Garment Workers in Bangladesh Revolt over Pay Increase

Thousands of Workers Close Factories, Block Highways, Seize Arms


We offer this link to the mainstream Bangladesh newspaper “Daily Star,” reporting Sept. 24, 2013 on a rebellion by thousands of garment workers who are demanding a larger increase in the minimum salary than what they recently received.

This information was brought to our attention by Batay Ouvriye Solidarity Network, which supports workers’ struggles in Haiti, and recently formed a new organization, “One Struggle,” with Bangladeshi workers’ organizations.

We were also sent the following speech, given at a “One Struggle” event on July 28, 2013, at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida.

Sweat, Tears, and Blood

by Zarin Nabar

I was invited here to speak for few minutes on imperialism and its effect on Bangladesh, which is where I am from. I was hesitant, because truthfully, I know nothing about imperialism or politics, besides the basics politics which we all know of.  Then I realized I do understand however little about what is going on in Bangladesh or in any other third world country that has got labor to offer to the rich countries.  I realized I do understand when human lives are being exploited; I do understand when a female worker is being used abused in every way possible.  I do understand right from wrong, and that when there are dead bodies piled up in front of a burnt or collapsed factory, that somewhere someone is responsible. I do understand the expensive, showy, brand name clothing on that girl or boy has got blood on them. Some people do not see the blood, some people ignore the blood, but today’s discussion I hope can open a few eyes to the murder and bloodshed that is happening overseas for one piece of clothing that has got so much to tell.

The Bangladesh garment industry is the second largest exporter of clothing after China, having 3 and half million garment workers. The majority of them are women. The percentages of girls age from 10 to 17 are unknown to me. Those children become women at the age of 10, 11 12…as soon as they enter into a garment factory. They become a number and statistic amongst 3 and half million workers.

No more numbers. Now I am going to share with you what I have seen, read, heard, observed, realized while growing up in Bangladesh. Our family had moved to Chittagong from another district when I was in the middle of 4th grade.  Chittagong is the district in Bangladesh where the first garment factory was built.  Chittagong has a large number of garment factories. Therefore, being in Chittagong, it was common for anyone to be familiar with garment workers.

My father was an accountant by profession. He worked in many companies including a garment factory where he was in charge of handing out the monthly salary to the workers. Many times he would come home and tell us how sad he felt when he had to inform the workers they will not be paid for the month, because his boss just called and informed him, the workers do not get paid this month. He would describe the looks on the workers face with such sad details.

The help, or servant, as they are called in Bangladesh, we had was 17 years old. Her name was Aqlima, she had worked in a garment factory for 3 years, and then decided she would rather work at someone home than take the torture from the factory. Things I am going to say are based on my father’s experience, Aqlima’s experience, and common answers from the public from Bangladesh.

In our family, all of us used to wake up early in the morning to pray. After our prayer we would go on the roof of the building to enjoy a beautiful morning. The quiet street would not be filled with cars, noises yet. We would only see groups of garment workers walking. Sometimes a group contained as many as 15 females walking together followed by another group behind them.  Being only in the 4th grade, I would have many questions. Where are they going? Why before sunrise? If they are out on the street so early, how dark was the morning when they left home?

Gradually, I was getting all the answers through family, friends, newspapers and very rarely television.

It is interesting that one sees garment workers all day long. Before sunrise, after sunrise, on the way to school, after school, late at night when we are coming back from a family or friends.  They are regarded as the lower class people of the society. Why do we see them? Why not any other working people? Is it because there are so many workers around? Then I realized it is because they walk. While we are in a rickshaw, an auto rickshaw, in a taxi or a bus, we see groups of garment worker walking.  They walk miles after miles after miles to reach their factory because they are not paid enough to pay for their transportation every day. They are not paid enough to eat or live well, and transportation is a luxury. They have got their two legs for that.  So they walk every day.  Does not matter how long a shift they have finished, does not matter how exhausted they are. Does not matter if they have
reached home 3 in the morning, and will have to go back 7 in the morning again.

What does this walking do? It makes any 15 year to any 30 year old garment worker a target and a victim of rape, assault, harassment on the street. Every other day there was news of a garment worker being raped and left on the street. It would hardly be front page news, or even when it was we all had gotten so used to it that we would think it was a common story. They are so called lower class; therefore they do not have any higher connection for their rape case to reach higher media, or the money to pay a good lawyer to fight their case. It only gets placed inside a local newspaper. Here is a common rape story of a garment worker.  I remember reading so many similar stories as this, in the newspaper.  Late at night, perhaps 2 am, a garment worker no more than 15 years old, was on her way home from work, alone. She was beaten and raped by 3 men and left on the street to be found by the group of garment workers making their way to the factory for the morning shift.

