Organizing Garment Workers in Bangladesh

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Even as Bangladesh’s garment industry has flourished, the workers themselves have struggled to survive in the face of poverty wages and abysmal working conditions. (Photo: ILO in Asia and the Pacific / Flickr)

The following was excerpted with permission from Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, edited by Corinne Goria. Published as a paperback original by Voice of Witness. Copyright 2014.

We first interview Kalpona Akter, a 36-year-old garment worker activist from Dhaka, in Los Angeles after she speaks to the local branch of the AFL-CIO. At the panel discussion, workers from different points along the supply chain for a major U.S. apparel retailer—from the tailors who sew the clothes abroad to the warehouse workers who supply them to stores—compare stories of forced overtime, uncompensated injuries, and retaliation for bringing grievances to management.

When it’s Kalpona’s turn to speak, she describes her evolution from twelve-year-old seamstress to activist to prisoner. She explains that in Bangladesh, garment workers often enter the factories as children, facing superhuman quotas for piecework, harassment and physical abuse from supervisors, and a minimum wage that comes out to about 20 cents per hour, by far the lowest of any significant garment-producing nation. Workers who try to organize face intimidation by not only their employers but also from politicians who opine that they should be grateful to have work at all no matter what the toll on their bodies and spirits. When Kalpona finishes, the crowd is stunned for a moment and then claps loudly. Kalpona hands the microphone to the worker seated next to her, the next voice on the panel. 

Bangladesh has nearly half the population of the United States, yet geographically, it’s smaller than the state of Florida. As densely populated as it is, the country still has a largely agricultural economy and, with a per capita income of under $2,000 per year, is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Starting in the 1990s, however, garment production boomed as international clothing retailers began to take advantage of the country’s inexpensive labor supply and the Bangladeshi government encouraged investment with tax incentives. Today, Bangladesh is second to China as a leading exporter of apparel. Around four million garment workers produce $20 billion worth of clothing for export a year; this figure represents the vast majority of the country’s total export earnings.

Meanwhile, the garment workers themselves—mostly women—struggle to survive as wages decline compared to the cost of living, and abysmal working conditions lead to workplace disasters such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013. For Kalpona and fellow labor activists, speaking out is not just a matter of achieving more favorable working conditions—it’s a matter of life and death.

The Downward Spiral

Many people were building houses in Dhaka in the late 1980s, and my dad was a successful general contractor, or middleman. People would hire him to build the house, and then he would subcontract or hire others to complete the smaller jobs on the project. So he would often have a lot of money on him, because people would pay him the whole sum for the whole project and he would use that fund to pay other workers.

I have a cousin who was living with us and was also working with my dad. My dad started to entrust my cousin with the finances for the business. My dad would put the money in a bank account, and then my cousin could draw on it when he needed to pay subcontractors or other workers.

One day in 1988, just after I had turned twelve, my cousin took all the money my dad had entrusted him with and just disappeared. My family didn’t hear anything from him for a couple of months—he was just gone. And then, one day, he showed up again. He didn’t say he took the money, but he didn’t deny it either. He just didn’t take responsibility.

After the theft, my dad suffered. He had two strokes within two months of each other, starting about a week or two after my parents learned that the money had been stolen. One stroke after the other. The whole right side of my father’s body was disabled after the strokes, and he couldn’t speak for many years. He had to be admitted into the hospital, and my mom really had a very difficult time during his illness. She had to pay all the hospital bills, because, as far as I remember, we really didn’t have health-care insurance or a health-care system in Dhaka back then. In any case, my mother had to find a way to pay all the medical bills herself. My father was back and forth to the hospital for maybe six months.

Whatever money my mom had, it just ran out within a month after my father’s strokes. So then she had to sell our house. We moved to a rental house. The rental house had about six rooms occupied by three families. We had two rooms to ourselves, but we had a shared kitchen and a shared toilet and shower. It was a disaster. There were maybe 18 people total living in this small house. The house had a small balcony off of our rooms, and that is where father stayed mostly while he was recovering. He’d sleep on a bed out on the balcony. It was too hot inside, and we didn’t even have a fan.

There was a lot of tension in our family at that time. My dad couldn’t talk. He had lost use of one side of his body. He couldn’t leave the bed, or even move. Within six months, we ran out of all the money we received from selling the house and all the other savings my parents had. We didn’t have anything.

My mom decided to go to my father’s other siblings to seek justice, or to have my cousin come and give us back the money he stole. But my cousin never came to our home at all. He denied everything and refused to take responsibility. And it turned out that none of the other siblings wanted to help us. No one was helping us. There were six of us at home, or seven, after my littlest sister was born. We almost did not have enough food at home for my younger sisters and brother. And my dad needed to have his medicine.

