Revisiting Arsenic and Lace: Life in Bangladesh

Program 0117 April 24, 2001

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(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

DANIEL GEKTOR??: I take a transparent plastic bottle and I fill the bottle with water. Afterwards I add about six drops of lemon juice in, for 1.5 liters of water. After the bottle will be exposed to the sun for about 4-to-5 hours. This can be filtered afterwards.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, struggling to survive in Bangladesh.

BIJU JOHN: Itís a code of conduct. We put it on the wall of the factory in different areas so that the workers also can understand. You know, they can also read it.

EHRLICH: Do the workers read English?

BIJU JOHN: Yeah. Definitely they should be reading.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. Itís produced by the Stanley Foundation. Iím Keith Porter.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: And Iím Kristin McHugh. Millions of Bangladeshis may die from arsenic poisoning. The arsenic occurs naturally in the soil, seeps into aquifers, and ultimately poisons drinking wells. Just over a year ago the World Bank announced a major plan to help eliminate the problem. While some progress has been made, critics in Bangladesh say government and international relief agencies are moving far too slowly to correct a problem they helped create. Common Groundís Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports from Miapur Village in the northwest corner of Bangladesh.

REESE EHRLICH: Children crowd around a friendly 55-year-old woman named BHANU. Her hands are deeply creased, a sign that sheís suffering from arsenic poisoning, the result of drinking local well water.

BHANU: (via a translator) I felt a heat on my skin. It felt like when you get burned in the kitchen or when you stay in the sun for a very long time. My feet also hurt. I canít work on the asphalt road. If I walk for very long I get cuts and they bleed a lot.

EHRLICH: In more advanced stages arsenic patients have lumps clustered all over their feet and hands, symptoms resembling leprosy. Experts say perhaps 80 million people are at-risk from arsenic poisoning in India and Bangladesh. The arsenic occurs naturally in the soil and seeps into the aquifers, an invisible and deadly menace. Alan Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, is one of the worldís leading experts on arsenic poisoning.

ALAN SMITH: If one looks at it from the point of view of a chemical that, high risk, large numbers of people, then one could describe it as the largest mass poisoning of people thatís ever occurred.

EHRLICH: The symptoms are so unusual itís not surprising that Banu and others in Miapur Village didnít know what was causing their illness.

BHANU: (via a translator) I got these symptoms about two years ago. I thought it was the measles and because I hadnít done anything to cure it, it got worse. Then a health worker came to the village. She said "Itís arsenic poisoning and you must get treated." She took me to a clinic. A doctor tested me and said it was arsenic. He gave me vitamins.

EHRLICH: Vitamins can help alleviate some of the symptoms, but more importantly for Bhanu, sheís been drinking uncontaminated water. If the patient hasnít ingested deadly quantities, drinking clean water and having a healthy diet allows the body to eventually cleanse itself of the poison. Bhanuís case highlights both the success and the ongoing problems of relief efforts. International agencies have tested thousands of wells. Theyíve distributed some vitamins, but supplies frequently run out.

[sound of children and families]

EHRLICH: Villagers get all their drinking from tube wells, which consist of narrow plastic pipes inserted a few dozen feet into the ground and then attached to a hand pump. Nargis Begum, a rural health worker, says about 250 people in Miapur Village have visible signs of arsenic poisoning as a result of drinking from the tube wells. Over the past year Begum says health workers have tested all the public wells here and told residents which are safe.

NARGIS BEGUM??: (via a translator) The public tube wells, those supplied by the government, have been tested. If it has arsenic itís painted red. If itís safe itís painted green. But private tube wells arenít marked. People who own the private tube wells say, "What good is it to paint them red? Youíre not supplying us with alternative water."

EHRLICH: A country like the US facing this kind of crisis would provide safe drinking water until the water system could be treated with chemicals and filtered. But in rural Bangladesh, there is no piped water. So health workers face big problems. The arsenic-laced water looks clear and tastes fine. If the only alternative is brackish pond water, some villagers go back to drinking the arsenic water after health workers leave. To make matters worse, critics say, international agencies and the government knew about the problem and did nothing until very recently, making mitigation more difficult. Beginning in the early 1970s, UNICEF and other agencies encouraged rural Bangladeshis to dig tube wells and avoid surface water contaminated with bacteria that caused serious diseases. The UNICEF project was cheap and very effective. An estimated 4 million public and private wells were installed over the next 20 years. But neither UNICEF nor anyone else thought to test the wells for arsenic. UNICEF officials said no one knew the arsenic could poison wells in this way. But doctors at the Dacca Community Hospital say the history of the crisis is far more complicated.