Suddenly, I thought I understood the garment workers’ reason to be in a group, or always to be with someone. Their own safety! Does this cleverness always work out? No, not everyone lives in the same direction, not everyone has same working shift. When a rape victim gathers courage to go the police, the police merely yawn and say “who will get raped if not you? You garments girls are always on the street.”  A common conversation with friends at school, or with a cousin, or with a neighbor used to be like “have you heard about the garments girl rape again”? “Oh yes, so sad, even the police is just sitting there.” “Yes so sad their life is. Anyway, when is your daughter getting married?”

(Garments girl is a very common phrase used by Bangladeshi. In many cases those two words suffice when describing something regarding their job, accidents or lifestyle.)

Even though Bangladesh is predominantly a Muslim country, the majority of the
garment workers do not wear a burkha or a hijab. Most females will have on something similar to what I have on today (salwar kameez or 3 piece). And yet, they try and cover more and more while walking to their work, they try to cover their body in every way. Not because they are from a certain faith, but because they want to be less noticeable, less accessible on the street or at work to their co-worker, to their supervisor.

After miles of walking, being verbally harassed and abused on the street, fighting all the odds, they reach to work. One would think relief! It is depressing to know they reach work only to be beaten, sexually harassed, to be verbally abused. Female workers are forced to be sexually engaged with the supervisor, manager or any other higher authority. A confession of a female worker about 30 years of age shown in a video (of Four Corners investigative journalism) said, “What can we do? Yes, the supervisor comes and slaps in the face, on the back, use profanity, what do we do? It is so degrading. We just wipe tears and continue to work.” What courage could she have to wake up every day and go to that job, where she is being slapped countless times?  They walk to the factory to endure all this so they can have a 12-14 hour shift, where they will endure much more harassment and not receive what they absolutely deserve through their hard labour.

The minimum wage for a garment worker is less than $38.00 a month.  A room very close to a studio or efficiency is about $15.00.  It is beyond imagination how one manages to live on the remaining $23.00 for the rest of the month with a family, for a family.  Every day they wake up thinking where do I get the expense for tomorrow? After a long day of work, when a worker is ready to go home, they soon discover the gates are locked, their pass card for work is taken away by a supervisor if the factory gets more orders with a deadline. Everyone is forced back to work. When one refuses, they are threatened to be fired, and to be non-hirable at any other garments factory. The garment owner keeps the fear alive, the workers are kept oppressed so they are less likely to complain, less likely to organize, less likely to demand higher wage. There is no such thing as overtime pay. Their salary is cut in every turn of excuse. When one works 12-15 hour shifts, they are bound to make mistakes, and no mistakes are acceptable. Each piece of garment must be flawless.

There is not sufficient air at the workplace. It is common for a worker to faint due to long hours and heat. Every month someone loses their arm, legs, or life in a machine when fatigue causes them to fall on it, or handle the machine wrongfully. It is obvious that there are no sick days, no insurance, and no medical coverage. If or when a worker dies due to an accident at the factory, one or more of their family member is compensated by being employed by the same factory. That is the compensation for a human’s life.

There is no cafeteria at all. Of course lunch or dinner must be brought from home, but there is no such place for a worker to sit and eat. They either go to the roof of the factory to eat lunch in the burning sun, or come out of the building and eat on the street. Most factory issue limits of how many times a worker can use the toilet.
Sometimes it is only once in a 12 hour shifts. Because if every worker spends more time in the restroom, who is going to put the label of Bennetton, Mango, Zara on the shirt? Who is going to supply clothing to Walmart in time for it to have millions of dollars in profit?

Out of 365 days in a year, on average Bangladesh has transportation strike for 100 days. Thanks to every political party, the number of strikes is increasing every year, when the entire country is muted. No transportation what so ever.  Even during a strike every garment factory is open. Workers must go to work, because the goods must be produced, so it is ready to be shipped when the strike is lifted. They don’t need rickshaw, bus, taxi to reach there anyway. On their way again, they are the victim of picketing. Buses will be burned, cars will be broken into pieces, any one
visible on the street would be stopped and asked questions to figure out what political party they support. And who do we have on the street on their way to work? The pain-enduring garment workers.

Tazreen Fashion is a nine story plant, located in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. November 25th, 2012 it caught on fire.  Leaving 112 dead bodies burnt to ashes. 112  burnt bodies were lined up in a local field. The fire is one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of country. When the fire alarm rang, the workers came down the stairs only to be ordered back upstairs to work again, because there is an order to fulfill, and there is no fire, it was a false alarm. The gates were locked. 112 people got burnt alive.

The Bangladesh garment industry is the second largest exporter of clothing, having the most notoriously poor fire safety record. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires.  There have been 43 factory fires in the last 18 months. Workers are burnt to ashes because there are no fire escapes. Over the last decade the garment industry in Bangladesh has mushroomed. No rules are needed; all one needs is any kind of building for it to transform into a working factory. No engineer, no rules, no safety, just death traps.

