Pushing for Change in the Garment Industry
When Bangladeshi activist Kalpona Akter started working in a factory at the age of 12, she worked long hours for little pay out of desperation to feed her family. She never had a chance to go to school as a child and only started to learn English after becoming a union organizer as a teenager. Now, as the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, she is one of the country’s most prominent human rights activists. She has spoken to audiences around the world, including Walmart’s shareholders, about upholding the rights of Bangladeshi garment workers. OpenCanada.org reporter Alia Dharssi sat down with her in Ottawa in mid-May after she spoke at a conference on Canada’s role in global equality and cooperation.
You started working in a factory when you were a child. Can you tell me how you ended up taking that job?
I went to the factory when I was 12 years old. Initially, my mom and I went, but my mom had to stop after six months to take care of my baby sister. Then I went with my 10-year-old brother. Two of us had to go because my father got sick. He was the primary earner in the family, so there was no one who could bring food to the table for our family of seven. I ended up organizing a union on my shop floor and, at the age of 15, I became a union president. And the age of 16-and-a-half, I got fired and blacklisted.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Who were you making clothes for?
I can’t remember who I worked for when I first started. But eventually, I started to know the logos. There was Sears Canada, Walmart, and other brands. I didn’t know much about the brands. I didn’t know about my rights or laws. I didn’t even know how long I should work or how much I should be paid. Nobody taught me that. I had to work long shifts. 16 hours in a day. 7 days in a week. 30 days in a month. I even worked 23 days in a row and I just had a few hours every day to sleep on the shop floor. That was my life. I was making $6 per month, working over 450 hours.
How did you start thinking about your rights and become an activist?
After I had worked for two years or so, there was a strike on my shop floor. The management had decided to pay us less for overtime. We felt it was wrong for them to do that, even though we didn’t know it could be illegal. It was during the month of Eid. Eid is a festival for us. I had planned to buy new clothes for my brother and sister. And when they suddenly said they would pay less, we said ‘No, you have to pay because we have some plans for this money.’
There were 1,500 workers in two units who went on strike. I was the only young, female worker out of 92 frontline strikers. The rest were men. We won the strikes. But later, about 20 of my co-workers were fired. They started looking for an organization to help them and found the Solidarity Center. It is the international wing for AFLCIO, an American union. They were helping workers to start their own independent unions and giving workers labour law training and legal aid support. My co-workers came to know that there are laws that protect our rights.
How did you find out about the laws?
They came to me and said, “There is a law that can protect us. There is an organization helping workers to learn the law. You should go there.” I waited seven days to get time off. Then, after working until five-o-clock on a Friday, I went to the Solidarity Center for a four-hour training class on labour laws and rights. Those four hours changed my entire life. I realized those factory owners were practicing the worst theft. They were depriving us of our rights.
How old were you?
I was about 14-and-a-half. I started organizing my co-workers. At 15, I became the union president for my shop floor, but our union application was rejected because a government official had been bribed by the factory management. Then, when I was 16, I got fired. I also got blacklisted by all factories because I had sued the factory owner who fired me, along with the government for rejecting our application, at the International Labour Organization in Geneva.
After they blacklisted me, my life became miserable because I couldn’t get a job anywhere. Fortunately, the Bangladesh Independent Government Workers Union, which was supported by the Solidarity Center, hired me as a union organizer and labour educator. I also served on their board. I worked for them full time for five years. Then, in 2000, I co-founded the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. It’s a union-feeding organization. We closely work with unions, helping them to strengthen their capacity and organize more unions.
You said in your speech that global partnerships are very important for creating change in Bangladesh. Can you tell me about what kind of global partnerships are important?
Whenever we try to make changes in Bangladesh, we face a lot of harassment and intimidation by the state and by the factory owners. As the garment sector is within the international supply chain, global partnerships can help improve the conditions. When I was in prison for a month in 2010 and my organization’s registration was revoked by the government, all the charges were dropped because of tremendous international pressure. The pressure came because we had global partnerships with campaigning organizations, with unions, and with consumer organizations.
