On the three-month anniversary of the collapse of a clothing factory at Rana Plaza, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed more than 1,100 workers—the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry—politicians and international retailers alike have begun to respond to the public outcry for improved labor conditions. On July 15 the Bangladeshi Parliament approved a new labor law that strengthens workers’ rights; the week before, 17 North American companies—including Wal-Mart, Gap, and Target—announced a plan to improve safety standards. But the initiatives to emerge from the rubble are just a starting point, says one of the country’s most outspoken workers’-rights advocates, Kalpona Akter.
As the founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, Akter represents the 3.5 million women who are the engines behind the country’s biggest business. The mission, for her, is deeply personal: after her father became sick and could no longer support her family, then-12-year-old Akter began earning $6 a month for 400 hours of backbreaking work in the factories. She kept up the struggle for years, until she was fired in 2000 for attempting to organize some of her co-workers into a union. Akter spoke with The Daily Beast about the underbelly of some of the world’s biggest clothing brands and why American women should be paying attention.
The Daily Beast: Tell us about your own experience working in the garment factories of Dhaka. How, if at all, have conditions changed since then?
Kalpona Akter: Having worked in factories since I was 12, I know the longer hours—even days—of straight work, hardship of low wages, and unsafe working conditions of the sector, and tremendous pressure and abuse not to speak out against them. While you may not always see the substandard working conditions I saw as a child (which included blocked stairways, dirty floors, and child labor) as prevalently, less visible issues exist, like verbal abuse and the inability to collectively organize and advocate for change within the factories.
TDB: Why is labor rights a women's issue in Bangladesh?
K.A.: Garment workers are predominately women; therefore, on top of their household responsibilities in the mornings and evenings, women are working 10—even up to 12—hours a day. The toll the long hours and working conditions take on families throughout the country is another example of the lasting effects of negative working conditions.
TDB: How, if at all, did the April tragedy change the international dialogue about factory conditions and workers' rights?
K.A.: Rana Plaza is the biggest of hundreds of factory disasters and many more deaths than have occurred [elsewhere] in the industry. While it perhaps raised the profile of such issues, it was certainly not the beginning of international dialogue. What the Rana Plaza collapse (as well as in the cases of Smart and Tazreen) did was link specific brands, retailers to these disasters, effectively focusing the attention to individual brand responsibility. In turn, there has been tremendous pressure to sign on the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord (which more than 60 brands worldwide have signed). Further, the collapse of Rana Plaza brings to light the much deeper infrastructure issues we face—an issue that stretches far beyond the garment industry of the country.
TDB: How, if at all, do you think the proposed North American plan will improve the lives of the Bangladeshi workers? What do you think is missing?
K.A.: In theory, a signed agreement could incentivize brands to establish good and longstanding relationships with factories, which would allow the time and capabilities to improve workplace conditions. The document that was signed this month with many North American retailers, including Wal-Mart and Gap, however, is distinctly different from the accord on fire and building safety. Unlike the binding accord, this agreement allows them to further skirt responsibility.
TDB: How has your work threatened your own freedom and safety?
K.A.: Several of our colleagues, myself included, were arrested in 2010 after our involvement in the fight for an increase in minimum wage. Accordingly, BCWS's organization registration was revoked. In 2012, with our registration still revoked, our organizer Aminul Islam was murdered. After this, many of our staff members resigned out of fear of retaliation.
TDB: What do you think American readers should know about companies that do business in Bangladesh? How would you suggest they take action?
K.A.: The garment industry is incredibly important to our country and to the lives of millions of workers and their families; therefore, our message is never to boycott the retailers or Bangladesh-made goods. Instead, consumers can help encourage retailers to build fair and longstanding working relations with factories in our country through pressuring their government representatives and the brands themselves.