My mom had never worked before—she had always been a housewife and we’d had a happy family. But because of everything that was happening, my mom decided she had to get a job. At the same time, mom asked me whether I thought I should also work. I was twelve years old. And, because I saw what was going on in the family, I said, “Yeah, I want to work. But how I can get a job, Mom?” I didn’t want to quit school since I was doing well. I was even class captain for many months, but I felt I had to help my mother and father if I could.

There were some garment workers who used to live next to our house who we’d known for a long time. Mom spoke to some of them, and they said that they would speak to the mid-level management at their factory to see if I could get a job. So about seven days later, our neighbors came and told me that they could get me a job. So one day I went to school and the next day I went to factory.

In the Factory

I didn’t tell anyone that I’d left school. They began to worry after about two weeks, though. My teachers showed up at my house. They said that they wanted to give me some sort of scholarship to keep my studies going. But my mom said, “How can you go to school? There are still four other kids. They don’t have any food. Kalpona has decided to work.” My teachers kept insisting then that I should stay in school, that I should not work, but, you know, my mother had no other choice.

So I didn’t go back to school. I went into the factory, and my mom did too. She got a job in a factory far from our house. It was about ten kilometers away from our home. But I got a job in a factory close to home, maybe one kilometer away. I could walk there.

The very first day I went to work in the factory—oh my gosh—it was a crazy experience. There was so much noise, more noise than I had ever heard before, and people were shouting all over the place. Midlevel supervisors were yelling at the workers all the time. We had two buildings in the factory and around 1,500 workers all together, and everything just seemed like chaos to me at first.

Every day, I’d walk to the factory along with the co-workers who used to live next door to our house where we moved, the ones who helped me get the job. The supervisors at the factory first gave me a job cutting the belt loops in pants. The loops were made of four or more layers of fabric, and I had to scissor the four-layered fabric, and it was tough. When I was cutting the fabric layers, the scissors were making my fingers and hands hurt. I must have cut more than a thousand a day. Except for a couple of breaks to eat, I’d be cutting non-stop for fourteen hours a day, from eight in the morning until ten at night.

After my first couple of days, it was like my skin had been rubbed away. When my hands started to bleed, I would bind them with some pieces of fabric from the production floor. It was unhygienic, but I had to protect my hands so I could keep working. You can see these black marks on my hands. The very first day I hurt these fingers. These scars I got from that scissoring. I stayed on the belt loops for four or five weeks, and then moved on to a different job with a different order of clothing.

It was also painful for me to go to work because my factory and my old school were so close. We would often go to the rooftop of the factory to have our lunches, and from there I could see the playground in my school, and I could also see my friends playing. I mean, almost every day during the lunch hour I would cry, because I thought, My friends are studying there at school, but I’m stuck working here. But I also had a brother and sisters. And when I would go home and see them, see their faces, it would remind me that I have responsibilities that I need to take care of.

A Very Sad Part of My Life

When my mom and I started working at the factories, my mom would wake up early to cook something like rice, dal, or vegetables for the whole family—that was food for the whole day. While we were at work, my brother, who was ten at the time, would take care of my youngest sister, who was a newborn baby, my other two sisters, and my dad, who was still sick from the stroke. Sometimes my mother and I used to take food with us to the factory; sometimes we would not, because we didn’t have enough food to take with us. Sometimes we would work the whole day without any food. And sometimes when I came home from work, I would see there was no food at home either, so that meant that my mom and I wouldn’t eat for two days.

It hurts sometimes, not having food. It makes you weak. But when you see that your younger siblings do not even have food, you don’t have any choice. My brother wouldn’t even eat the food we left for all of them in the morning. He would save this food for the two youngest and for my dad, because the two youngest used to ask for food all the time, so my brother would save his portion for them. So he was like a dad and a mom to them—he was raising them all by himself.

After five or six months working at the factory, my mom got sick. She was dehydrated, malnourished, and the doctor said there was something wrong with her kidneys. She was so dehydrated that she couldn’t breastfeed my baby sister. She had a pain in her kidneys and it became impossible for her to work.

After she quit the job at the factory, she started feeling better. So we decided that instead of my mom, my brother would go to the factory with me. Around this time I also changed to another factory. The new factory was farther away, but I could make a little more money there. At the old factory, I could get maybe 240 taka in base salary per month, and maybe 400 to 450 taka per month after overtime [in 1994, 240 taka was approximately $3.80]. At the new factory, I could make a base salary of 300 taka per month and up to 500 taka per month with overtime, because I used to do night shift as well. If I made 500 taka a month, I could pay for much of our rent—which was a little under 500 taka a month—but not for food. That is why we decided my brother should work at the factory as well. So I took my brother into this new factory and convinced my supervisor to give him a job. My brother got a job as a sewing machine helper and started working in the building next to me.

