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Fashion to Die For

Kalpona Akter is worried for her life. Her support for the Bangladeshi garment workers who produce more than $30 billion worth of fashion for Western retailers every year puts her at odds with powerful factory owners and the country’s ‘industrial police.’
Kalpona Akter | Photo: Benjamin A. Huseby for BoF
  • Robb Young

When this article was first published in 2018, labour rights activists like Akter were asking what – if any – meaningful changes had fashion brands made in the five years that had passed since the Rana Plaza factory disaster claimed the lives of 1,134 workers in Bangladesh. Today, a devastating economic and public health crisis has left countless more vulnerable or destitute, making the issue more urgent than ever. Read on and join us next Wednesday when Kalpona Akter will join Fashion Revolution’s Sarah Ditty and BoF’s Sarah Kent at the BoF Professional Summit to discuss fashion's responsibility to garment workers and explore how the industry can clean up its act.

— Robb Young, June 2020

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Kalpona Akter worries when things go bump in the night. Thoughts of calling the police don't offer her much solace. She has spent enough time behind bars and rubbed enough powerful people up the wrong way in her native Bangladesh to know she needs to be wary of the authorities.

“When I’m inside my apartment and I hear a police siren in the middle of the night, I panic. I know I have enemies,” she says carefully, before continuing with the faintest hint of guilt. “My mum has double fear now because my brother is also a union organiser.”

Kalpona pauses, allowing the silence to envelop her for a moment. You can almost hear her inner debate as she wrangles with how much to disclose and which words to choose. “My life is in danger,” she admits.

Lowering her voice by a decibel, she explains further: “When my colleague got killed, we were targeted together. [Their plan was] if they don’t get me, then they get Babu. If they don’t get Babu, then they get me.”

It takes some coaxing to persuade Kalpona to reveal who she means by “they.” One thing is for certain: “they” is the murderer of Aminul Islam, a labour rights activist who worked with her for years. Kalpona affectionately called him by his nickname Babu.

The pair had been comrades and at one point were imprisoned together. Babu worked for the organisation Kalpona founded seventeen years ago called the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). “He was not only a colleague, he was my friend too,” she says.

Kalpona Akter | Photo: Benjamin A. Huseby for BoF

The Extortionate Cost of Integrity

One ordinary day in April 2012, Babu simply vanished. His body was found two days later, 100 kilometres from where he had last been seen. Someone had abducted and tortured him — his toes had all been broken — and left him to bleed to death by the road side. The spectre of his murder looms large over Kalpona Akter to this day.

When pressed for an explanation about the perpetrator, she relents — but only reluctantly. “Who murdered Babu? It’s difficult to say,” she hesitates. “There was a mole posing as a union organiser for years. He was paid by national security [forces] and [the] army. But, you know, I don’t have evidence; I can’t point at anybody,” she trails off into what seems to be a conclusion of uncertainty, before having second thoughts.

“The security forces,” she says more forcefully than she intended. “And, you know, they’re maybe influenced by [local] garment industrialists. Do you understand?”

As founder and executive director of the BCWS, Kalpona has a good reason to hesitate before suggesting who is responsible for the death of her colleague. It’s not just the worry of ending up in a ditch like Babu that upsets her; it’s the sense of impunity surrounding his murder. Representatives from Human Rights Watch have accused the Bangladeshi authorities of “washing their hands” of any responsibility to find his killer.

Reports at the time alleged that, on the day he disappeared, Babu was trying to resolve a labour dispute at factories that produce shirts for several high-profile American fashion brands.

For years, Bangladeshi workers have been exposed to severe state repression, including violent crackdowns on peaceful protests by the country’s notorious “industrial police.” Thugs are regularly hired to threaten, intimidate or physically attack striking workers and union organisers.

Kalpona Akter is one of the most high-profile union organisers around. She has engaged with UN agencies to demand greater respect for garment workers; her US Congress testimony helped frame legislation against slave-labour conditions for apparel manufacturing; and she was a key player urging Western brands to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord following the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013.

“You can’t pay for any life with any amount of money. [What fashion brands paid out for that] wasn’t enough, but it’s a start. At least it’s more than past factory compensations,” she says.

Sometimes Kalpona publicly names and shames the factory owners who don’t comply with the European Union’s Bangladesh Sustainability Compact. She helps conduct investigations to ensure worker groups are involved in the initiative designed to improve conditions in Bangladesh. Needless to say, this doesn’t make her popular among wealthy industrialists with multi-million dollar contracts hanging in the balance.

Hers is a strange predicament. Kalpona’s affiliation with big international institutions has helped lessen the danger she faces from some vested interests in Bangladesh, but the international spotlight that comes with it makes her an even bigger target for others.

