On February 8th, we went to the Bangladesh branch of the Action Aid office, a six-story building in the upscale, relatively quiet Gulshan area. Here we met Action Aid’s country director, Farah Kabir, an elegant woman with an easy wit (her take on Dhaka’s traffic jams: a great time to get your work done if you have the proper office equipment in your car) who oversees a staff of 150 at work on issues ranging from water rights, development, microfinance, education and the welfare of workers in a variety of trades.
Action Aid has also been of enormous help to us, organizing the majority of our interviews and our first trip to Savar. We thanked Farah profusely. She was interested in the goals of our project and was relieved to hear that we are not advocating a boycott of multinational companies.
We are hearing this from many people we speak to. The concern is that 4 million Bangladeshi workers are employed in the garment industry. No one wants these jobs to leave. Everyone wants the jobs to stay, but they want those jobs with FAIR WAGES, SAFE WORKING CONDITIONS AND THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE WITH UNIONS.
Farah invited us to lunch at the Action Aid cafeteria, a kitchen, dining area and terrace; sits on the top floor of the building. Every day, Action Aid’s workers get freshly made, delicious Bengali food for lunch. They sit together at large tables like an extended family, eat and either talk business or relax. The atmosphere is welcoming and informal.
Next, we went to the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS). We met Kalpona Akter, BCWS’s director, in one of the inner offices. Her down-to-earth friendliness belied her status as a well-known spokesperson for Bangladeshi garment workers who tours the world demanding workers rights in garment factories and accountability from the multinational companies that profit from their labor. She remembered speaking at the University of Minnesota, and joked about how cold Minneapolis was. She has also been interviewed by the New York Times and Salon.com and has spoken to 14,000 Walmart shareholders at their headquarters in Arkansas, but before becoming such a public figure, she was a garment worker. She knows what she’s talking about because this is where she came from. She is not only eloquent but she is honest.
At fourteen, the same age as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire’s youngest victims, she worked as a sewing machine helper in a Bangladeshi factory. Her father had fallen ill. She needed to help her family. Sweatshop conditions in the tiny, crowded, dirty residential building where she worked 450 hours a month for $6 evoked Triangle Shirtwaist Factory era New York City for us. Unfair changes in overtime wages pushed workers to strike. She was the only female among them. After the strike was unsuccessful, she trained with the AFL-CIO backed Bangladesh Solidarity Center, learning about labor laws, what proper working hours and fair wages should be. She was so successful at organizing her fellow workers that she was fired and black-listed from the garment industry—then immediately hired by the union. Eventually, she wanted to reach out to other workers beyond the garment industry, so she formed BC WS. Read more about BC WS here.
Kalpona has been campaigning internationally for the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and tells heartbreaking stories of Bangladesh garment factories that collapsed like fallen cakes and workers who jumped out of windows well above the ground floor to escape factory fires because the management kept all exits locked and the factories had no fire extinguishers. Rana Plaza and the Tazreen Factory Fire of 2012 are only the worst and most famous workplace disasters in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire rings loudly in these stories. Bangladesh has good safety laws but to enforce them in the private garment industry, workers need the support of multi-national companies and factories.
Her plea to consumers: If you feel that you’re just buying a tee shirt and can’t make a difference, it’s not true. Please know that we, the 4,000,000 young women in Bangladesh who work in the ready-made garment industry need our jobs. We are just starting to know what empowerment is, we want the jobs, but we want them with dignity: a living wage and safe working conditions. If you pay only 50-60 cents more for that tee shirt, you can help improve the lives of the workers who made it.
And you can raise your voices and use your buying power to demand that clothing brands sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
This cannot be said strongly enough. One of the (many) problems in the industry here is that the multinationals that have their clothes made in Bangladesh don’t own the factories where the clothes are made. They only “contract” with the factories here. With no investment, its easy for these companies to pick up and move to Sri Lanka or Cambodia or even some place where there aren’t yet any factories–a place where workers are more easily exploited and prices are kept low. They have no investment, commitment or legal responsibility in the communities where the garment workers work and live.
People here have told us that if prices were raised just ten cents on each clothing item it would be enough to raise the current monthly wage of $68 to $100, making a living wage possible. Are you willing to pay that extra ten cents?
The interview ended with a look at Kalpona’s new bicycle, which was leaning against a wall in her office. She was just learning to ride it. Mysteriously, printed on the bicycle was the word Minnesota. We definitely felt connected to Kalpona.