The women and girls who work in the sweatshops of Bangladesh’s garment industry put in backbreaking hours for pitiful wages. Few here in the West pay much attention to their plight until there is a headline-grabbing catastrophe like the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which crushed more than 1,100 workers last April.
But the story is not that simple. Western retailers may be eager to exploit the cheap labor available in Bangladesh, but the women willingly work in these factories to sidestep another kind of exploitation. As Pulitzer Center grantee Ken Weiss reports in the Los Angles Times, “the picture of the underpaid and over-exploited garment worker gets more complicated when compared with other options available to women in this poor, traditional Muslim society.”
Even a salary of $20 a week affords them a degree of independence and self-sufficiency that enables them to escape an early marriage, the burden of too many children and a life under the thumb of an often tyrannical mother-in-law. For women in male-dominated societies, jobs outside the home are the great equalizer.
Certainly, the entire industry must do more to provide better wages, but as Ken notes, “Even labor activists in Bangladesh and the United States who chronicle cases of workers being intimidated and forced to work long hours agree that the garment industry has given young women opportunities to move from the margins to the center of society.”
Ken’s story contributes to a growing body of work by Pulitzer Center grantees on the plight of garment workers in developing countries, an under-reported crisis that tends to be noticed only after a catastrophe occurs.
A SENATOR’S SECOND ACT
Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold is best known for his collaboration with Senate colleague John McCain to reform campaign finance laws, but when Feingold, a liberal Democrat, was defeated by a tea party millionaire in 2010, he had to find a new career. He did—as a peacemaker in Africa.
Feingold spent nearly two decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he used that time to make himself an authority on Africa. When Secretary of State John Kerry—another Senate colleague—needed a special envoy to deal with the mess in the Congo, Feingold was an easy choice.
In a feature for Politico Magazine, Pulitzer Center grantee and Foreign Affairs magazine senior editor Stuart Reid accompanies Feingold to Africa and chronicles his efforts to resolve a conflict that has claimed millions of lives over the last 20 years. Congo’s troubles are not over yet, but Feingold seems to have made more progress than most. Stuart’s profile offers an engaging profile of how diplomacy actually works.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Larry Price will present his work on child gold miners from the Philippines, Indonesia and Burkina Faso on April 8 at a special talks@pulitzer. Larry's talk is the first in a series of talks@ on women and children's issues, with presentations by Pulitzer Center grantees Ameto Akpe, Mellissa Fung, Amy Toensing, Steve Sapienza, Allison Shelley, Katherine Zoepf and others. Details to come but in the meantime please join us on Tuesday, the 8th, for Larry's talk and a reception honoring his work.
"SEA CHANGE" WINS SCRIPPS HOWARD AWARD
Congratulations to Pulitzer Center grantees Craig Welch and Steve Ringman of The Seattle Times, winners of the Scripps Howard award for best environmental reporting for Sea Change, their superb series on ocean acidification. Craig will present the work at a talks@pulitzer this Wednesday.