“When I start my morning, I can’t tell [my mum] with certainty that I will return home [at the end of the day],” she says. “I don’t walk alone or go anywhere alone now.”

A Survivor Defending Survivors

Kalpona Akter began working as a seamstress in garment factories at the age of 12. She says factory managers fired her when she was 16 because she began rallying her fellow workers after they had not been paid for overtime.

“I learned that my shift should be no more than certain hours — wow, that one just blew my mind — and I learned that management are not supposed to slap me in my face [as discipline] any time they want and I learned that the building should be safe,” she recalls.

“Factory management started harassing us and retaliating [against our strike] using community leaders and the police. Later management fired me. They made my life miserable. They made it so difficult that I didn’t even have money to put food on the table.”

She goes on, “They [later blacklisted me] so I couldn’t get a job anywhere else too. [But] luckily I was hired by the union as a full-time organiser.”

Two decades later, Kalpona Akter’s mission is to campaign for fair wages, factory safety, the right to form labour unions and collective bargaining for those at the beginning of the global supply chain.

“My mum taught me that if there’s an injustice, somebody has to speak out. I believe that all the stakeholders share the responsibility to make improvements: the factory owners, our government, consumers and the international brands [that manufacture here],” she says.

A garment factory worker protesting on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse | Source: Solidarity Center/Sifat Sharmin Amita

Tragically, it took several catastrophes for these injustices to come to light in the West. While there were many more before them, the two disasters that received the most media attention abroad were the 2012 Tazreen Fashions factory fire (killing over 100 people) and the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 (killing more than 1,100 people.) Most of the dead were garment workers making clothes for some of the biggest fashion retailers in Europe and America.

When the walls of the Rana Plaza building collapsed around her, Mahinur Akhter (no relation to Kalpona Akter) was 16. She had already been working there for three years.

Mahinur was sewing buttons onto shirts destined for export when disaster struck. She was trapped under the rubble for nearly 10 hours before she was rescued — but not before a falling sewing machine severed part of her foot. Now, at 21, she continues to suffer from PTSD but must work to support her mother and two younger brothers. She counts herself lucky to have even survived.

“When I worked at the factory in Rana Plaza, organisers from Kalpona’s [labour group] used to come and talk to us about getting organised,” she said. “I didn’t realise how important that was, until the building fell.”

That day, Mahinur says, the factory supervisors forced the workers to enter the building, even though engineers had declared the building unsafe the day before.

“If we had a union, the managers wouldn’t be able to force us [into the building],” she said. “That day, I realised that we needed to unite to survive. Organisers like Kalpona give us hope that we will be able to get our lawful rights.”

After she escaped the rubble of Rana Plaza with her life, the long struggle to get compensation began. Kalpona’s group, BCWS, and other unions joined with international labour groups to press brands to compensate the victims and their families.

“I was afraid that we would be abandoned and forgotten,” Mahinur says. “[But] Kalpona and people like her kept fighting for us.”

As a result of concerted pressure, the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund was formed, but contributions were slow in coming. Then, in early 2015, Kalpona told Mahinur that they would travel to the US to take their demand for compensation directly to the brands. “That was a huge moment for me,” Mahinur says.

Mahinur, Kalpona and American labour activists visited more than a dozen American college campuses over three weeks in 2015, urging students to press two major retailers — The Children’s Place and Benetton — to contribute to the compensation fund.

There's no doubt we need these jobs. [The question is] do we need them at any cost?

However, Kalpona and Mahinur were arrested at the Secaucus, New Jersey, headquarters of The Children’s Place for trespassing when their group tried to deliver a written request for increased compensation to the Rana Plaza Trust. The charges against the Bangladeshi activists and the students in the group were later dismissed, but it left Mahinur traumatised.

“I went there to tell them my story and to ask for compensation, but rather than listening to me, they put me in handcuffs,” she says.

She adds, “Kalpona told me to be strong. She told me she had been to jail before and that we would be OK. After we returned to Bangladesh, she came to visit me and gave me some money to tide me over until I got a job… Labour leaders like Kalpona are role models for us. They give us hope that we can fight and live with dignity.”

Gruelling But Life-Changing jobs

The market reality today is that trends change faster, and clothes cost less, than ever before. What makes Kalpona’s work especially important for the global fashion industry is the fact that vast numbers of Bangladeshi factories are dedicated to making clothes cheaply and quickly for Western brands.

Target, Gap and Topshop's parent company Arcadia, H&M, C&A, Walmart, Kmart, Zara's parent company Inditex, Primark, Next, Esprit… the list of brands that have sourced from or manufactured in Bangladesh goes on and on. There are too many to mention, but suffice to say that if you walk through any American shopping mall, or down any of Europe's high streets, there are masses of clothes that have been knitted, sewn, assembled or embellished in Bangladesh.

