Gazipur, Bangladesh (CNN) — The rat-a-tat of a hundred green sewing machines. The hypnotic hum of spools spinning brightly colored threads. The hiss of a thousand clothing irons.
Set aside for a moment what you think you know about the garment factories in Bangladesh: grimy, sweaty, children sitting in dimly lit, sweltering rooms sewing shirts you buy at your box store for $12.
Here at Lakhsmi Sweaters, the only children are in its in-house day care.
At this factory in Gazipur, on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka, workers sit in long, orderly rows, under bright neon lights, with fans blasting full speed.
They get hourlong lunch breaks and free medicine. Medical checkups are mandatory, and the factory employs a full-time doctor. New mothers receive maternity leave — and pay.
Members of the Bangladesh army pray at the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar near Dhaka on Tuesday, May 14. The army-led effort to search for bodies has ended nearly three weeks after the nine-story building collapsed. The final death toll stands at 1,127.
Relatives of missing garment workers offer prayers in front of the rubble on May 14 in Savar.
A white board at the recovery command center near the disaster is used to track the death toll on Monday, May 13.
Heavy equipment sifts through the rubble of the garment factory building collapse on Sunday, May 12.
A woman cries holds a portrait of a missing relative believed to be trapped in the rubble of the Rana Plaza building on Saturday, May 11.
Bangladeshi garment worker Reshma Begum, a seamstress who survived 16 days trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building, rests in Savar Cantonment Hospital on the outskirts of Dhaka on May 11.
Relatives search through a long line of covered decomposing bodies to try to identify their family members on May 11.
Rescue workers retrieve Reshma from the rubble in Savar, Bangladesh, on Friday, May 10. She got rescue workers’ attention by waving an iron rod. She was found in a pool of water, which allowed her to stay alive.
An injured worker who survived the building collapse is carried by her husband to collect her wages in Savar near Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Wednesday, May 8.
Garment workers who survived the building collapse line up to collect their salaries in Savar on May 8.
Workers continue rescue and recovery operations on Tuesday, May 7, nearly two weeks after the Rana Plaza building’s collapse outside Dhaka.
Rescue workers recover a body from the rubble on May 7.
Relatives place a body in the back of a truck on May 7.
A woman attempts to identify one of the bodies kept in a schoolyard on May 7.
Members of the Bangladeshi army and firefighters carry the body of a garment worker from the scene of the building collapse in Savar, outside Dhaka, on Sunday, May 5.
A woman holds a portrait of her missing relative as she sleeps on Saturday, May 4.
Relatives attempt to identify the bodies of loved ones on May 4.
Rescue workers dig out debris from the Rana Plaza building as Bangladeshi army personnel continue the second phase of a rescue operation using heavy equipment on Friday, May 3.
A woman reacts on May 3 after identifying a body found in the rubble.
A man stands amid the destruction as rescue and army personnel continue recovery operations on May 3.
A woman holds up a picture of a missing person believed to be trapped in the rubble on May 3.
A garment worker rescued from the wreckage of the Rana Plaza building lies in a hospital in Dhaka on Thursday, May 2.
A woman weeps after identifying her daughter’s body in the rubble in Savar on May 2.
Rescue workers move debris as Bangladeshi army personnel continue the second phase of a rescue operation at the site of the collapsed building in Savar on May 2.
A woman mourns before a mass burial in Dhaka on Wednesday, May 1.
Unidentified bodies from the rubble lie on the ground as people gather for a mass burial in Dhaka on May 1.
Workers dig graves during a mass burial of unidentified garment workers on May 1.
Sohel Rana, owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, wears police-issued body armor and a helmet while being escorted to court in Dhaka on Tuesday, April 30. Rana was arrested near the Indian border, and protesters called for him to be hanged.
Bangladeshi troops carry the body of a garment worker out of the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar on April 30.
Clothing with Joe Fresh labels lies in the debris on April 30.
Cranes operated by Bangladeshi army personnel work on Monday, April 29.
Firefighters try to control a blaze that started while they were trying to rescue a woman with heavy equipment on April 29.
Bangladeshi army personnel begin the second phase of the rescue operation using heavy equipment on April 29.
Rescuers look for survivors on Sunday, April 28. The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society says the chances of finding anyone alive in the rubble at this date are remote.
A woman mourns on April 28 at the site of the building collapse in Savar.
Rescue workers search for survivors on April 28.
Volunteers sleep before they begin more rescue operations on April 28.
Rescue workers carry a victim’s body recovered from the rubble on April 28.
Clothes lie in the rubble on Saturday, April 27.
