By Mehru Jaffer , Womens Feature Service
Kalpona Akter, 33, has come a long way from being just another exploited garment worker in Bangladesh to emerge as one of the country’s leading labour activists. But she acknowledges that the change that she has been able to usher in the lives of millions of workers in her country would not have been possible without the cooperation of the consumers. “Once consumers joined hands with the garment workers in their battle against inhuman working conditions in sweatshops, many changes took place worldwide,” she said. Recently, Akter was a part of a lively meet on Business, Human Rights and Corporate Responsibility organised by Amnesty International in Vienna.
Akter is the head of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), borne out of a workers’ movement to form the first trade union in a garment factory. The organisation has had a long tradition of advancing workers’ rights by documenting labour abuses and violations and strengthening the capacity of workers to advance their interests.
Talking about the labour unrest of May 2006 in Bangladesh, the turning point in their lives, she said that hundreds of oppressed workers had simultaneously taken to the streets and attacked inhuman factory owners. Production in numerous factories had come to a halt. But the revolt ended in tragedy, including the loss of lives and damage to property, because the millions of angry workers were not organised and they did not know how to communicate their grievance legally to the authorities. But “this was the turning point in the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh. Finally, enough was enough.”
Elaborating on their struggles, Akter revealed that once the media and consumers had exposed facts like the export of garments from Bangladesh totaled billions of dollars it gave strength to the workers to take a stand against powerful employers. In fact, the astounding figures also filled consumers with shame. They realised that the earning of the European and US governments just from taxes was over a billion dollars. “Consumers were shocked to know that it is poor garment workers who make the corporate world and developed countries rich. Many joined our struggle for fair living wages and safe working conditions. Once consumers made it clear that workers’ rights mattered to them, it forced companies to look into their corporate responsibility. That gave us courage to continue to bargain,” she said.
Akter had begun working when she was only 12. Her father, a construction contractor, had taken ill and was unable to work. “I was the eldest of four sisters and a brother. Schooling was the last thing on my mother’s mind. She wanted food to feed the family.” So Akter was forced to give up her education and instead accompany her mother to a garment factory.
At first, she slogged like all the other garment factory workers, who earned a mere five to eight dollars a month after working gruelling 17-hour shifts and that too at facilities which had no safety standards. She worked without an appointment letter or an identity card, and no health benefits.
Then, after working for nearly eight years at a factory, Akter began to unite the workers into a union. Her attempts were, however, crushed. The factory owners fired her and got her blacklisted. But she used this difficult time to educate herself in existing labour laws. She also became well versed with English and learnt to use a computer.
Akter now believes that the right to organise unions is the only way workers can improve conditions at their workplace. She presents a dismal picture of the vast workforce that she represents.
Currently, the readymade garment industry in Bangladesh is its largest foreign exchange earner, accounting for 75 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange. The $6 billion industry employs 2.2 million workers of which 85 per cent are women. The age of the female workers is roughly between 18 and 25 years and most of them come from rural areas and belong to impoverished families.
The specific preference for women workers and, particularly, young women is rooted in the age-old ‘tradition’ of exploiting the most vulnerable. Socially, these working girls are frowned upon and are often deprived of an education. Thus they never have the confidence to speak about the difficulties they face – both inside and outside the home. At work, maternity leave – while granted in theory – is rare in practice and long hours mean that they finish work late at night after which they face an unsafe walk back home. These women number among the lowest paid workers in the world.
Today both men and women working in the almost 4,000 factories in Bangladesh are angry because though the cost of living has increased by 100 per cent since 1994 when the minimum wage was first fixed at Tk930 per month (US$1=Tk68.8). There has been no increase in the minimum wages. Among the demands of the workers is a revision of the living wage and safer working conditions.
From consumers, Akter expects responsible shopping. According to her, consumers can play a huge role in transforming sweatshops into fair work places. She shares three pointers: “Before parting with your dollar demand for transparency from companies, provide information to the sellers about labour standards and make it clear to the shopkeeper that workers’ rights matter to you. That the labour behind the label matters to you.”
Talking about her personal struggles, Akter said that in the 1970s both she and her mother, and later her brother who was 10 years old at that time, worked as sewing machine operators in one of the numerous sweatshops that dot Dhaka. Observed Akter, “Instead of six dollars, if my mother was paid 60 dollars my sisters and brother could have finished school instead of working in the factory.”
In the early 1990s, Akter agreed to an arranged marriage but soon sought a divorce because her husband was “greedy and abusive”. “He wanted all the money I earned and did not like me helping my family. I live with my mother now,” she said.
Today, as the head of BCWS, her activities include advocacy for living wages, reasonable work hours, establishment of onsite childcare facilities and maternity leave. She helps provide legal counselling to workers who want to file grievances in court.
With her colleagues in both Bangladesh and abroad, Akter organises adult literacy classes, services at health clinics and loans for those whose union activities have cost them their jobs. But, above all, she encourages garment workers to find their voice at the workplace, enjoy the benefits of union representation and be always aware of their legal rights.