“The RMG sector [‘ready-made garment’ manufacturing], they’re the backbone of our economy,” Kalpona explains. “This is why the factory owners are so powerful. Some of them are even members of parliament. And our commerce minister is so pro-management, he always has factory owners’ backs. So does our prime minister [Sheikh Hasina].”

It hasn’t helped that, periodically, senior politicians have branded Kalpona and other organisers “enemies of the nation” for disrupting an industry that is critical to the economy. In some cases, their political intervention has stoked the harassment or incited the violence that union organisers like Kalpona endure.

A factory worker is pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, which killed over 1,100 workers | Source: Shutterstock

“Whenever we raise our voices, they say, ‘oh, look, it is a foreign conspiracy to ruin our industry,’ [but] it is not even close to true. If you open your eyes, you can see the truth.”

To understand why so much is at stake for everyone involved, you need to get a sense of just how reliant the Bangladesh economy is on income from the global fashion industry.

According to the latest figures from BMI Research, garments account for a staggering 84.1 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports. To put that into perspective, that makes Bangladesh as dependent on stitching clothes as Saudi Arabia is on pumping out oil. The glaring difference between the two, of course, is that they are on opposite ends of the prosperity spectrum.

“Bangladeshi factories work on thin margins. If a factory fails to meet a shipment deadline due to labour unrest or strikes, that could lead to bankruptcy and thousands of workers would find themselves out of a job,” explains Muhammad Atiqul Islam (no relation to “Babu” Aminul Islam).

As president of the Centre of Excellence for Bangladesh Apparel Industries (CEBAI), Islam has had extensive contact, and sometimes been on opposite sides of the debate about workers’ wages and rights, with Kalpona Akter.

Islam is also an employer of more than 15,000 workers across roughly 20 factories around the country. Through his manufacturing enterprise Islam Garments Group, he exports to many of the Western fashion retailers that source from Bangladesh. He claims that he welcomes “constructive trade union activities.”

“The Bangladeshi garment industry has come a long way since 2013 in terms of workers’ rights and workplace safety,” argues Islam, who was previously president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association during the tumultuous period of 2013-2014 when the local garment industry faced unprecedented scrutiny after Rana Plaza.

“Improvement became possible through a collective collaboration and, for sure, labour organisers like Kalpona have been part of that,” he concedes. “But if a labour group feeds misinformation… to international brands or calls for a boycott of Bangladeshi factories, who would suffer most? The workers, for sure.”

“I know that activists like Kalpona have urged brands not to boycott Bangladesh in the wake of Rana Plaza, and I think that’s a very sensible position,” he adds.

They kept us with murderers and criminals. Screaming, yelling. They considered us animals, not people.

In an impoverished country like Bangladesh, apparel jobs are a lifeline for millions of people. No one knows for sure how many are currently employed in the trade, but estimates range from 2.5 million to 4 million. The World Bank estimates that, since 2010, eight million Bangladeshis have moved out of poverty — and despite the shocking low wages it pays, the garment sector has contributed significantly to this upward trend.

“There’s no doubt we need these jobs,” says Kalpona. “[The question is] do we need them at any cost?”

Today, Bangladesh comes only second to China (albeit a distant second) in the global ranking of garment exporting countries. And unless a global trade war softens demand in its export markets, Bangladesh looks set to boost its garment manufacturing output in the years to come.

Ready-made garments, comprising knitwear and woven items, earned $28.15 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, according to the Bangladeshi Export Promotion Bureau. When you factor in leather goods and other relevant categories, the bureau expects that the country’s fashion exports will end up topping $30 billion this year.

Brands could pack up and go elsewhere, but that looks unlikely. In fact, according to McKinsey’s 2017 chief purchasing officer (CPO) survey, Bangladesh was still named as the number-one sourcing hotspot by small and medium-sized fashion players despite its many ethical issues. For larger players, the country lost ground but still came third after China and Turkey.

Small Mercies in a Big Market

Kalpona Akter doesn’t take naturally to hypothetical situations but, when she sees a clear line to her objectives, she will entertain one or two. If, for example, she were able to gather the owners and chief executives of all the foreign fashion brands operating in Bangladesh into one room for a face-to-face meeting, what would her pitch to them be?

“Well, I’d tell them ‘thank you so much for the jobs you are providing,’ this is very important. ‘But we want these jobs with dignity. Have your factories pay a living wage, respect workers’ rights and [let them] exercise their union rights. Please do buy your clothes from Bangladesh but buy from responsible factories.’”

