Summer in Bangladesh yields scholarship, philanthropy opportunities for students studying garment industry

KU Law students Madeline Heeren and Aqmar Rahman planned to spend the summer after their first year of law school in Bangladesh studying the garment industry. Just weeks before their departure, a commercial building in the capital of Dhaka collapsed, killing 1,129 people and injuring more than 2,500. It was the deadliest garment factory accident in history.

Overnight, the industry came under fire and the pair’s priorities shifted.

“We wanted to give a new, objective perspective on what the industry is really like now,” Rahman said. “Media perspective was very skewed, and we wanted to provide an objective account of what was going on and what changes were being made.”

Heeren and Rahman tour the slums of Dhaka.

To get that inside look, the pair reached out to Bangladesh’s former Minister of Commerce, the chairman of the board of foreign direct investment, business owners and workers. They toured factories and slums and left with a complex view of the industry.

“You look at the news and people think the conditions are so awful and these people are working for such a low wage,” Rahman said. “But it’s provided a lot of jobs for people who otherwise would be on the street begging.”

In the past 10 years, Bangladesh has become the second leading manufacturer of textiles and apparel in the world, behind only China. Demand for inexpensive clothing is immense, and increasing wages could mean layoffs for Bangladesh’s eager workforce.

“Manufacturers come to Bangladesh because it’s cheapest,” Rahman said. “If wages are raised, they would just go to Cambodia or Vietnam.”

While the negative examples capture media attention, Heeren and Rahman toured factories that surpass U.S. safety standards. They witnessed fire training, observed safety codes and examined personnel files documenting workers’ ages and status. The pair acknowledges that these standards are not as widespread as they should be and that “rotten apples” affect perception of the entire industry. Reform is a long, costly and laborious process.

Heeren and Rahman with new KU fans in Bangladesh.

“There is a tug-of-war between not raising prices and having safety standards that meet regulations,” Rahman said. “It’s a hard balance.”

While Heeren and Rahman came away with a nuanced view of the garment industry, their commitment to understanding it and improving lives in Bangladesh is stronger than ever. The students are writing a paper about their observations and launched a nonprofit called United Across Borders to provide clothing and assistance to workers. Heeren described the irony of touring factories that churn out millions of garments each day, only to step outside and see people who don’t have adequate clothing. Both students plan to pursue international careers, whether they work in trade, industry or regulation and compliance.

Beyond career ambitions and humanitarian aspirations, the experience affected the duo on a personal level.

“I went shopping the other day and started looking at tags and where clothing is coming from,” Heeren said. “I think of the people doing hard, manual labor. It definitely makes you think.”

The pair is grateful to KU’s International and Comparative Law faculty for giving them the resources and direction to pursue their research.

“This wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t come here: being able to go abroad, doing international legal work, having met Aqmar,” Heeren said. “Everything was all because I came here to KU Law.”

— Story by Emily Sharp