[sounds of people in a hospital]

DR. QUAZI QUAMRUZZAMAN: This is the place where we treat the arsenic patients.

EHRLICH: Doctors at the Dacca Community Hospital, a private, non-profit medical center, were the first to publicly raise the alarm about arsenic poisoning. Dr. Quazi Quamruzzaman says the Bangladeshi government and the World Health Organization had been alerted to the problem as early as the mid-1980s.

DR. QUAZI QUAMRUZZAMAN: The information came to Bangladesh in 1985. Because we just found in India, the Indians found, their national government, in 1985, and from their investigation they suspected this is coming from underground water and that is also present in Bangladesh. In 1985 some people already tested in Bangladesh and found arsenic in Chapanam Gonge??. I think the program is done in Bangladesh called "DPHE"-Department of Public Health Engineering. I think theyíre the ones who tested that one.

EHRLICH: By 1993 the DPHE had formed a committee to study the arsenic poisonings. But it never issued a report or alerted the medical community. Dr. Quamruzzaman.

DR. QUAMRUZZAMAN??: We found arsenic in June 1996. So when we came to know we told the people who are concerned in this program. Like WHO, UNICEF, and other donors, the government of Bangladesh, and NGOís. And actually there was a denial that this is not a problem in Bangladesh. But we, we knew this is a problem in India for a long time.

EHRLICH: Officials of the international relief agencies and of the Bangladeshi government call such criticisms unfair. Farid Mia who heads the governments arsenic mitigation efforts, says at first they thought the problem existed in only certain limited areas.

FARID MIA: There is no problem that I found that the government was not taking care of it. The government is absolutely concerned. And the government has tried their best to bring this product on in the minimum possible time. I donít think that you can do some things abruptly. I mean it requires a phased development.

EHRLICH: That argument hasnít convinced an opposition parliamentarian who filed a lawsuit against the government and some international agencies for covering up the problem in the 1980s and early 1990s. American epidemiologist Alan Smith, who sympathizes with the difficulties faced by relief agencies and government officials, says nevertheless, people moved too slowly.

SMITH: I would have liked to have seen a declaration that this was a public health emergency back at the time I first went there in í97. I thought it a sufficient reason to declare it a public health emergency, to have rapid action programs put in place.

EHRLICH: Finally, in September 1998 the World Bank, along with Swiss and Bangladeshi governments, provided $44.4 million to begin an emergency cleanup. Theyíve tested and marked thousands of wells. Theyíre funding experiments on how to filter arsenic out of water.

[sound of water being hand pumped from a well]

EHRLICH: In Kaluhati Village, Mozomad Begum is participating in one such experiment. Sheís trying out whatís been nicknamed the "two bucket system." First she pumps water from an arsenic-contaminated well.

[sound of water being hand pumped from a well]

EHRLICH: Then she dumps the water into what looks like a red Styrofoam water cooler that Americans take on picnics.

[sound of water pouring]

EHRLICH: Then she takes a wooden spoon, scoops up some powdered chemicals, puts them in the bucket, and stirs 20 times.

[sound of stirring and talking]

EHRLICH: Begum waits several hours until the arsenic settles to the bottom of the bucket. She then transfers the top 2/3 of the water to a second bucket. That water is safe to drink. But health workers know there are a number of problems with two-bucket system. The method is pretty complicated. And in some cases villagers are given packets of powdered alum, a dangerous chemical if too much is added, says Dacca Community Hospitalís Dr. Quamruzzaman.

DR. QUAMRUZZAMAN: There is a possibility causing more problem. And that is happening. There is a solution of alum-treated water; at a lot of places we found alum poisoning. The chemicals theyíre using, people, these people in the villages, theyíre not a chemical expert. They found packets and they put two, three packets because they think that will clear it quickly.

[sound of villagers talking]

EHRLICH: And thereís another potential problem. Remember the red picnic cooler-like bucket? Well, at the end of the treatment process the bottom of the container is filled with arsenic sludge.

EHRLICH: What does she do with the water from the red bucket?

MOZAMOD Begum: (via a translator) She throws it out.

EHRLICH: In theory the wastewater should be poured onto cow dung to neutralize it. But Begum doesnít raise farm animals, so she dumped the water into an open sewage drain, which flows into a nearby field. Right now thereís no danger. But if thousands, indeed millions, of households begin dumping arsenic sludge into their fields, the environmental consequences could be severe. The two-bucket system may work on a short-term basis in some villages, but scientists are still searching for other methods.

