DHAKA, BANGLADESH—Whenever there is another disaster in a Bangladeshi garment factory, one of the country’s most dynamic young labor leaders, Kalpona Akter, races to the scene with two aims in mind. First, she naturally wants to help and console a new set of victims. But second, she tries to get inside the factory, even if it’s still smoldering, so she can collect the labels from the clothing that was being sewn there. “The big European and American importers sometimes deny that their brands were sourced in that factory,” she explained, in her small, old and very busy office in central Dhaka. “So we need to get the logos, the actual proof, before the Walmarts and others can start to cover up.”
Akter, 36, started working in a garment factory when she was 12 years old, and by the time she was 15, she was president of her local union. She is now the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and the leading figure in Bangladesh’s small but rapidly growing independent labor movement. She is courageous, articulate and revered by the young workers, mostly women, whom she is helping to organize. Someday she will surely be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In recent months, there has been good news for working people in the garment industry here, and Kalpona Akter is right in the middle of it. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on April 24, which killed 1,129 people, triggered huge pressure—against importers around the world as well as garment-industry owners and the Bangladeshi government—which is raising hopes that this nation’s 4 million garment workers may finally be safer as they sit at their sewing and knitting machines. What’s more, there are signs that the growing union movement may start improving the other terrible working conditions in the country’s 5,000 garment factories, which include what Pope Francis has accurately described as “slave wages.”
Akter and her young colleagues in the labor movement do have one major fear, though—that shoppers in America and Europe may grow so disgusted at the dismal reports that they will stop buying Bangladeshi clothing altogether. “We recognize that consumers may think that the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag has become dirty, that there is blood and sweat on this tag,” she says. “We want to remind them that it is the greedy corporations, and the factory owners, who made it dirty, and they should stay in Bangladesh and clean it up.”
Justice starts with ending the danger of mass death in the workplace. Rana Plaza was only the worst in a string of disasters, which include other building collapses and regular murderous fires, like the blaze that swept the Tazreen Fashions factory in November 2012 and killed 112 people. Way back in 2005, the independent labor movement and its allies overseas drafted a tough safety agreement, and struggled unsuccessfully for years to persuade the big Western retailers to sign it.
Then, Rana Plaza collapsed, and as rescuers dragged out the bodies of hundreds of young garment workers, Kalpona Akter and her allies acted. “We gave the importers a May 15 deadline to sign,” she explained. “We did not want to let them wait until world attention moved away.”
By early November the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh had gotten more than 100 importers to ratify it, including European giants like the Swedish retailer H&M and Zara, based in Spain. Europe takes 60 percent of Bangladeshi clothing manufactures, so the new agreement will have a huge impact. The Accord launched its own website (www.bangladeshaccord.org), where discerning consumers can start to educate themselves. The Accord is a legal agreement that requires the importers to spend real money—which could add up to more than $1 billion over the next five years—to make workplaces safer. It even pledges to cover the wages of garment workers who may be idled while their factories are being repaired.