Fired while trying to unionize her sweatshop as a teenager and then jailed while mobilizing other workers to resist, Kalpona Akter is now a key leader in the Bangladesh labor movement – a cause cast into an intermittent spotlight by horrific disasters and mass strikes. Over the past year, Akter — now executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity — has salvaged and exposed U.S. brands’ garments from the site of a deadly factory fire, challenged Wal-Mart from the floor of its shareholder meeting, and sought to transform the fashion industry by organizing in concert with U.S. fashion models. (Wal-Mart has blamed production of Wal-Mart apparel in factories where disasters later took place on rogue suppliers, and said in July that the industry-backed safety plan it helped instigate “will move quickly and decisively to create uniform safety standards.”)
I sat down with Akter last week in New York, where she had addressed a conference. In an hour-long conversation, we discussed the alleged murder of her activist colleague, what role Western companies and customers play in shaping Bangladesh working conditions, and what connects Bangladesh garment sweatshops and U.S. fashion photo shoots. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Over the past year we’ve seen two of the worst disasters in the garment industry’s history: the Tazreen fire last November and the Rana Plaza building collapse in April. Are tragedies like that any less likely now in Bangladesh than they were a year ago?
After Tazreen, there were a lot of workers panicking — even if they see the minimum spark in the warning system, they got scared that maybe there was a fire. After Rana Plaza, [the risk] has become less because everyone is giving more eyes on it — they’re giving more attention to this. When we say, “Yes, it is less,” then you have the [May] fire, which is another tragedy, which killed eight workers. So it is less, but not least … Not reduced the amount that we want it to be.
You worked in a garment factory in Bangladesh from a very young age. What is that work actually like, and has it changed since you left the factory?
Yeah, I worked at a young age, like when I was 12 years old — so clearly it was a sweatshop factory. A 14- or 16-hour shift was common, like 23 days in a row. Yes, there is some change, like the stature of the buildings. Still, verbal abuse exists, physical abuse also exists — not in the scale that it used to be, but still, there it is. There is still an excessive production target.
Three things still have not been changed: one is wages. When I was at the factory, I was making always $6 per month working over 450 hours. The workers today are getting $38 per month, which I would consider a poorer wage than I used to get, because the living cost is so high now these days.
Second is safe workplace. When I was in the factory, my factory caught fire, and we had been locked on the production floor. Luckily, nobody died, but many workers stampeded when they were trying to escape because there was only one stair, and half of the stairs were blocked by the merchandise. So, even today, after two decades, you get the fire and factory collapse where 112 workers died because [exits] had been locked. So this has not been changed.
And the other one is the union voice. I had been fired at the factory because I was organizing a union, and even today there is maybe a little bit of change because of GSP [US Globalized System of Preferences trade status] privileges [being] suspended. But even today, if workers try to organize, they face a lot of problems from their factory management.
So these three areas are not changed, and complete repair is really necessary in these three areas.
So what kind of risk were you taking by organizing, and why did you decide to do it?
The factory management where I used to work wanted to pay less for our overtime pay than they used to, and that made us think, “No, that should not be happening.” Though we didn’t know any laws, we went for a strike. We won the strike, [though] on the condition that the company will [still] pay less than they have to in the coming months — and we said OK. But because of the strike, a couple of my co-workers lost their jobs. They were searching for an organization that can help them to sue the factory owner, and they found the organization also teaches workers their rights.
So I go there, and for me it was like, “Wow, there is a law and we have been totally cheated by these companies.” So I had to stand up. When I started doing that, facing a lot of harassment and intimidation, I got fired — and that made me more angry and determined that yes, I should stand up. I should do work to stop these violations, and this harassment.
How old were you when you got fired? Was that scary?
I think [age] 16 had passed when I got fired. I mean, it was scary — at that age I needed to support my family, and if you don’t have a job, how are you going to feed them? So it was scary, but still there was support from the union: “We’re here, you guys can fight.” So that made for a lot of encouragement. And, moreover, that you have support from your co-workers — that we are together, we are united. Then you feel you should keep fighting.
Who in your family were you supporting when you were 16?
When I started working at the factory, at age 12, it was because my dad was the primary earner in the family, and he got a stroke and was paralyzed, so there was no one in the family who could put food on the table. So, me and my mom started working first, in two different factories. And my younger sister was like 2 months old, so my mom couldn’t continue work. She quit after six months, maybe. And then my 10-year-old brother started working with me at the factory. So the two of us were the breadwinners for our family.
What is it like physically? What’s it like for your body to do that work?
It is so hard, because when you work on a machine, all the time you need to keep your eyes open and give your full attention that you see all the things. And it hurts your back, it hurts your shoulders, it hurts your spinal column, it hurts your lower back, and your feet — all the time you need to work with your feet. And your legs — especially the right leg. And sometimes, also, the needle hurts your fingers. So, it is so difficult. And when you inhale all that dust, that’s also hard for your body and can cause diseases. Not even working at the factory, I’m still having these back pains.