[sound of water being hand pumped from a well]

EHRLICH: Daniel Gechter, of the Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental and Health Technology, is busy pumping from a tube well. Heís experimenting with another method of getting rid of arsenic.

DANIEL GECHTER: I take a transparent plastic bottle and I fill the bottle with water. Afterwards I add about six drops of lemon juice in, for 1.5 liters of water. After the bottle will be exposed to the sun for about 4-to-5 hours. And after this 5 hours the iron particles will, the iron will flocculate??, and settle down in the bottles. And this can be filtered afterwards.

EHRLICH: Gechter says villagers can pour the water through a piece of cloth and the arsenic would be filtered out. This method has the advantage of being simple and relying on readily available products. But it hasnít yet been tested in the villages. Epidemiologist Alan Smith says a variety of stop-gap methods could work, but in the long run villages must have an easily available and plentiful source of drinking water. He says if villagers dig tube wells to a level of 600 feet they have a 98% chance of reaching uncontaminated aquifers.

SMITH: I would want a deep tube well put in, since I know that can be dug, I know you can test the water and I know it will be potentially convenient if enough of them can be put in. And Iíd rather, on a personal basis, see that than special chemical units attached to my well-head that Iím then going to have to maintain.

EHRLICH: Experts say Bangladesh is many years away from solving its crisis. Dr. Quamruzzaman says that stems in part from the failure of the relief agencies and the government to start addressing the problem earlier. He says UNICEF and WHO in particular moved far too slowly.

DR. QUAZI QUAMRUZZAMAN??: All the UN agencies and donors working in Third World country, they must also have a look at themselves. That because of their policy-making, because of their agendas, it affects millions of peopleís life. So you should be more careful of what youíre doing. Unfortunately that has not been, we have not seen that.

EHRLICH: Every day millions of Bangladeshis still drink arsenic-laced water. Some will inevitably develop cancer. Relief agencies and the Bangladeshi government are now in a race against time to find alternatives for a problem they helped create in the first place. For Common Ground Iím Reese Ehrlich in Miapur Village, Bangladesh.

MCHUGH: Coming up, Bangladesh sweatshops.

GREG SCHULTZ: Thereís got to be unions on these factory floors and these companies. These, these codes of conduct, the best monitor for this are democratic trade unions on the shop floors.

MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: As leaders gathered for the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle earlier this month, hundreds of protesters tried to increase international attention on labor standards in Third World sweatshops. The Clinton administration wants the WTO to consider improving labor conditions as part of WTO rules. American companies say their codes of conduct are sufficient to make their contractors follow the law. Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich visited some garment sweatshops in Dacca, Bangladesh, and found that the reality on the ground is far different from the debate in Washington, DC and Seattle.

[sound of factory sewing machines]

JANU AKter: (via a translator) I was only 14 when I started working as a helper in the sewing factory.

REESE EHRLICH: Today, at age 22, Janu Akter, is a veteran garment worker. Sheís among the 1.5 million people working in the sweltering sweatshops of Bangladesh. Most of them are girls and women under 25 years old.

JANU AKTER: (via a translator) As I got more experience I became a sewing machine operator. I worked my way up to 13 cents an hour, the minimum wage. I live with my parents. There are seven people living in our home, including my children. We all share one room. Garment workers are usually on the job until 10:00 P.M. We donít have time to do much at night, like go to a movie, or even watch TV.

EHRLICH: Akter worked at a factory making shirts and blue jeans for American companies. She was often forced to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. So last year she and some fellow workers tried to unionize the factory owned by a Dacca-based company called K-Mart Group, which has no ties to the US retailer of the same name. Akter says management immediately retaliated.

JANU AKTER: (via a translator) The unionís general secretary was called into the managerís office and beaten with a pole. So was another union activist. Later I saw thugs attack a woman worker outside the factory. She was cut with a razor and had to be hospitalized. We got our union certified by the government but when we tried to negotiate a contract I and nine other workers were fired.

EHRLICH: Chaturvedi Murari, the companyís Vice-president, denies that anyone was ever fired or beaten. The manager says his girls are happy to be working here. As proof, he proudly conducts a tour of the factory floor.

[factory sounds]

CHATURVEDI MURARI: This is our stitching room and where we use to manufacture the garment.

EHRLICH: So this is the sewing and stitching?


EHRLICH: Two thousand, mostly teenage women are packed tightly into four floors. Most work only a few feet apart, in temperatures soaring over 100 degrees. Murari says everyone is content.

CHATURVEDI MURARI: The workers are happy. The wages, what are they getting over here, right? Our workers are not interested in the union. I have no idea about that. Because we never heard that any unions came to our office.

