12 Years a Slave -- In a Bangladesh Garment Factory?

12/06/2013 06:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2014

I recently saw the new Steve McQueen film 12 Years a Slave. Gruesome and yet compelling, it tells the true story of a free black man in the mid-1800s, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped from New York and sold South into slavery. The movie is based on a best-selling book that Solomon wrote after he was freed, and it leaves no room for speculation about the degrading and inhumane conditions under which the American slaves lived.

If you've seen the film perhaps, like me, you gave a sigh of relief after emerging into the light from the darkness of the theater, remembering that it all happened over 150 years ago, and thinking that the ultimate human disgrace called slavery is now just a sad bit of history.

But is it? Slavery can take different forms, and too many other versions of it live simultaneously in this world for us to be complacent that it is limited to the distant past. Haunting images from the film stayed with me for several days, but gradually they were overlaid by other pictures. I began to think of the too-short lives of more than a hundred workers in the Nazreen garment factory in Bangladesh that caught fire just a year ago, who burned to death because of a lack of fire exits. I imagined the plight of more than 1100 Bangladeshi garment workers at Rana Plaza who were killed earlier this year after being trapped in a disintegrating nine-story building that collapsed around them.

We call these people, mostly women, factory workers, not "slaves." But how different from slavery is the need to work up to 14 hours a day, sometimes without days off, just to be able to live on wages of less than $40/week? Like slaves, they also had no choice in the wretched conditions under which they worked. They faced losing their jobs if they refused to enter that Rana Plaza factory, even when major cracks appeared in the walls the day before the collapse. In the movie, Solomon was whipped when he didn't pick as much cotton as expected; the factory workers in many cases get even less than their already pitiful wages if they don't perform. Pressures are great -- including physical punishment -- to work as fast as they can, often in sweltering and unventilated rooms, and for long hours. That sounds a lot like slavery to me.

Garment workers make clothing. Most of us buy clothes, and more and more of our clothing is made in factories in Bangladesh. How many of us look at the labels of those great new jeans or that colorful sweater to notice the country of origin? How often do we wonder about the lives of those who made it? If you ever do, an important next step is to join efforts to improve this system that otherwise seems a perpetual "race to the bottom" of health and safety conditions for the workers who make those clothes. You can learn a lot and take action at the web site of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, which reports on the truly shocking conditions in Bangladesh and other garment factories, focusing on Gap and Old Navy producers in particular. Another useful resource is the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European group that monitors conditions for garment workers around the world. It's important to remember that boycotting products is not necessarily the answer; a recent very informative article in The Nation included a plea from garment workers to support improving their pay and conditions but to continue to buy products made in Bangladesh.

Is there any hope for improving the lives of these aptly-termed sweatshop workers? In September, over 50,000 Bangladeshi factory workers took to the streets to demand safer working conditions and substantial raises. Such demonstrations are often met by police with rubber bullets and tear gas, but this time their demands were heard by the larger community. In November two major groups of retailers, one American and one European, agreed to an accord requiring substantial improvements in safety standards for any factories producing goods for their companies. That's a very good thing, but much more is needed. The American retailers -- including Walmart and Sears -- have refused to contribute to the efforts to compensate the devastated families of the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, even though the European group will do so. If you shop at Walmart or Sears, please contact them with the message that your future business is contingent on their support for that reasonable effort, and ask your friends to do the same.

In another promising milestone, the Bangladesh government has recently agreed to raise the minimum wage for factory workers by a substantial 77 percent, to the equivalent of $68/month. While it's still dramatically inadequate, that $30 more every month will be very important if the new wage is adequately enforced. And it may signal the beginning of a movement to transform the minimum wage into a "living wage" for the women and men in Bangladesh who make our inexpensive clothes. We should all be a part of the effort to bring them out of modern-day slavery.