Photo by Jason Motlagh
By Jason Motlagh
Bangladesh is the world's second largest garment exporter, and overseas buyers have an appetite for orders at rock-bottom prices. This demand results in factories cutting corners at the expense of workers' saftey. The garment industry in Bangladesh presents a grim reality, but there are remarkable exceptions.
About ten hours drive northwest of the capital, Apolis' manufacturing partner, Saidpur Enterprises, is an example that profitable business and social responsibility can go hand-in-hand. For over forty years, the company has made quality, handcrafted goods while improving the lives of women artisans in one of the poorest corners of the country. M. Ghayassudin, the soft-spoken director who graciously hosted me last month when I visited the Apolis Bangladesh Project, summed up the prevailing ethos: freedom of association, fair wages, transparency and accountability. Over the first of many cups of lemon tea, he told of how a once shoestring operation has expanded to employ over 150 women and counting. His deputy, Raushan, puts it simply: “We produce change.”
For the better part of a week, the staff opened up their workspace and their homes to a bearded foreigner with a camera. Each morning a group of women comes to the facility to cut and sew bags made of locally sourced jute fiber. They are paid a daily living wage and enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Children often accompany their mothers to work and when the 8-hour shift is finished, the women are free to take their vintage Singer machines home and finish their quota on their own time the next day. Of the dozen-plus women I interviewed, every one said they use their earnings to provide clean food, shelter and education for their families.
Take Hasina, an expert bag maker and mother of five who has worked at the company since 1998. Her eldest daughter recently graduated from college with honors and the rest of her children are in school. Along the way, she has saved enough to “arrange healthy marriages” and transformed her tin and plywood home into a sturdy compound. “This job has earned me much respect,” says the 45-year-old, taking a break from sewing a jute garden bag in the family courtyard opposite her daughter, Lippi. Hasina added that she likes making the Apolis bags because “they’re fancy yet simple, and this allows me to train my children.”
At the community level, Saidpur Enterprises continues to spread goodwill and opportunity by regularly buying school supplies and uniforms for area orphans. And with orders from abroad on the rise, Ghayassudin is eager to hire more women on staff and expand outreach initiatives “to bring lasting change” to Saidpur. As I prepared to leave, he showed me a mock-up he’d designed for the multi-floor headquarters he wants to build, a beacon of glass and steel with an education center, cafeteria and child care center. “This is my dream,” he says with a wide grin. “I hope that people everywhere keep investing in us.”
We are excited to be releasing a film March 14 that takes an inspirational look into our Bangladesh co-op's impact on the local community.
About the author: Jason Motlagh is an award-winning writer, photographer and filmmaker. Formerly TIME Magazine’s Kabul correspondent, he has reported from more than forty countries for leading U.S. and international media, including The Economist, Washington Post, New Republic, Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor, US News & World Report and Frontline/WORLD. His images have been published in newspapers and magazines worldwide and have featured in major festivals, museum shows and global advocacy campaigns. In recent years, Jason has received a series of grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to explore conflicts and human rights issues across Asia..