EHRLICH: And youíve never met with the union?

CHATURVEDI MURARI: Never! [laughing]

EHRLICH: And no one from the company has ever met with the union?


EHRLICH: But government documents show otherwise. Akter and her fellow workers won government certification for their union. They have medical records showing the workersí injuries. Union leaders held discussions with company management. But none of that seems to faze Murari. As if to present the ultimate defense, Murari says the factory has been approved by a major US retailer: Wal-Mart stores.

CHATURVEDI MURARI: We have got a certification of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart inspected our factory. And we have been approved for that.

EHRLICH: Murariís company is supposed to follow Wal-Mart Storesí code of conduct. Contractors are required to obey labor laws, allow the formation of unions, and otherwise protect workerís rights. When contacted at its Arkansas headquarters, a Wal-Mart Stores spokesperson said she had no knowledge of the anti-union activity and would investigate. At air time, the investigation is apparently still continuing. Given weak enforcement of labor standards in Bangladesh, Janu Akter and fellow workers say international pressure is crucial. She supports campaigns by American students and trade unions to force contractors to abide by fair labor standards. But most garment factory owners consider that unwarranted outside interference. Just ask Naved Husain.

[sound of industrial sewing machines]

NAVED HUSAIN: She is idling. In other places you wouldnít find that.

EHRLICH: Hussein is Chief Executive of Beximco, one of Bangladeshís largest garment and textile conglomerates. He walks through his factory where temperatures climb into the 90ís. He doesnít complain about the heat, however. He complains about inefficient workers.

NAVED HUSAIN: Look at this.

EHRLICH: What is that man doing?

NAVED HUSAIN: Pulling buttons. She can do it herself. We are working to increase efficiencies.

EHRLICH: In an interview in his air-conditioned office, Husain says his workers are treated well. He points out that in less than 20 years, garment to a $3.8 billion industry in Bangladesh and accounts for 75% of the countryís exports. Hussein says US trade policy has helped that transformation. Through a system of quotas the US gives preference to garments made in Bangladesh and certain other Third World countries.

NAVED HUSAIN: It has helped Bangladesh because Bangladesh had time to get into the garment business and the quotas allocated allowed them some breathing room. So basically, you know, I think that the quota policy so far has helped because particularly for the shirts, Bangladesh did get a reasonably liberal quota. And that certainly helped Bangladesh in making an entry into the US.

EHRLICH: Husain says its unnecessary for the World Trade Organization to pass new rules regarding labor standards and criticizes as misguided American unionís efforts to expose sweatshops in Bangladesh. Husainís company, Beximco, has signed a code of conduct agreement with Wal-Mart Stores. Husain says such agreements are sufficient to guarantee workersí rights.

NAVED HUSAIN: Thereís been a lot of debate but at the end of the day I think that, you know, these quota laws, a lot of them do good for the workers. I mean, itís not just lip service. They send people, they check, they do continuous audits. So I think personally that itís done a lot of good.

[sound of industrial sewing machines]

EHRLICH: Back on the Beximco factory floor, plant manager Biju John, says the company strictly adheres to the Wal-Mart code of conduct. He points proudly to a copy posted prominently on the wall-in English Itís a part of contract. We put it on the wall of the factory in different areas so that the workers also can understand. You know, they can also read it.

BIJU JOHN: Itís a code of conduct. We put it on the wall of the factory in different areas so that the workers also can understand. You know, they can also read it.

EHRLICH: Do the workers read English?

BIJU JOHN: Yeah. Definitely they should be reading.

EHRLICH: Suspecting that 17-year-old Bangladeshi women from the countryside might not speak English, let alone read it, I spoke to a few. John admitted they really couldnít speak English.

BIJU JOHN: They are not that educated.

EHRLICH: Yeah. So they donít speak English.


EHRLICH: Okay. And that highlights a serious problem. Union critics say the codes of conduct are posted mainly for public relations purposes and are rarely enforced. Random checks at Beximco turned up some apparent violations. Janu Akter, for example, works as a helper, handing shirts to the sewing machine operators. Factory manager Biju John, translates.

EHRLICH: What is her salary?

BIJU CHAN: (Asks the question in Bengali).

AKTER: (translated via Biju John), 930 Taka. Thatís her basic salary, and Iíll help her. Thatís the Bangladesh law.

EHRLICH: Well, yes, 930 Taka, the equivalent of 9 cents an hour, is the minimum wage in the country as a whole. But workers in the special area set up for tax free manufacturing, called export processing zones, are supposed to get more. Actually, a helper like her should be earning about 10% more. The law is frequently because workers rarely know their legal rights. Even if they do, as individuals they have little ability to change management practices. But there is at least one factory that is apparently following its American code of conduct.