The unions in Bangladesh aren’t that strong and the local NGOs don’t have much money. Out of four million workers in the Bangladeshi garment sector, over 90 percent do not have any idea about their rights and laws. Global partnerships that put money into unions create a space for workers to learn about the law and their rights.
The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety is also one of our global partnerships. We have been campaigning for this Accord for three years with our global partners from unions, NGOs, and pressure groups. Now, over 160 companies have signed onto the Accord, which ensures a safe place for our workers and that is legally binding and states that workers would have the right to refuse dangerous work, support workers’ representation, and include their voices. It is amazing. This partnership will make changes that stop our workers from dying by the hundreds in deathtrap buildings.
It seems as though, in a sad way, the Rana Plaza disaster helped improve workers’ rights. Could you tell me more about how Rana Plaza changed the way that you work?
You know, the Accord we are talking about is nothing new. It was not created after Rana. The process started back in 2010, when a horrific fire in a clothes factory killed 29 workers. But another 1,400 workers had to die in two disasters before companies signed the Accord. The Rana Plaza disaster has drawn global attention to Bangladesh and escalated the pressure for change. The United States has suspended their trade privileges for Bangladesh and the EU has threatened to take away trade privileges if Bangladesh does not improve.
Bangladesh has also received attention from across the globe. Everyone saw what happened in Rana Plaza. It has created another level of attention—in a good way and a bad way. In a bad way because people face a dilemma: should they buy or shouldn’t they buy? They feel that made-in-Bangladesh clothes are dirty. But Bangladesh did not make its clothes or its tag dirty by itself. The companies should clean this up. I tell everyone they should buy, but, at the same time, they have to be a responsible consumer. We want these jobs, but we want these jobs with dignity.
How do you think a responsible consumer should behave?
A responsible consumer shouldn’t just buy clothes, but ask questions. They can start with a store manager and say, “Hey, I want to know more about these workers who make clothes for me.” If many people do this, it will make a difference. There are also many international organizations and online campaigns working to improve conditions in Bangladesh. Consumers can Google them and get involved. For Canada, they can go to the website of the Maquila Solidarity Network, which has information about what Canadians can do.
The United States has suspended its duty-free trade privileges for Bangladesh under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). The EU has also threatened to suspend GSP privileges. But, in your speech, you said that Canada is lagging behind. Could you tell me how?
Like the United States and the EU, Canada has a trade preference for Bangladesh. The Canadian one is specifically for garments. I don’t disagree with having this trade preference. It’s great. It creates jobs. But it should not be unconditional. While the EU and US trade preferences are conditional, the Canadian one just talks about dollars. It does not talk about workers’ rights.
We’ve talked a lot about how global partnerships can help workers in Bangladesh, but I’m also wondering about the reverse. Do you think what’s happening in Bangladesh can influence labour conditions elsewhere?
Of course. Right now, Cambodia faces a lot of problems. When Cambodian workers raised their voices to demand an increase to the minimum wage, four or five were shot. When our workers were protesting in Bangladesh last year, two of them were also shot and many were put in jail on false charges. But the minimum wage was increased from $38 per month to $68 per month. It’s still a poverty wage, but Cambodian workers can learn from this. They can learn how to organize, how to mobilize, and how to ensure that they get their rights.
We do have a network in Asia called the Asian Floor Wage Campaign. We also support other solidarity groups. Like when the Cambodian workers died, we surrounded the Cambodian embassy in Bangladesh and held a demonstration.
And one other thing: the Accord has already set a precedent and can be extended to other countries. We should not wait to see a factory collapse, to see workers killed in Cambodia, Thailand, India, or Indonesia before having an accord in those places, too.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. It was conducted at a conference organized by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation and the Canadian Association of International Development Professionals.