The soft-spoken, 5 foot tall, brown-skinned woman I met this week did not in any way appear to be a dangerous criminal. Yet, Kalpona Akter, the now-famous Bangladeshi labor activist, spent a month in prison last year, facing criminal charges brought by a subcontractor for Walmart. While serving her sentence, she was interrogated for hours on end, while her colleagues were beaten. Her crime: organizing garment workers.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world where nearly 4 million garment workers, mostly poor young women, toil in about 4,000 factories to make clothes for brands like Gap, Sears, Disney, and Benetton. Bangladesh’s factories export more garments than any other country in the world, second only to China.
In the past year, thousands of women have died in Bangladesh in a series of deadly factory accidents. Last November, a fire at Tazreen factory in Dhaka killed hundreds of mostly female workers. And this April, the multi-story Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing more than 1,200 and injuring 2,500, again, mostly women workers.
The world was shocked at the deaths, but the corporations whose clothes the women died making have done little to nothing in response.
"Even though the factory workers in Tazreen and Rana Plaza were producing clothes for several American brands such as Walmart, most companies have remained shockingly indifferent to demands for compensation."
I asked Kalpona to describe a typical day in the life of a female garment worker in Bangladesh: she told me of the burdens of balancing family and work that most women endure, waking up at 5 am to cook meals for their husbands and children, clean, and keep house. At 7 am they head to work on foot or by bus. At 8 in the morning they start their shift, breaking only once at 1 pm for lunch. The work is mindless and repetitive with unhygienic bathroom facilities and no clean drinking water. Although the work-day officially ends at 5 pm, workers are required to put in overtime until about 7 or 8 pm. By the time they return home, cook dinner, care for their children, keep house, and make their way to bed, it is usually midnight.
For all this, a typical garment worker earns a minimum wage of about $38 a month, plus a few more dollars for overtime.
When I remarked that many Americans would not think twice about spending that entire amount on a single piece of clothing, she agreed, unsurprised. At only 36 years of age, Kalpona Akter has lived a life few of us can imagine. She began working in a garment factory at the age of 12, taking her 10 year old brother with her. Her parents had no choice: “we were the breadwinners of the family,” she told me.
Akter would go to school one day and then to the factory across the street the next day. She recalls being able to see her school playground from a window in the factory and wistfully watching her classmates play while she worked. She calculated that for about 450 hours of work she was paid the shockingly paltry amount of $6 each month.
“I didn’t have any idea about the law and my rights. All I understood was that the factory owner was so kind as to give us jobs. But I never knew that we were being cheated. We were being deprived of our legal rights!”
Once she understood that she had rights, Kalpona began organizing her fellow workers at the young age of 15. She was immediately fired and blacklisted from working in other factories. She continued working and organizing and today she is the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity where she continues her activism on behalf of factory workers, demanding better working conditions and better pay.
Kalpona’s activism comes at a heavy price. In addition to her imprisonment and the on-going criminal charges she is fighting, she risks her life. One of her close allies, Aminul Islam, well known around the world and even in the US for his labor activism in Bangladesh, was found dead a year ago. Islam’s death brought global embarrassment to Bangladesh after numerous governments and international bodies denounced his murder and demanded an investigation.
It is a testament to the work of Aminul Islam, Kalpona Akter, and other labor activists that Bangladesh’s garment factories are the subject of international debate today. But it was the deaths of thousands over the past year that has really galvanized the promise of any meaningful action.
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While it made just a few headlines in the US, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory this April took Bangladesh by storm. Akter described to me how ordinary people in Bangladesh watched their television screens with bated breath as the death toll was constantly reported, climbing each hour to everyone’s horror. "The whole nation cried together... people couldn't eat."
The accidents and their unimaginable death toll brought to mind the famous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City more than a century ago, where 146 immigrant women and girls perished, locked in a sweatshop and unable to escape. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in the history of New York. From the ashes of that fire came labor victories fought with the blood, sweat and tears of the survivors and their allies.
What could arise from the ashes of Tazreen and Rana Plaza?
A meeting just this week in Geneva has brought together corporate heads, labor unions, and worker advocates under the umbrella of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to determine compensation for the families of those killed.
Even though the factory workers in Tazreen and Rana Plaza were producing clothes for several American brands such as Walmart, most companies have remained shockingly indifferent to demands for compensation. Many, including Walmart, have refused to attend meetings like this week’s Geneva meeting or a similar meeting held earlier this year.
Kalpona Akter tells me that over 80 fashion and apparel companies, mostly from Europe, have signed onto a binding accord to protect factory workers in Bangladesh but American companies like Walmart and Gap refuse to sign on. Instead they have proposed voluntary codes of conduct, and signed onto agreements that do not allow union activity. They have invoked the standard argument: that it is the factory owners, not them, who are responsible for the poor conditions and the resulting deaths.
Kalpona told me, “The corporations now say that the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag has become dirty. But I say to them, don’t dare say that because if it has become dirty, you have made it so… you didn’t do anything to correct these working conditions… or follow your so-called codes of conduct.”
But Akter has a message for American consumers too - especially the ones who might spend $38 on a single piece of clothing – equivalent to the monthly base salary of a garment worker in Bangladesh – without necessarily thinking about where it was made or under what conditions:
“We need these [factory] jobs. But we want these jobs with dignity… with safe working conditions, decent wages, and a voice in the workplace, and a unionized work place.”
But how could ordinary Americans make that happen?
“As a consumer, you have the power to ensure that,” retorted Kalpona defiantly. “You may think, ‘as one person, how can I do that?’ …But if you go to the internet, there are many groups in the US, across the country, raising their voices to make [Bangladesh’s] workplaces better… Please join them and support them so that they become stronger. As a consumer you will see that you are not alone – there are many people raising their voices.”
Here is a partial list of groups Kalpona Akter recommended that Americans can join: