Bangladesh Case Study

December 14, 2015

Tip of the iceberg – Bangladesh’s Forgotten Apparel Workers

About This Map

While the garment sector has been a boon to Bangladesh’s economic growth over the last 35 years, the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 highlighted massive failures in business practices, governance and infrastructure that continues to violate the human rights of workers. 

We set out to build an interactive map that represents all available registration data on factory locations in order to visually demonstrate how the garment sector in Bangladesh’s biggest cities actually functions. This is the most detailed estimate of factory numbers and locations ever completed. The NYU Stern Center on Business and Human Rights compiled a data set of more than 11,000 entries gathered from five separate databases of factory addresses. Our goal was to create a map that identified areas in Bangladesh where indirect sourcing factories exist outside the system of inspection and remediation. 

The Rana Plaza Tragedy

On April 23, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers. The tragedy brought renewed attention to and pressure on multinational apparel brands to protect workers in their supply chains. In fact, two new initiatives, the Accord and the Alliance, were created to inspect factories in the wake of this disaster. 


[Figure 2: Number of export garment factories (estimated), Bangladesh]

[Figure 2: Number of export garment factories (estimated), Bangladesh]


Factories in Bangladesh

More than half of all garment workers in Bangladesh – approximately 2.8 million laborers – work in medium-sized or small factories, which are less likely to be covered under current policing/inspection interventions designed to improve safety (like the Alliance and Accord), and are unlikely to benefit from funding for safety improvements and upgrades.  

In addition, about 5-10 percent of all workers are employed in unregistered factories doing subcontracting work for larger factories and are entirely unknown to Western Brands. Thus, the safety of a worker in Bangladesh is entirely dependent on the factory they work in.

How Many Garment Factories Are Really in Bangladesh?

There are many more factories producing for the export apparel sector in Bangladesh than previously acknowledged. We estimate that there are upwards of 7,000 factories producing for export, while previous estimates put the number of factories at 4,000 – 4,500.


[Figure 1: Number of export garment factories (estimated), Bangladesh]


Prior to 2014, there was little publicly available, reliable information about the number of garment factories in Bangladesh. This was not unusual for major garment exporting countries; Bangladesh’s competitors do not publish comprehensive data on their garment factories.

Before Rana Plaza, most estimates put the number of factories at 4,000 – 4,500.  In our 2014 report, Business as Usual is Not an Option, we argued that the number of factories actually was much higher because of the prevalence of unofficial factories. In the report, we outlined the business incentives for maintaining a wide network of informal factories that supply larger, formal factories. We called this model of production “indirect sourcing.”

Over the last two years, more data has become available about Bangladesh’s export garment sector. The government of Bangladesh launched its own factory database; the two trade associations updated their websites and factory registries; and the Accord and the Alliance began to publish monthly lists of factories that supply their members. These lists contain rich information about factory location, types of production (bottoms, tops, children’s, sweaters, etc.), annual production volume, number of sewing machines, and number of male and female workers. The five sources of data presented a unique opportunity to quantitatively analyze information about the factories and workers that comprise the country’s powerful garment sector.

In October and November 2014, we collected all of the data from the five source lists, which resulted in more than 11,000 factory records. The data required significant effort to clean up and de-duplicate, which we completed in August 2015. We call the resulting list of 7,179 factories the “official list” of factories in Bangladesh because factories on these lists have registered with one of the five entities that maintain factory data. The cleaned up, comprehensive list is available on our website,, where it is accompanied by a factory map.

As rich as the official data is, it does not tell the complete story of how garments are produced and the workers who are producing them. The official data contains only that – factories that are officially registered either with the government, one of the two trade associations, or one of two foreign initiatives. Our earlier research indicates clearly that there is a wide network of unofficial factories that remain unregistered and where workers are invisible to regulators, inspectors, and buyers. We also know that the official lists, particularly BGMEA, BKMEA, and DIFE, include factories that do not physically exist or exist in name only.


[Figure 3: Number of export garment factories (estimated), Bangladesh]

[Figure 3: Number of export garment factories (estimated), Bangladesh]