[sound of people talking, bell ringing]

EHRLICH: Itís 8:00 PM and some 5,000 workers are changing shifts at the Dada factory. Dada is a Korean-owned company making caps for Nike and Tommy Hilfiger, among others. Nike in particular has come under tremendous pressure to improve conditions in its contractorsí factories. Apparently, itís done some good. Workers picked at random, questioned outside the factory and away from the inquisitive ears of management, say conditions changed a lot when Nike became a customer.

FEMALE FACTORY WORKER: (via a translator) When Nike came the working conditions got better. Before that there were some labor law violations. I think this is a good factory. Iím pretty happy with it. There arenít many problems.

EHRLICH: Bangladeshi union sources confirm that Dada is considered one of the best garment factories in the area. Workers receive well above the minimum wage and donít work excessive overtime. But, as the conversation with the workers continues it becomes clear that even the best factories donít pay enough for the workers to live decently.

FEMALE FACTORY WORKER: (via a translator) I worked for Dada for 7Ĺ years. I started when I was 12. I earn about 20 cents an hour without overtime. I canít save anything from my wages. Everything goes for food and housing, transport, and clothing. I walk about six or seven kilometers each way to work. If someone gets sick in my family itís hard to get a leave from this factory. Since I donít have any savings I have to borrow money when someone gets sick. Weíd like to see higher salaries here. We donít have a union.

EHRLICH: But unions are illegal in the export processing zones. The AF of L-CIO, a union federation in the US, has filed a legal action in Washington, saying that Bangladesh is violating trade laws by illegally prohibiting unionization in the zones. While unions and management disagree about many issues, they do agree on one thing: both applaud Nike as the first company to go public with the names of its contractors. Dada and dozens of other companies are posted on Nikeís web page. Dada senior manager Zakir Chowdhury, says that puts his company on the hot seat.

ZAKIR CHOWDURY: The company puts your name on the web page, we will be very careful. We will be extremely careful. And thatís very necessary. This is a very continuous process. Sometimes, like we management guys are busy and ignore some small issues, which can be big eventually. So I think this is absolutely fine with us, just because Iíll remember to be very careful. Thatís important. Our management should remain very careful. Because we are in the newspaper. So that always keeps in our mind and we canít ignore any small thing. This is a very good, good technique, you know, to keep us on toes. And it should be.

EHRLICH: But other American companies have so far refused to name their contractors, arguing it could give vital information away to their competitors. Ironically, garment contractors in Dacca know who produces products for American companies. Theyíre all trying to grab one anotherís business. And many American retailers also know who makes clothing for whom. It appears that only the American public is being kept in the dark. Chowdhury suggests that all retailers should go public with the names of their contractors.

ZAKIR CHOWDURY: They should disclose where itís produced so that anybody can come and see.

EHRLICH: Greg Schultz, who heads the AF of L-CIO Solidarity House in Dacca, says revealing the names of contractors is fine. So are codes of conduct. But neither are sufficient.

GREG SCHULTZ: To make it work, thereís got to be unions on these factory floors and these companies. These, these codes of conduct, unless theyíre really committed to chasing down the orders, to see where the subcontract is going, going into the factories and getting honest opinions and telling the workers, the best monitor for this are democratic trade unions on the shop floors. Real trade unions on the shop floors. And the company is not going to push for that.

[sound of singing]

EHRLICH: Here at a garment union office, workers are trying to develop such unions. Here they can learn everything from organizing tactics to lyrics for solidarity songs.

[sound of signing.

EHRLICH: Theyíre also developing a new sense of hope. Fired worker Janu Akter has found a new job at another garment factory. When asked about the future of her family, she covers her mouth with her hand and smiles with embarrassment.

JANU AKTER: (via a translator) I have a lot of dreams. I donít know if they will be fulfilled or not. I want my children to get an education. My dream is that my children will get masterís degrees and have white collar jobs. My wages are so low right now I probably wonít be able to afford to send them to high school. But I can still dream.

[sound of singing]

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, Iím Reese Ehrlich in Dacca, Bangladesh.

MCHUGH: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to program No. 9949; that's program No. 9949. To order by credit card you can call us at 319-264-1500. That's 319-264-1500.

PORTER: Transcripts are also available on our web site, Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is For Common Ground, Iím Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And Iím Kristin McHugh. B.J. Leiderman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by The Stanley Foundation.

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