'We Wanted to Let Them Know Who Is Making Their Clothes': A Q&A With Kalpona Akter
A Bangladeshi woman looks at a wall filled with portraits of missing persons near the site of a garments factory that collapsed last week in Savar near Dhaka, Bangladesh. (AP Photo/Ashraful Alam Tito).
One week ago, a garment factory collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, about thirty miles from the capital of Dhaka. The death toll of that factory collapse has climbed to more than 400 people, with hundreds injured and hundreds more still missing.
As I saw on a reporting trip to Bangladesh, Rana Plaza was a disaster waiting to happen.
When will free-traders-gone-wild own up to their complicity in brutal injustices like last week’s deadly factory fire?
The night of the collapse, I was moderating a panel in Seattle with Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Sumi Abedin, a survivor of the horrific Tazreen garments factory fire that killed at least 112 people and injured 200. Abedin and Akter were at the tail end of a twelve-city tour to demand compensation and accountability for fire and building safety down the supply chain. The following interview was conducted with Akter on Saturday, April 27, three days after the Savar factory collapse and the day before she returned to Bangladesh. The interview has been edited.
You are just finishing up your End Death Traps tour of twelve cities in the US. What do you think you accomplished here?
Our main goals were to get full and fair compensation from Walmart for those who were killed and injured in the Tazreen fire and to get US retailers like Walmart and the Gap to sign a legally binding fire and building safety agreement. None of the companies would meet with us. But we also wanted to get consumers here to raise their voice. US consumers are so disconnected from the ground situation. We wanted to let them know who is making their clothes. We wanted them to know about the conditions in Bangladesh and the fact that workers earn $37 per month. We wanted them to hear directly from Sumi about what happened to her. We also wanted to make the connection between workers here and workers abroad. We are all fighting together against the same companies. We got lots of support from workers, consumers and unions during our tour—it was very gratifying.
You are traveling with Sumi Abedin, one of the survivors of Tazreen. Tell us what happened at Tazreen in November of last year.
It was about 7 at night. One thousand four hundred people worked in that factory, most of them women. When they smelled smoke, they went to their supervisor and he told them that it was a false alarm and made them go back to work. Suddenly, the room filled with smoke. The workers were coughing and couldn’t see. They tried to get out of the doors and windows, but both had been locked because the supervisor was afraid people might steal garments. Sumi was able to get through a broken window and jump out. She always says, though, that she didn’t jump to save her life, she jumped because she wanted her parents to be able to identify her dead body and she didn’t want to be burned beyond recognition. In all the remains of the fire, the labels were found that proved the factory was making clothes for Walmart, Disney and Sears.
Didn’t Walmart deny that at first?
Yes, they said they no longer worked with that particular manufacturer. But it came out in The New York Times that Walmart did still work with that manufacturer and in fact, that there had been an audit the previous year that classified the factory as a high-risk factory and Walmart had just sent a warning to the owner. It also came out that Walmart had attended a meeting of suppliers in Dhaka the year before Tazreen happened and was one of the most vocal in opposing any money to ensure building and fire safety because it would apparently have cost them too much.
How much is too much?
Research has shown that it would only cost ten cents more per garment.
And Walmart’s 2011 profits were $15 billion? What do you say to that?
Some people who heard about Tazreen and now, about the latest factory collapse, want to do something. Several people asked you about whether they should stop buying clothes from these manufacturers.
We really don’t think that not buying is the solution for us. We have 4 million workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh, 70 percent of whom are women. Most are very young and they have to have a means to have a livelihood. If consumers stop buying, that is like a boycott and a boycott doesn’t help us. Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want US consumers to say, “We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.”
Some people argue that unless you threaten a corporation’s bottom line, you can’t win. Do you agree?
I think we threaten that when we tell the world what a corporation has done. We damage their reputation and their credibility. Ultimately that hurts sales, that’s why they worry. But we hope that the threat of damage pushes them to change before sales are affected and they end up pulling out all together. That’s why these corporations have these codes of ethical conduct on paper, because they want people to think well of them and feel good buying their products.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the latest factory collapse in Savar?
I was at your house—we had just come back from the panel. It’s my habit to check e-mail at night. I saw two lines in the news that a building had collapsed. Just then, my colleague called and told me that a nine-story building had collapsed with over 3,000 workers [inside]. It was so shocking and heartbreaking. I just tried to get information and understand how and why this had happened. And what I found was the same thing as what had happened in another factory collapse in 2005. Then the numbers of dead were less but the same pattern happened. Apparently, the workers in Savar factory had seen the crack and had told their manager that they didn’t want to go in to work. The manager came out and said on a hand mic that everyone needed to go in to work, that the building would so secure it would be okay for another hundred years, and people needed to get to work immediately. A half-hour later, the building collapsed. [pauses with tears] It was so emotional.
What has this latest factory collapse meant for your campaign?
Well, it makes absolutely clear that this is gross negligence. These Western retailers are not signing the legally binding fire and safety agreement. There were many brands being manufactured at Savar: Benetton, Primark and many others. If these retailers have a minimum conscience, they should adopt all these building safety codes.
Does the latest collapse give any momentum to your efforts? Will it increase the urgency for corporations to act?
It absolutely should. We have to make sure it does. We can’t have all these lives gone with no accountability.
Some of the Western corporations argue that this is a failure of the Bangladeshi government, not the fault of the corporations. What do you say to that?
Both have responsibility. Certainly, we are continuing to push our own government to take responsibility. The so-called “audits” that happen of the factories are a joke. The workers are told to lie about everything: how long they work, whether they wear respiratory masks, whether the windows and doors are kept open. We know the government is complicit in all of this. Garment manufacturing is a huge industry for Bangladesh, a $20 billion industry that makes up 78 percent of our exports. And many of the government officials own factories themselves! They have no interest in trying to have more regulation. But at the same time, these Western corporations have very nice codes of ethical conduct on paper. But those are just words if people are dying as those same clothes are being manufactured. If the workplaces that manufacture their clothes are death traps, they should be held accountable for fixing that. They need to compensate all the victims who have died but they also need to sign legally binding agreements that can ensure safe workplaces in the future. They have to take responsibility all the way down the supply chain.
You yourself worked in a garment factory. What led you there and how did you end up organizing on behalf of garment workers?
I went to work in a garment factory when I was 12 years old. My dad got sick. He had a stroke and was paralyzed so he couldn’t earn anything. He was the primary breadwinner in our house. My mother and I started working in the factory together, but my mother had a two-month-old infant and she just couldn’t keep going. So I became the one who stayed and worked and took care of my family. I had to go through terrible sweatshop conditions just like what I am describing. I was paid $6/month back then for working 400 hours per month. I worked there for eight years at that factory, but I was fired because I began organizing my co-workers to have a union so we could have better wages. I was fired for that. I went to work for another union and then in 2000, came to co-found the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
What motivates you to keep fighting?
We have to. How can we stop? We have to win. All these young women and girls like Sumi are working every day, giving their lives for pieces of clothing. We owe it to them and all of us to fight until we win.
Read Elizabeth Cline on “The Case for Ethical Fashion.”