An arrested owner of a garment factory is escorted to an appearance at the court in Dhaka on April 27. Four people were arrested and four others are being questioned by police.
Relatives hold photos of missing and dead workers outside the factory April 27.
Two Bangladeshi women look at a board with notices posted of missing and dead workers on April 27.
Bangladeshi relatives and workers load a body onto a truck on April 27.
An excavator operated by the Bangladeshi Army removes debris on April 26.
Volunteers and rescue workers conduct rescue operations on April 26.
Rescue workers use textile as a slide to move bodies out of the rubble on April 26.
Rescue workers look for trapped garment workers on April 26.
Rescue workers stand on the rubble of the collapsed building on April 26.
Rescue workers search the rubble for victims and survivors on April 26.
A rescue worker looks for trapped workers on April 26.
Bangladeshi army personnel recover a survivor from rubble on April 26, 48 hours after the collapse.
Volunteers and rescue workers assist in rescue operations on April 26.
A physician assists a survivor after he was recovered from the rubble on April 26.
Two bodies clutch each other in the rubble on Thursday, April 25.
People rescue garment workers on April 25.
A Bangladeshi woman shows a picture of her missing daughter-in-law she believes is trapped in the collapsed building on April 25.
Bangladeshi firefighters cut a hole through concrete during rescue operations on April 25 in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka.
Volunteers and rescue workers work at the scene on April 25.
A woman appears devastated on April 25 after identifying the body of her husband killed in the building collapse.
Bangladeshi garment workers help evacuate a survivor by using a roll of fabric on April 24.
People rescue garment workers on Wednesday, April 24, after the building caved in, leaving a chaotic mass of broken concrete and twisted metal.
Relatives who lost a brother mourn outside a hospital on April 24.
Rescuers help an injured garment worker to escape from the Rana Plaza building on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24.
Civilians help an injured garment worker on April 24. Work was proceeding slowly to avoid causing further collapse, an official said.
Rescue workers search for trapped garment workers in the Rana Plaza building on April 24.
An injured Bangladeshi lies on the hospital floor on April 24.
The injured receive treatment at a hospital on April 24.
An injured person rests in a hospital bed on April 24.
People wait anxiously on April 24 while rescuers search for survivors.
Rescuers help an injured person out of the seventh floor on April 24.
Civilians help out in rescue efforts at the collapsed building on April 24.
Hundreds watch the rescue operations on April 24.
People search for garment workers trapped under the debris on April 24.
Rescuers help an injured worker on April 24.
A body is trapped under the damaged building on April 24.
A woman is carried away from the building on April 24.
A rescue worker carries a worker to an ambulance on April 24.
Crowds gather around the collapsed building on April 24.
jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ alt=”Rescuers bring out an injured garment worker from the building’s sixth floor.” border=”0″ /Rescuers bring out an injured garment worker from the building’s sixth floor.
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“The atmosphere should always be healthy, friendly and livable. We don’t need buyers to tell us that,” said Safina Rahman, director of Lakhsmi and one of just a handful of female owners in what is predominantly a male-run industry.
“This is my duty. This is how I’d want my children to grow.”
But in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster when Bangladesh’s extremely lucrative garment business has come under increased international scrutiny, Rahman and her workers worry about the effect the backlash will have on them.
Retailers in the West are rethinking their partnerships as customers threaten to shop elsewhere.
United Students Against Sweatshops, a labor rights group, is planning protests against clothiers it believes aren’t committed to strict standards in Bangladesh.
And the Obama administration may take away the tax breaks Bangladesh get for goods that the United States imports.
All of which would have devastating consequences for Bangladesh.
The garment industry has been a boon for this South Asian nation of 160 million. It pumps $20 billion a year into the economy. In a country where 31% of the population lives below the poverty line, the industry has been a salvation for 4 million people working in more than 4,500 factories.
“More than 2 million people are working in this trade; maybe more,” Rahman said. “If one (worker) has four people to look after in the family, that’s almost 8 million people who are living off this trade.”
“If we are bloodsuckers, who is contributing to this economy?” she added. “It’s become a big-time challenge for us. People like us.”
Poppy Begum is a stitcher here, one of 2,000 workers spread across four floors. She works nine-hour days, six days a week, helping create sweaters and other knitwear bound for Europe, Canada and Australia.
In an industry where the turnover is extremely high, many of the workers such as Begum have been here for almost a decade.
It’s easy to see why: The starting wage is $51 a month — higher than the industry average of $35.
Rescue workers carry Reshma Begum, 19, to safety on Friday, May 10, a day after her discovery alive amid the wreckage of a building that had entombed her since it collapsed on April 24, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At least 1,127 people have been confirmed dead from the garment factory building collapse.
