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.
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.’”
Born in 1977, Kalpona Akter was her parents’ first child. Her father was a construction contractor in Dhaka, the biggest city in Bangladesh. Bordering India and Burma, Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world. It is only three times the size of New York State but is home to half as many people as reside in the entire United States. Kalpona grew up amid the hustle and bustle of a typical Dhaka neighborhood, where the calls of gregarious mynah and noisy bulbul birds blended with the urban racket of car horns and street vendors.
Towering above apartments, houses, and shops were garment factories that employed many of Kalpona’s neighbors. She attended the local school until her father became paralyzed from a stroke when she was 12 years old. As the eldest child, Kalpona became a breadwinner for the family that now included three younger sisters and a brother. Instead of strolling to class with her schoolmates, she joined the crowds of mostly women workers walking to a garment factory dressed in bright saris and salwar kameezes—traditional tunics, baggy pants, and headscarves.
For a short time Kalpona’s mother also worked at a factory, but she had to quit to care for her baby daughter. Though only 10 years old, Kalpona’s brother now had to abandon school as well to join her at the factory. Starting with the task of cutting material for belt loops, Kalpona was soon promoted to the more dangerous occupation of assembling garments at a sewing machine.
She had to stay alert every second of her shift, which sometimes lasted more than 17 hours. One short lapse into daydreaming could lead to accidentally piercing her fingers with the needle. Her back, shoulders, and feet hurt after many hours bent over her machine. Her lungs hurt from breathing dust-filled air. Years after working in the factory she would still suffer from back pain.
“I had never seen anything like it,” Kalpona recalled later of her startling transition to factory work. “The supervisors yelling, all the people crowded together, the long hours. What even made it worse was that I could see the playground at my old school from the roof of my factory,” she remembered.
Even more terrible was the pay. For toiling 400 hours a month, she earned a mere six dollars (less than two cents an hour). There were no safety standards or compensation for work-related injuries. On days when the factory owner demanded they work 21-hour shifts to meet a production deadline, Kalpona and her brother would sleep on the factory floor for a few hours before resuming work. Without a cafeteria to eat in or adequate bathrooms, they were not only sleep deprived but also hungry and dirty. One day her factory caught fire and many of her coworkers were hurt in the frantic stampede to exit.
By the time Kalpona turned 16, she and her coworkers wanted to see a change in their working conditions. After discovering the Solidarity Center, a global workers rights organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), they learned that the factory owners were violating Bangladeshi worker protection laws as well as cheating them out of wages. This knowledge opened Kalpona’s eyes. “I was born a second time,” she reminisced. “Until then I thought the owners were kind people who gave us jobs.”
Kalpona devoted herself to the task of unionizing her fellow workers. Not only was she fired for this effort, but also the factory owner sent her photo around to other factory owners identifying her as a troublemaker. Denied the opportunity to work at another factory, Kalpona began a career as a union organizer. The bright, motivated young woman rapidly taught herself English, labor law, and computer skills. She spent endless hours working at the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, helped unionize the majority of her ex-coworkers, and was elected president of the center while still a teen. From that time, year after year she pushed for better working conditions. She provided adult literacy classes, health care, and loans to help workers while they sought new occupations after being fired from their jobs for joining a union.
Garment making is the largest industry in Bangladesh, employing millions of workers, the majority of whom are young women from impoverished rural families. These women are some of the lowest-paid workers in the world. Kalpona had been one of them, and now she was fighting against the government, factory owners, and big business to improve the lives of others by campaigning for a living wage, workplace safety, and the right for workers to form unions.
In October 2009 Kalpona joined other Bangladeshi labor activists in urging the government to review pay for garment workers, who were still earning a pittance—as little as six cents an hour. They recommended raising the monthly wage to $71 (29 cents an hour). Even though the activists emphasized that the current minimum wage was not enough to pay for the needs of a single worker for half of a month, factory owners refused to pay any more than $36 a month (15 cents an hour). Addressing this issue, Pope Francis described the pay scale as “slave wages.”
Labor leaders organized factory strikes, mass protests, and demonstrations. Workers blocked main highways and clashed with police. Violence erupted on both sides. By the end of June 2010, 20,000 workers had protested in Dhaka. On June 30, numerous children were caught up in police attacks on workers. After the protest made international news, the government announced that on the first of November it would raise the monthly wage to $43 a month (18 cents an hour), a fraction of what workers demanded.
Also following the protests, several factory owners, including a Walmart contractor, filed charges against Kalpona and her union coworkers, accusing them of arson and inciting worker riots. Next, thugs abducted, beat, and cruelly tortured Aminul Islam, one of Kalpona’s most skilled organizers. Threatening to kill him and his family, the thugs demanded that he sign a document stating that Kalpona and other colleagues were guilty of criminal acts. He bravely refused and managed to escape. Worried about Aminul’s safety, Kalpona asked if he wanted to quit, but he refused. Kalpona found him a safer place to continue his work, away from the eyes of their enemies.
