their best, I am sure. But overall, this is a world of corner-cutting, subterfuge and threats. In recent times, the women said, buyers have threatened to withdraw business after reports of workers being sacked without reason. So the factory managers found a way round the problem. "They demanded that we sign a resignation letter. If they later decide to sack us for any reason, and if there is a protest about it, they will show the resignation letter to the buyer."
I heard dozens of similar stories, both scandalous and petty. Some said that if they took a day off sick, they would be refused admittance to the factory and then fired for non-attendance. One was excluded for taking five days off work when her husband died. Others had no contracts of employment at all. They reeled off the brand names that their employers contracted for: Wal-Mart and Gap, H&M and M&S, Sears and Asda.
But the women also told me about their former lives in rural Bangladesh. The three women in the Mohakhali slum all came from villages around Dhaka. Akhi had seven brothers and sisters. Back home there wasn't enough land, and certainly not enough work, to support so many. So the families sent their young women to find jobs in Dhaka. Aisha and Miriam, sisters-in-law, together sent home 4,000 taka a month (about £30). The alarming truth was that these women, for all their pitiful surroundings, were the rich ones in their families.
Aisha and Akhi both had children back in their villages. They said they hoped to go back one day. But that seemed an idle hope.
Most don't go back, and these women already seemed caught between two worlds. I noticed a cheap bag on a hook at the back of the room. "Gucci," it said in large letters on the front. It was a fake, of course. But unlike their mothers and sisters back in the village, these women had heard of Gucci. They aspired. What else was there to dream of when making clothes for Western consumers than of joining them?
But the economic gap between their world and ours is huge. In 2006, the Bangladeshi government raised the minimum wage across the country for the first time in a decade. It was now 1,662 taka a month – or 5 pence an hour. No wonder the likes of M&S are moving here. Why pay 18 or even 36 pence an hour when you can pay 5 pence instead?
Child labour is largely banished now from the factories that Western buyers know about. But it persists on a small scale among the subcontractors that the factories call on to meet customers' deadlines. During my visit to Dhaka, I saw a locked-up building next to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Shyamoli, a middle-class suburb. My host said it was a garment factory that operated occasionally. The workers appeared to be children. He often heard their voices amid the sound of machinery, in the middle of the night. He seemed nervous about intervening, and didn't know whom the children worked for.
Nazma Akter, the founder of the Awaj Foundation, said some buyers were sympathetic about the obvious exploitation of both children and adult workers, but "in the end they are not serious. Price comes first. Every time the buyers make another order, they want lower prices."
One top manager at a garment company told me: "These big-brand companies have corporate social responsibility departments, but the people who make the orders don't talk to them. We see it here all the time. The CSR people come in and stipulate basic standards. Then the next day the buyers come in and drive down prices and bring forward deadlines." The truth is that retailers talk about little else but price. And the "race to the bottom" in the mass marketing of cheap clothes is intensifying.
Nazma Akter dismissed Western hand-wringing, and said she thought that it would be pressure from within that would ultimately clean up the industry. But she pleaded with customers in Europe not to respond with boycotts. The jobs, poor as many were, empowered women. Western consumers, she said, should be demanding better conditions for the women of Dhaka, and above all should be willing to pay higher prices. And retailers should stop competing on price. But please, she said, "don't stop buying". Most of the garment workers I spoke to agreed. They had a good sense of their worth, and how they were being let down by the obsession of Western consumers with ever lower prices. Shuktara, who came to Dhaka eight years ago, told me, "Our pay in a month is less than the price that you pay for a pair of jeans."
"We just want the customers in Europe to know that we would like them to pay more for their clothes so that maybe we will get paid more too," said one garment worker. I can't imagine myself being so sanguine.
Caught up in the human stories, I had lost track of the story of my jeans. I had bought a pair of Blue Horizon jeans for £9 in Marks and Spencer a few months before. Made in Bangladesh. M&S bought them from a company called Spencer's Apparel, part of the large Medlar Group. The fabric that made the jeans came from the Nassa Group, which was Wal-Mart's "International Supplier of the Year" in 2002. But M&S didn't want to give me an introduction to the company, and without that the companies weren't interested in talking to me. So I asked Khorshed Alam, who writes reports on garment companies for Western NGOs and retailers alike, about them. They weren't the worst, he said, but not the best either. Just one of the pack in the race to the bottom.
This is an edited extract from Confessions of an Eco Sinner – Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes From by Fred Pearce, published by Eden Project Books, £12.99. To obtain copies for the special price of £11.69 (including free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897, or visit independentbooksdirect.co.ukReuse content