There were other children working in the factories, too. The youngest child I saw in the new factory was a boy about eight years old. I think during that time I had been promoted to sewing machine operator, and the eight-year-old was my helper. That eight-year-old boy used to cut the threads and pile up the clothes that I sewed. And I can remember he used to come in the morning and say, “Oh sister, I’m so sleepy.” He was a young kid, so you can imagine.

Our factory work used to start at eight, so my brother and I needed to get out from the house at something like six-thirty or a quarter to seven. Then we’d walk about one kilometer to get the bus to the factory area, and then we’d walk about a half-kilometer to get into the factory. And that is what we would do for three or four years, the same routine every week.

The factory is not far from where I live today. The building still exists and the different sections are still there. So, I can see the factory every day, twice a day sometimes. When I see it now, sometimes I laugh. Sometimes it gives me pain. Sometimes it gives me lots of things to remember. It was in this second factory, too, where I met my future husband.

It must have been around 1991 or ’92. He was in the embroidery section and he was a relative of the factory owner—I think a cousin or second cousin—so he’d got the job in a very easy way. I don’t remember how I met him, maybe when I was on the bus to the factory. Or while going into the factory or coming out, I saw him. I was seventeen years old when we got married in 1993 and moved in with him and his family. I was so young.

If I want to, I can remember that part of my life, but it’s really painful for me. It was a very sad part of my life when I met him. The marriage was troubled from the start, and the factory workers were just beginning our fight at the same time.

Getting Really Angry

I remember how the trouble started at the factory. Basically we were working sixteen days in a row during Ramadan in 1993, right before Eid ul-Fitr, the breaking of the fast of Ramadan. We were working day and night, and the Muslims in the factory were fasting for Ramadan. We would fast over the day and break the fast in the factory with little snacks, and we’d eat our dinner after sundown with the little money that factory provided. And then work the whole night and get food at around 3 a.m., before fasting again after sunrise.

When we worked overnight, we might work ten hours of overtime, and the custom was that the factory would give us an extra five hours of bonus pay. In 1993, after we’d already done sixteen days of overnight work, management announced they weren’t giving out any bonus pay for overtime that year. They said they could not afford it.

And as I mentioned, it was before Eid, so when we were working those extra hours, we were planning to have the bonus money for the feast at the end of Ramadan. We really got angry. We didn’t have much of an idea about labor law or our rights as workers, but some of the senior workers said to us, “We will not work ten hours overtime without the bonus. We will strike until they pay us the amount they owe us.” I agreed with them. I was one of the initiators of the strike. We had 1,500 workers in two units at the factory, so among the 1,500, it was 93 of us who called for a strike until the factory agreed to pay the bonus.

When I returned home the day we decided to strike, my husband had heard that I was involved, and he beat me. He was related to the factory owners, so he didn’t support the idea of a strike. At the time, I was feeling very helpless. Very helpless. But the next day, the day of the strike, I told some of the other ninety-three who were protesting, and they said that they understood and would always support me, that they wanted me to always stand with them, and that that I was one of the courageous ones. We continued with the strike, and after a single day the management agreed to give us the bonus money. But they made it clear that they would not pay the same bonus in the future, and we agreed. At the time, we didn’t have any idea about the law.

After the strike, we factory workers went on holiday for Eid. After holiday finished, when we came back, we learned that twenty of my co-workers who had demanded the bonus money had been fired. The twenty fired workers were the ones the factory considered the main instigators of the strike.

The organizers decided they would not give up, and they started to look for an organization that could help them. And they found Solidarity Center. Solidarity Center is an international wing of AFL-CIO, the big U.S. union. The full name is American Center for International Labor Solidarity, but during those days, the branch we worked with was known after AAFLI, Asian American Free Labor Institute.

The Solidarity Center had already begun helping a group of workers to form an independent union for garment workers, the BIGUF, or Bangladesh Independent Garment-workers Union Federation. The new garment workers reps met with some of our leaders and said they would help us to sue the factory owner for retaliation. And at the same time, they said they had awareness classes where my co-workers could go and learn about labor law, and then they could better take on their management. So some of my senior colleagues, they went to the law classes and they found it is really interesting. They came to work and encouraged some of us interested in fighting back to go to the classes.

Voice of Witness is a non-profit organization that uses oral history to illuminate contemporary human rights crises in the U.S. and around the world. Founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, Voice of Witness publishes a book series that depicts human rights injustices through the stories of the men and women who experience them. The Voice of Witness Education Program brings these stories, and the issues they reflect, into high schools and impacted communities through oral history-based curricula and holistic educator support.