You told me earlier that your family feels better in some ways when you’re in the U.S., because they think you’re more safe than in Bangladesh.
For the last few years we were facing a lot of problems from the government and the factory owners. Like, I was in prison, there were several criminal cases brought against me and my colleagues, our [organizational] registrations were revoked, and we were just released a few months back. And my colleague Aminul Islam has been killed in 2012. So my family is always in fear when I’m in the country — that I can get arrested any time, I can be killed by hiring goons or assassins at any time. They’re always in fear. They feel less fear when I’m in the U.S.: “Nobody’s there to harass her,” or “Nobody’s there to kill her.”
Have you thought at times about ending this fight? About leaving Bangladesh or leaving this movement?
More or less why I can’t leave is because of my commitment that I will make changes. I know there is a fear [for my safety]. If it is not extreme, I will not do that. But, if there were a condition that I were to leave, I would leave with my colleagues and my family — not without them.
Do you believe your life is in danger in Bangladesh?
Of course I believe my life is in danger in Bangladesh. But I know that I need to keep up with this — there is no other choice.
So the allegations that you’re talking about, in terms of violent suppression of organizing, who is to blame for that? Is it the politicians, is it the industry, is it the Western brands?
I think all three of them, but more directly it’s factory owners and our government. Because they are doing this, this harassment and oppression we’re talking about. Thirdly, definitely these corporations, these retailers, are why I’m raising this voice, why workers are protesting. These corporations, these multinationals, are not doing anything to make things correct, before signing this accord. [All] three are responsible for this.
As for the disappearance of your colleague Aminul Islam, his body being discovered with apparent signs of torture — a year later, what is the legacy of that, and how did that affect you?
The first thing is that it made me guilty because I didn’t save him. He was working under my supervision, because I’m the executive director, so I’m responsible for their safety as well. So the first thing is the guilt that I always feel. Second, it makes me irate that we know who are the people, but they are not arresting [them].
When you say you know who are the people, what do you mean exactly?
It is a security intelligence connection that we found … Some in that national security intelligence had some interest … maybe they had been paid by somebody to do this, to kill Aminul. It makes me guilty, angry and fearful as well, that that can happen with me or that can happen with my colleagues any time.
How do you deal with that fear personally?
Just living in the fear that I do. Yeah, and trying to build this international solidarity so we can take pressure to the government and the industry as well, not to do the same thing that they have done to Aminul. And also to bring justice to Aminul’s case as well.
Some people look at the situation in Bangladesh and they say Bangladesh is a poor country, anything that improves the safety for the workers there is going to cost people their jobs, or mean that people get paid less, and the workers, by taking those jobs, are voting for the jobs to be that way — that they’re making a free choice to do those jobs.
That is not true. That is not true. Workers are forced to do these jobs. It is true that we don’t have alternative industry. But it is not true that these factory owners and these corporations cannot pay more and make things better. They’re making these people — they’re forcing them — to choose these jobs. Definitely these jobs will not go anywhere if they raise the wages or improve the conditions, because Bangladesh is the world’s cheapest paid country, and in this moment there is no competitor that we can say “this country will take our jobs” or “that country will take our jobs.”
When you say people are forced to work there, how so? In what way?
They come here for a dignified job, for a better wage, a safe working place, with a union voice, but what do they get? A long shift and hours, an excessive production target, an unsafe workplace — like Tazreen and Rana — and no union voice. They’re forced to do overtime; they don’t have any social life. They work six days in a week — sometimes seven. There is no downtime to have fun.
I’m often struck by the way that big corporations are more willing to give up some money to their workers than to give up power to their workers. Do you think the safety problems we’ve seen in Bangladesh can be fixed without workers having more power at work?
No. I mean, if a worker cannot give their voice to improve the safety problem, if they don’t have that power, then nothing will be changed. So, in that sense, we can say that the [union-backed] Accord is more appropriate for workers than [U.S. business-backed] Alliance. The “Alliance” does not give workers powers to give their voice, which an Accord gives.
What happens now in Bangladesh, before the Accord, if a worker has some kind of safety concern and they bring it up to their boss?
Workers go — after Rana and Tazreen — if they see a crack in the building, they just walk out from the building and say, “I will not come back until you fix it.”
So workers are being more bold about walking off the job when there are safety problems?
And what would happen before last year when there was a safety issue?
They would not do that. They would not do that. They’d threaten — like, Rana Plaza, workers were threatened – like, “Oh it is nothing, you should keep working.”
So the Accord — backed by unions, by many other European retailers — is that a game-changer in terms of factory conditions in Bangladesh? Is that transformative?
Yeah. Yes, it is. But we have to look forward, because it has not been implemented yet. There is still time to see what happens. But it’s a good hope.
And what about this alternative that Wal-Mart and the Gap came up with?