Instead of agreeing to meet workers’ demands for safer working conditions and a living wage, the government organized a special police force to spy on labor activists and halt protests. When Kalpona received word that she would soon be arrested, she went into hiding as she continued her work. Eventually the police caught up with her, shackled Kalpona and her colleague, Babul Akhter, and hauled them off to jail. Both were confined for 11 days in a tiny two-foot-by-five-foot cell and interrogated for hours every day. The police beat Babul. The pair was released on bail after a month, but they still faced charges for crimes punishable by life in prison or death.
Aminul Islam was kidnapped again in April 2012. This time he did not escape. After being brutally tortured, he was killed and left by the side of the road. Kalpona felt responsible for not being able to prevent his death, and she was determined to bring his murderers to justice. Knowing that her life was also in danger intensified her campaign to bring international pressure on the government to cease attacks on labor activists and to improve working conditions. It would take two horrific disasters, however, to focus the eye of the media on Bangladesh’s death trap factories.
On November 26, 2012, Tazreen Fashion’s factory went up in flames. With more than 200 workers injured and 117 dead, this was the worst factory fire in history. Despite warnings of unsafe conditions, the owners had chosen to ignore the report. The fire ignited on the ground floor and spread quickly as fabric caught fire. As the rooms filled with smoke, workers ran for the stairway only to find the exit doors locked. The building lacked fire escapes, so many workers, like Sumi Abedin, jumped out the windows. She doubted she would survive that fall, but she wanted her parents to be able to identify her body. If she remained inside, she reasoned, she would be burned beyond recognition. Miraculously Sumi survived her leap from the third story. Rescuers discovered her on the ground, unconscious and with a broken leg, arm, and ankle.
Some companies, such as Walmart, denied using the Tazreen Fashion factory for production of their clothes, but Kalpona’s search through the debris revealed remnants of clothing with Walmart labels as well as those of other companies. In December the New York Times reported that Walmart allegedly led efforts to block a plan requiring apparel retailers to fund improvements to factory safety.
In April 2013 Sumi joined Kalpona on the 10-day Death Traps Tour in the United States to raise awareness about safety and labor rights issues in Bangladesh. In each city where they held events Sumi told her story of the fire. On April 26, 2013, at an event in Seattle, a reporter asked her if she would work at a garment factory again. Sumi replied, “I don’t want to, I’m really afraid that if I get a job in another factory there will be a fire again.”
That very night the Rana Plaza factory building, located in a Dhaka suburb, collapsed. More than 1,000 workers died. The previous day workers had reported seeing a large crack in a wall. Supervisors said that it was nothing to worry about. Those workers who risked their jobs by choosing to stay home the following day survived. Many of those who showed up for fear of being fired were injured or killed.
A tragedy of this size could not be ignored. In 2012 when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Bangladesh to meet with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, she expressed concerns about harassment of union organizers, and especially the murder of Aminul Islam. Concerned about treatment of union activists and factory safety, the United States suspended a favorable trade agreement with Bangladesh in June 2013. Good news came in July when the Bangladeshi government dropped charges against Babul and Kalpona. The authorities also promised the search for Aminul Islam’s murderers would be reinvigorated.
Help also came from the Model Alliance, an organization of professional models, ex-models, and others urging the fashion industry to address issues such as child labor, workers’ rights, eating disorders, and sexual abuse in the fashion workplace. They and other US labor rights groups joined Kalpona in urging US brands to sign the safety accord. By October 2013 more than 100 companies had signed the accord ensuring that one-third of the Bangladeshi garment factories would receive funds to maintain safe buildings. But some giant enterprises such as Walmart, Gap, and Sears refused to sign the accord.
In December 2013 the owners of the Tazreen Factory were charged with homicide, but Kalpona had much more work to do, especially convincing big retailers to sign the safety accord.
Speaking at a Walmart board meeting she said, “I am sure you are aware that fixing these buildings would cost just a tiny fraction of your family’s wealth, so I implore you to please help us. You have the power to do this very easily. Don’t you agree that the factories where Walmart products are made should be safe for the workers?”
Speaking in English before a group of the rich and powerful had become routine for Kalpona. For someone who had to drop out of school to toil in a factory, this was quite a remarkable journey, one that she won’t abandon until workers triumph.
The term sweatshop came to use in England in reference to crowded, dangerous workplaces where employees produced garments under the supervision of a boss called the “sweater.” The ready-made clothes produced in sweatshops were cheaper than those made by individual tailors. The rural poor, moving to cities such as London, were desperate for work and thus willing to work for a pittance. The garment industry flourished in cities that had an influx of impoverished immigrants. Deaths due to accidents, fire, and poor sanitation became commonplace. Only after unions and reformers demanded an end to these inhumane working conditions were laws passed guaranteeing basic rights.
The tragic Triangle factory fire in New York in 1911 set in motion a social reform movement that shifted the US apparel industry from one that relied on sweatshops to one with safer unionized workplaces paying middle-class wages. Clothes produced by union workers bore a “Union Made” label. By 2000 the garment industry declined in the United States as clothing retailers began outsourcing apparel production to nonunion factories in developing nations such as China and Bangladesh. By paying foreign workers wages just a fraction of those paid to workers in the United States, these companies were able to keep prices low.
Excerpted with permission from She Takes a Stand: 16 Fearless Activists Who Have Changed the World by Michael Elsohn Ross, published by Chicago Review Press (2015).