Begum, a young female garment worker at the Rana Plaza building before the disaster, addresses the media at the Savar Combined Military Hospital in Savar area of Dhaka on Monday, May 13.
Throngs of reporters crowd around Begum as she speaks publicly for the first time on May 13 about her ordeal in Dhaka.
Begum is surrounded by media and members of the Bangladeshi military at the hospital where she is recovering in Dhaka on May 13.
A nurse helps Begum through a door as she attends a media conference at the Savar Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka on May 13.
Begum rests in her hospital bed as members of the Bangladeshi military stand beside her at the Savar Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka on Saturday, May 11.
Begum was found in the factory’s basement in a pool of water, according to rescue official Lt. Col. Moazzem Hossain.
Bangladeshi army workers supervise the continued rescue operation using heavy equipment to sift through the rubble on May 10 in Dhaka.
Rescuers workers administer first aid as they carry Begum from the rubble on May 10 in Dhaka.
Begum is pulled alive from the rubble by the rescue workers on May 10, after being buried for 16 days.
Begum recalled that when the collapse of the nine-story building began, she was working on the third floor. She was found in the factory’s basement.
The 19-year-old mother vowed to never again work in the country’s garment industry, where she was earning the equivalent of $60 a month.
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They are trained in first aid. And they appoint a representative who airs their grievances to management.
In other words, the accusations that bedevil the industry now — safety issues, workers rights, low pay — are addressed here.
“We get paid on time. If Friday is a holiday, we get paid a day earlier,” Begum said.
We spoke to several workers at Lakhsmi and asked them to speak freely about their conditions. They seemed content.
It turns out that medium-sized factories such as this aren’t the ones creating the headlines.
They are tailored for the task, they meet safety standards and they pass inspections.
The problem children are the many, many factories that have mushroomed in and around Dhaka that rent space in facilities where they have no business being: shopping malls or office buildings that aren’t equipped to handle the heavy machinery the trade requires.
Until now, the government has turned a blind eye to the problem. After all, the factories were boosting employment — even if they were doing so in spaces crammed to the hilt with workers with zero safety regulations.
Since 2005, almost 2,000 garment workers have been killed in factory fires and structure collapse. And all of them have been at such small, unregulated factories.
These facilities don’t directly deal with Western clothiers.
When a company in the United States places an order, it does so with a large or a medium-sized factory that most likely lives up to the company’s standards for a decent wage and working conditions.
But, just like a contractor working on your home will farm out parts of the job to others, these factories sometimes do the same — to smaller, fly-by-night operations.
And with business booming, with a greater demand for goods and with the need to keep costs down so the consumers in the West can continue to purchase cheap shirts, such passing-of-the-buck has become more commonplace.
But the Rana Plaza disaster may change all that.
The shopping mall in the Dhaka suburb of Savar was built on swampland, with the owner adding four more floors to what was once a five-story structure, officials said. It housed five garment factories and generators on the fourth floor to keep them buzzing.
It collapsed April 24, killing more than 1,100 and ranking as the deadliest industrial disaster in the country.
The outrage over the disaster reached such a fever pitch that the government said it will form a committee to raise the minimum wage of garment workers. The Cabinet also approved the draft of a law that will allow workers to unionize and force factories to offer life insurance.
For its part, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Export Association said it too is taking additional steps.
Until now, it had standards for workplace safety but not for the structural safety of a building.
“Before this Rana Plaza incident, BGMEA did not have the technical know-how people to check the structural design. We didn’t have any civil engineers,” said Reza Bin Mahmood, vice president with the association.
Those inspections have now begun. But with more than 4,500 factories, the task is daunting.
“It’s not an easy job. And we cannot finish it by overnight,” he said, urging that the factories be improved and updated with money from retailers.
Spurred to action
Some international retailers are doing just that. More than a dozen European clothiers signed on to a plan to help prevent fire and building collapses in Bangladesh.
The five-year plan calls for independent safety inspections and for companies to publicly report the findings. It also requires retailers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in factories with which they work.
Companies who sign on will have to terminate business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety upgrades.
But many U.S. retailers, including Wal-Mart, have not signed on.
Wal-Mart said it will perform its own inspections and provide every worker with fire safety.
Over at Lakhsmi, the changes for the industry are welcome ones. Here, workers are assigned as fire wardens and extinguishers hang on the walls on each floor.
“At times, I feel ashamed to be in this trade,” Rahman, the factory owner, said. “Not for me but (because) somebody from this trade has done this irresponsible thing and took so many lives.
“This is just not done. It should not be repeated again.”