Standing Against Abuse in the Garment Industry

After beginning work in the garment industry as a twelve-year-old, Kalpona Akter became the leader of a movement for better pay and safety for Bangladeshi factory workers.


| September 2015


Michael Elsohn Ross presents a collection of biographies of extraordinary women and girls working to improve their own lives and those of the people around them in She Takes a Stand (Chicago Review Press, 2015). From historical figures to contemporary heroes, Ross shares the stories of women who dedicated their lives to fighting for human rights and world peace. The following excerpt is from part II, “Rising Up Against Greed.”

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“If they had let me keep my job, I would just be a problem maker in a single factory. Instead I’m a problem-maker in the entire industry.” —Kalpona Akter  

Stepping cautiously through the concrete rubble of a collapsed building, Kalpona Akter carefully scanned the debris for evidence. She had just arrived home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from a tour in the United States to raise awareness about the hazards facing her nation’s garment workers. While there, she had received word of the collapse of an eight-story building where hundreds of workers sewed clothing in five factories located there.

As she got reports from friends, Kalpona was saddened to hear the number of deaths grow from an initial estimate of 40 to a final tally of 1,129. Of the 2,515 workers injured, some suffered severe wounds that prevented them from ever doing factory work again. This was the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry, far worse than New York City’s historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 that killed 145 workers.

Kalpona and others found labels for numerous clothing brands being made in the factories including those for Primark, Benetton, the Children’s Place, and Joe Fresh. Kalpona told a reporter, “American companies know this is happening. We’ve told them, ‘Remember these human faces. You killed these girls.’”