I was watching a documentary from Four Corners, on the topic of Bangladesh and its cheap labour. In the video the journalist was pointing to the barred windows, and suggesting rightfully that those bars must go. The windows must be available to escape in case of fire. I had always wondered, why the bars? Why are factory buildings so desolate? Apparently the answer is very simple. The buildings are high-walled, windows are high and barred, because nothing from the factory should go outside. No bundles of thread, no single piece of clothing, and no single button should be stolen; nothing should be given to a relative or a friend standing outside
the window. Everything must stay inside, even when the workers are being burnt alive.

April 25th, 2013, the eight story commercial building Rana plaza collapsed. The search for the dead ended on May 12, with a death toll of more than 1100.  The building was unsafe, everyone were evacuated. But the owner of Rana Plaza factory, Sohail Rana, went to the media to explain the danger is exaggerated and it is perfectly safe to work in the same building. The workers were threatened to go back to work and finish their jobs. The same day it had collapsed. The images I had seen are forever etched in my brain.  I felt like I was hearing the scream of those trapped under the rubble, under a pillar, under a beam.  One could go on and on about the Rana Plaza tragedy. The air was filled with the smell from the dead, and the tears from the alive buried underneath. Most workers had to be rescued after their arms or legs were amputated. Who will restore their lost limbs, their family members, or the thousands work-mates? So many children have lost their mothers in that tragedy. So many young lives are gone. The reality that was created by the rich, to them, those are not lives that were lost, those are simply laborers or hands that are gone which could be replaced or bought in any other factory. There are other garment factories
where the orders could be taken for Walmart, Zara, Gap, Benetton, Mango, and so many other international greedy companies. Why waste time, find the hands that are alive to keep on making a $2.00 shirt to be sold at $80.00.

The fire at Tazreen Fashion and the Rana Plaza tragedy shook the nation. It has given birth to a different suffering where the witnesses, rescuers, survivors will always be haunted with the images, the screams, the blood. Rana Plaza workers’ families are yet to be compensated. No one wants to claim responsibility. Walmart is not involved in helping victims despite documentary evidence its products were made in the building just a year ago. International clothing line Mango refusing to pay any compensation. International clothing line Benetton’s e-mail orders were found in the rubble of collapsed Rana Plaza.  Another e-mail from the rubble from
Benetton asked whether the clothing had passed the strength test. Not Benetton or any other company bothered to ask if the place where the clothing is being made is safe for workers who are making it.

All those international retailers are now singing the same song: they were not aware of what was going on. Yes, they ran for cheap labour overseas because those workers are robots, and they are earning less than $40 a month, cheaper than one Benetton or Zara shirt sold at the retail price. They did not know the person sewing every single button, and sleeves and collars, are deprived, demoralized, dehumanized and paid next to nothing.

These international retailers are making millions of dollars in profit with the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of workers overseas. Bangladesh garment worker do not know that one jacket made or completed by her is sold at close to $80.00, not even her monthly salary.

Greed, profit, money, market, capitalism, global marketing has taken its priority over human lives. What could be more dangerous than that?

Australia is increasingly using Bangladesh to source their cheap fashion. From what I have read and understood, Australian retailers seem to win in avoiding, ignoring, not commenting, not taking responsibility, and not paying the workers, just like American and European companies.

A recent Australian survey released that Australians would be ready to pay more for their clothes if they knew overseas workers were paid a decent wage and their workplace is safe.  It is time we start making people aware everywhere about what they are buying, where they are buying it from, and how much should they pay.

It takes thousands of burnt dead bodies, thousands of injured interviews and sufferings for us to wake and ask for what is right. It takes us this long to ask from those retailers for better pay from their million dollar profit.

As horrifying, disturbing, and heart breaking the images are of the dead workers, I say let’s post those pictures everywhere. Let us protest in front of those big companies holding a large image of burnt dead body, large image of  father holding on to his daughter’s picture hoping to find her underneath the collapsed  building, dead or alive, images of a man holding on to a woman lovingly. Their bodies buried under cement, rubble, pillars. Their bodies completely blooded, a rod erect a few inches away from the throat of the woman. No one will ever know what their
relationship was. Were they friends, co-workers, siblings, lovers or just a man trying to protect a woman from a building being collapsed on her? Large image of just a hand coming out from huge pillars and rubble of an 8-story building with a note saying “Mom, I will never see you again.”

The fire at Tazreen Fashion and the collapse of Rana Plaza have affected me and so many others deeply. The Tazreen Fashion fire was on November 25, 2012, and Rana plaza collapsed April 25th, 2013. My sister and I were discussing how sad it was. She said, “I don’t know why God is punishing just the garment workers like this over and over.” I looked at her in amazement and said, is it really God? Is He the one paying them $2.00 a day? Is God the one making them work 12-15 hours a day? Has God given license to Walmart, Benetton, Zara, Gap to murder workers? Is God the one making the rich richer and the poor poorer?  Or is it the greedy, capitalist nations trying to gain power over anything and everything? It is the international retailers trying to be God or gain control. We must refuse to have gods that are murdering, blood sucking, greedy, and antihuman.

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