We really don’t have any hope on that — that is not binding, there is no union participation, there is no workers’ participation. So that really doesn’t make any sense to us … we ask all these Alliance members to sign the Accord, rather than working on their so-called Alliance.
What do you think is the motivation behind Wal-Mart and Gap creating that “Alliance”?
OK, the Accord has been signed. So Wal-Mart felt the need to do something to fool their consumers, to say, “Oh we’re taking some initiative as well.” But the consumers should know that it’s a fake thing they’re saying. It’s nothing binding, and it’s not going to help.
You spoke at Wal-Mart’s shareholder meeting. How direct do you think Wal-Mart’s responsibility is for these disasters? At Rana and at Tazreen?
For Tazreen I would say their involvement is direct, because in their audit report that we found at the factory, it clearly says that this factory is unsafe. As for Rana … Because they think they have third-party certification, they think the responsibility is gone. But it’s not.
You’ve used some strong language in the past about this … A year ago, could Wal-Mart have prevented these disasters?
Of course! These disasters are preventable. These fire accidents, these building collapses, preventable. Because when Tazreen happened, in between there was a six-month gap. [If] these — Wal-Mart — and other corporations made the right decision, they would sign the Accord like right after Rana, right after Tazreen. We could even save these 1,132 lives, and many who lost their limbs and are disabled for a lifetimes. We could save all of them. But they haven’t done it. So they have a direct connection to the disaster.
So do all these companies have blood on their hands?
Of course! All these companies have blood on their hands. Some of them, they are trying to clean it up by signing the Accord and doing right. And some of them are not cleaning because they’re not ready to be in the right. They’re not ready to make this decision, They’re not ready to make this safer for these human lives.
So where would you put Wal-Mart then?
They have blood on their hands, yes.
And the wave of strikes that we’ve seen recently, where do you put that in the history of protests and resistance of workers in Bangladesh? Is there anything unusual about what’s been happening recently?
There was something unusual right after the Rana collapse, because this was the first time, or maybe second time, they come into the street and asking for safe workplace. But other than, you know, the other protests that happened during August, that was kind of common because if workers do not do protests, the wage doesn’t rise.
And if the wage raise, as Reuters was suggesting, is 50 percent or 80 percent, will that lead to fewer protests, or more protests?
That will lead to more protests, because workers are expecting more money, which is $100 [per month]. If raise comes less, definitely there will be protests.
I was talking to [Workers Rights Consortium director] Scott Nova who was suggesting that some of the factory owners really are afraid that if the raises do go up that companies like Wal-Mart or the Gap will leave the country and go to Vietnam or to Burma. What do you make of that?
I don’t see Vietnam or Burma giving less wage than to our workers. Burma is not ready with infrastructure. So literally these brands will not jump to other countries. Why do we not put pressure on the vendors to pay more to the workers?
So I was talking last year to Sarah Ziff, the head of the Model Alliance, a group that you’ve been working with that represents U.S. fashion models. She told me a story about having a conversation in Bangladesh with a garment worker who described getting paid in bags of rice rather than in money. Ziff pointed out that fashion models in the U.S. often get paid in extra clothing, rather than in money. Some people in the U.S. would say that’s insulting, to compare the work conditions of a fashion model in the U.S. to the conditions of a factory worker or garment worker in Bangladesh. How do you see it?
They say it’s insulting? That’s not insulting. I had a chance to talk to Sarah. There is normal sexual abuse with these child models. That is not insulting [to compare]. It is just happening in two parts of the world — you know, a poor country and a rich country — but you know, exploitations are the same. Those people who think it is insulting just need to drop into the issues. Then they will find that it is pretty similar.
What do you think is possible to do through your group and the Model Alliance working together across this supply chain? What sort of power and leverage does that give you?
Ultimately, we are exploited by the same industry. It is always better if these models also can raise their voices for their rights, [and at] the same time the rights of the workers in Bangladesh. These abuses may be the same. A model has [to hold] a champagne glass for an hour standing and smiling. It doesn’t matter if her feet hurt, it doesn’t matter if she’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter whether she needs to use the toilet. So we just need to end this exploitation throughout the supply chain. So I think that if these two groups work together, it makes [us] more strong. They can put pressure on these retailers and workers can put pressure on the venders.
How democratic is Bangladesh right now?
I need to learn what is the definition of democracy. Only democracy is that every five years you vote for someone, that’s all. And then they become what they are: They’re not pro-worker, they’re always pro-management. In fact, I should say that legislators are factory owners.
And how are they able to maintain that much power?
They’re in the Parliament, garment owners. By saying that they’re earning 80 percent of our foreign [imports], they kind of rule the country. They’re so powerful. Sometimes [more] powerful than government.
The consumers, they should keep buying from Bangladesh, because our women need jobs. But these consumers can make these changes: Supporting workers, putting pressure on these retailers. They just should know that we need these jobs, but we want these jobs to have a decent minimum wage, a decent living wage, safe working place. No more Rana. No more Tazreen.