“I came to the city because of the floods”
Climate chaos is already affecting the garment industry. Bangladesh, one of the world’s top ten most low-lying nations, produces $38.73 billion worth of export clothing per year. The country faces huge climate risks from increasing heat, rising tides and flooding, and food insecurity linked to environmental change. The impacts of these environmental changes are already being felt. In order to see how the garment industry is being affected, we asked workers in Bangladesh what they saw was happening and what they thought about the changing climate.
Interviews thanks to Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity
Video and images by Rainbow Collective
Internal migration is just one of the effects of climate change that is making workers become more vulnerable to exploitation by the garment industry. Two-thirds of Bangladesh’s land lies less than 5 metres above sea level, and a quarter of Bangladesh’s population live in the country’s 580 km-wide coastal zone.
The agriculture-based livelihoods in Bangladesh’s coastal zone are increasingly under threat from rising sea levels and increased salination of the water which is killing trees and plants and makes farming impossible. Rural incomes are becoming unviable in many places.
Rural economies at risk
Internal migration is just one of the effects of climate change that is making workers become more vulnerable to exploitation by the garment industry. Two-thirds of Bangladesh’s land lies less than 5 metres above sea level, and a quarter of Bangladesh’s population live in the country’s 580 km-wide coastal zone. The agriculture-based livelihoods in Bangladesh’s coastal zone are increasingly under threat from rising sea levels and increased salination of the water which is killing trees and plants and makes farming impossible. Rural incomes are becoming unviable in many places.
Esabnur, 32, migrated to Dhaka, after flooding from the Karatoa river destroyed his village and deluged farmland. He said: “I have come from the village to the city because I am poor and I need to make an income. I don’t have an education to fall back on. I came to the city and started working in a garment factory as a helper. I have gone from that to working as an operator in the factory.” Esabnur has 6 family members, and now earns a wage of just 10900 BDT a month (£85.80), which he uses to support them.
He spoke of the impact of the floods back in his home and his choice to move: “Once the floods start there is no work. The roads are flooded, so even if I was a rickshaw driver, I can’t do that. Basically, at times of flooding we are out of work and income. I then had no choice but to come to the city. I am here because I lost everything during the floods. In our village 1000 homes were lost during the floods. Those 1000 people had no choice but to come to the city. Prior to the floods they didn’t even recognise the city, they were happy in the village. So now because people are having to migrate to the city the city is getting too busy and populated. Most of them are coming here to work in the garment factories. These people have lost everything in the floods. They have to come. You travel to the city because there is work here.” Esabnur now says he makes clothes for Walmart and UNIQLO.
Overpopulated, hot and polluted cities
Through migration, Dhaka’s population has increased from 16 million to 23 million in the last 10 years, and is estimated to top 36 million by 2050. The influx of people has undoubtedly challenged Dhaka’s infrastructure in supporting the growing population, with roads, schools, utilities, housing, waste services not sufficient for the growing population’s needs.
Monira Begum, 30, lives in Ashulia in Dhaka and migrated to the city because of flooding in her home town. She spoke about pollution and waste issues she found when she reached the city, also linked to the garment factories: “What I have seen at the garments factory is that they dispose of waste under a local bridge. So when there is a flood this rubbish creates a horrible smell in the area. Because of the extreme heat there hasn’t been as many floods recently, so at the moment it does not smell. The fabrics from the garment factory are being disposed over there. But this should not be happening and we want someone to do something about it.”
She spoke also about the risk of extreme heat, and the waste, causing local fires. “Every year because of the weather the fabric catches fire, then the local shops nearby catch fire and are destroyed,” she said. “This is happening because of the cyclones and weather that we have. We don’t get rainfall like we use to before. It’s because the climate is getting hotter, this is even affecting the electricity supply in the city and that is making everyone’s life harder.”
Food insecurity is also predicted in coming years with the rising heat. Academics say Bangladesh could lose 32% of its wheat and 8% of rice production by 2050.
Monira says she produces clothes for H&M and Jordace, and earns 10868 BDT per month. She was frank about her take on climate change. “I don’t know much about this (climate change) but I do hear and learn from others. My personal feeling is that if the land stays healthy, the people are able to live good lives. I think the people that are damaging the land need to be forced to stop their activities.”
“I think the people that are damaging the land need to be forced to stop their activities.”
Flooding risk to factories
Flash river flooding is becoming more common, and the rising water levels aren’t restricted to coastal impact. A team of researchers from Penn State University and the University of Chittagong found in 2022 that 70 million people in Bangladesh currently live in flood-prone areas (within 2 kilometers of a river). In Dhaka itself this flood vulnerability applies to about 6 million people.
In terms of the garment industry, many factories are also located in these flood-prone areas. In Dhaka, 20% of the factories are located on land less than 5 meters above sea level or within easy reach of the river putting them in danger of regular flooding by 2030 and beyond. This equates to 1155 factories at risk of regular flooding, and their thousands of workers who will be impacted. Much of the slum worker housing is also located in these flood prone areas.
Map shows Apparel and Footwear Manufacturing Sites and 2030 Projected Sea Level Rise in the Dhaka, Bangladesh region. Source: Repeat, Repair or Renegotiate? J.Judd, J.Jackson, July 2021
“The factory and local businesses dump their liquids here… That is why the road gets so dirty, polluted and floods so easily and it stays like that all year round.”
Fahima, 28, has a family of 6 people to support. Her family made the reluctant decision to move to the city a few years ago after flooding of paddy fields made village life unmanageable. She now says she sews clothes for NEXT, M&S and Kmart. Fahima spoke about flooding of the roads in her district: “The area I live in now there are problems. We have a main road which is constantly getting flooded. The rain does that but also when it’s not raining it still gets flooded. It’s the road that connects us to the garments factory. Sometimes it’s impossible to even use the road – the water is dirty and polluted. The factory and local businesses dump their liquids here. There is no decent system to get rid of this liquid waste. So that is why the road gets so dirty, polluted and floods so easily and it stays like that all year round.“
Witnesses to a phenomenon
Many people who work in the factories in Bangladesh have yet to learn about the causes of climate change, and who to blame for the impacts that are threatening their livelihoods. Yet the conversations carried out while collecting these images show that they are witnessing first-hand the impacts – heat waves and devastating flooding that has caused many hundreds of thousands of people to migrate to the cities to work in the garment industry. While they may not attribute the anger and sadness of leaving their homes to climate change, they know for certain that it is changing Bangladesh forever.
Esabnur said: “What I know is that from the plants and trees comes oxygen. If we keep building and destroying greenery we take away that life source. This has an effect on all our daily lives.”