From the Factory Floor is a new series offering firsthand visits to manufacturers across Asia as they deal with fallout from the coronavirus.
It’s been more than a year since a helicopter bringing global retailers flew into the helipad, a few minutes walk from the main building of Plummy Fashions Ltd., located some 20 miles from Hazrat Shahjalal International airport in Northern Dhaka.
Miles don’t necessarily translate into minutes in Dhaka, with its heavy traffic, and buyers often find ways to circumvent what can easily be a two-hour drive from the airport.
Plummy Fashions, which sits on 5.5 acres of prime land, has just introduced a second shift for employees as of March 1. Typically, the same workers often put in long working days at factories, and with the additional earnings of overtime, are not averse to the extra hours.
Often times though, that ends in exploitation, and extraordinarily long work days. Talking about this add-on, despite the trying times of order cancellations at factories due to Covid, Fazlul Hoque, owner and managing director of the factory told Sourcing Journal, “It is a sign that things are picking up that we can introduce this second shift.”
Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporter in the world after China, and knitwear, which accounts for approximately half of the country’s exports, has stepped up in the past few months.
From July through January knitwear exports increased by 3.44 percent year-on-year to $9.98 billion, while woven garment exports fell by 10.85 percent year-on-year to $8.41 billion. Overall, the garment sector recorded a negative growth rate of 3.44 percent year-on-year for exports in the period.
Workers at Plummy—the factory name comes from the adjective for plum, as in ‘very good and worth having’—have been observing the distancing required under Covid times, even if the buyers are not traveling here. Plummy is considered one of the greenest knitwear factories in the world, with certification from the U.S Green Building Council (USGBC) scoring 92 out of 110 points for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. (Eighty points qualifies for a platinum certified factory).
Bangladesh has more than 100 LEED green factories, more than 25 of which are platinum ranked.
“I will admit our products are not the lowest price, but that’s not what our buyers come to us for and it is not our business strategy to be the cheapest,” said Hoque, without conceit. The factory, which opened 18 months after the collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013, replaced two older factories, and was part of a plan to counter the existing sentiment that Bangladesh factories were sweatshops. The construction came at a high price tag of almost $20 million.
“Rather, we have our set of buyers who have been consistent, who are willing to pay more for a safe environment, secure that they don’t have risk factors in terms of their supplier,” he said. Some of the brands that manufacture at the factory include Calvin Klein, DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and Mexx.
These concerns were brought to the fore just this past weekend as a fire in a chemical warehouse at a garment factory in Bangladesh left one dead and injured or sickened dozens more.
The factory floor shows a streamlining of new technologies, a focus on circular knitting machines, and careful management to achieve a 40 percent reduction in energy use, a 41 percent decrease in water use and a 35 percent decline in carbon footprint compared with a typical factory.
Farida Akhtar, a cutting assistant, and a worker on the factory floor for the last five years, said that learning the new machinery took some time.
“But I have become multiskilled in the last five years. I feel more confident,” she said.
Akhtar, who lives a half mile away with her husband and two children, talked about the fact that technology is only part of the learning process—perhaps the harder one is management.
“I want to be promoted to officer level—to a welfare officer, to walk around the factory the whole day, to speak with the workers and to solve their issues. I am educated, having finished high school, and I hope to fulfill my dreams,” she said.
While Akhtar dreams of making the factory more efficient, Hoque observed that Covid itself dictated more streamlining over the last year.
“The green focus does not directly change the level of production. But we believe that such an environment reduces worker migration and increases productivity. Worker safety is a priority. Not one of our workers got Covid. We have a natural shower and medical facilities for workers right here,” said Hoque.
Among the changes at the factory is the kind of production itself: “These days, there is a lot of loungewear and knitwear, so that’s where we see things moving differently. There is also a change of raw material, using recycled yarn and fabric in the production line, and that is a circular solution for the brands,” he observed.
The factory, which is spread over six buildings, has its own dyeing, finishing and washing units. Cycles are made available for workers to commute easily; landscaped gardens surround the buildings.
“It’s an open sky,” said Hoque.
He wasn’t referring to the lack of helicopters taking off, but simply to workers being able to stop and see past the placid lake on the factory grounds, rather than being surrounded by harried buildings where exits are locked and every inch of space represents money to be made. “Normally, you can’t see the open sky at factories,” he mused.