Kalpona Akter | Photo: Benjamin A. Huseby for BoF

There are between 5,000 and 7,000 garment factories in Bangladesh. Due to tangled webs of subcontractors and rampant corruption, no one can give you a more precise number than this.

Deliberately murky business practices have meant that many Bangladeshi factories don’t maintain direct financial relationships with Western brands, using instead a system of agents and subcontractors known as “indirect sourcing” that often fails when it comes to transparency and oversight. Things are slowly changing for the better — thanks to pressure from the likes of Kalpona — but many factories are still completely off the radar; their workers mere phantoms in the black market economy.

The worst among Bangladeshi factories are truly dismal — the very picture of a Dickensian sweatshop. Most, however, range from small, makeshift mom-and-pop workshops dealing in piecework to modern operations churning out garments on an industrial scale in cities like Dhaka and Chittagong.

Whatever their size, the wage they provide is meagre. Currently, it is estimated that monthly salaries in the sector start at 5,300 taka, which is the equivalent of approximately $62 per month (though more experienced and highly-skilled workers can earn more).

While it is hard for a foreigner to fathom living on such a wage scale, incredibly, today’s wages are much higher than they were just four years ago. It is down to the collective work of campaigners like Kalpona — and the pressure they solicit from home and abroad — that helped bring salaries up by around 77 percent over that period.

But to say that Kalpona and her peers continue to face an uphill battle is an understatement.

After several high-profile factory disasters that resulted in thousands of worker deaths and life-changing injuries, Bangladesh is in a very unfortunate club of nations. According to the latest 2018 ranking by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Bangladesh is still one of the “ten worst countries in the world for working people.”

Another country on the unenviable list is Cambodia, where Kalpona says, “they’re facing the same problem because industrialists are too influential in the government.”

What happens in Bangladesh is important because — depending on which way things go — it could either provide a cautionary tale or a development model for other ultra-low-cost sourcing countries. The clothing and footwear sectors in Bangladesh could set precedents and offer lessons to stakeholders in up-and-coming sourcing hubs like Myanmar and Ethiopia — not only for local manufacturers but also the international brands who end up producing there.

Women on the Frontline

The Bangladeshi garment sector workforce is more than 80 percent female. Kalpona sighs, clearly frustrated: “Everybody talks about ‘these fashions are great because they are made by women,’ but they never say whether the women are safe or working freely.”

“They are second-class citizens here,” she goes on. “[Many] don’t even have real ownership of their wages. Their husband or guardian, like a father or brother, often takes it at the end of the month, so they don’t even get it.”

But worse than that is that “women get verbally, physically and sexually abused by middle management all the time. This even includes me, as [I was abused in the past] many times by my factory managers.”

For women, in particular, there is as much to glean from Kalpona Akter’s leadership story as there is in the broader dynamics she fosters between workers and business. Advocates like her can inspire others to action by their history. Someone who remembers Kalpona from her early years is Babul Akhter (no relation to either Kalpona Akter or Mahinur Akhter).

“It wasn’t easy as a woman in labour activism in those days. She wasn’t well off and often didn’t have bus fare to get home. She had to walk part of the way to her home in [the] northern [outskirts of the city],” he says.

Babul Akhter first crossed paths with Kalpona 23 years ago, when they attended a labour protest demanding better wages in a Dhaka suburb. Both soon made a name as good organisers and were chosen to serve on a local labour group committee. Today he is president of the Bangladesh Garment and Independent Workers Federation (BGIWF).

“She never hid from danger. As an activist, [back then] she would come out with us after midnight, putting up posters and writing signs… I admired her courage and strength from the beginning,” he adds.

In Bangladesh at that time, independent unions and worker rights advocates were often targeted by the authorities, including through arbitrary detention, physical and psychological abuse as well as the threat of death.

If a factory fails to meet a shipment deadline due to labour unrest or strikes, that could lead to bankruptcy and thousands of workers would find themselves out of a job.

A few years ago, both Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter were arrested during a strike over wages. “The police filed 10 cases against her and 11 against me,” Babul Akhter says. “She told me, ‘Tell them I was in the lead — they probably won’t beat me since I’m a woman.’”

When asked later about Babul Akhter’s recollection of events, Kalpona immediately fills in the details. “We were in an interrogation cell for seven days [that time]. We were without drinking water for long periods of time. It was literally hell.”

“They interrogated us as often and any time they wanted, even in the middle of the night. Once, I was interrogated for 11 hours in a row by 10 different officials asking me the same questions thousands of times trying to get me to admit to [trumped up] charges [of vandalism and unrest].”

Things only got worse when they moved Kalpona from the local police station to the central jail. “The jail code says it is a 50-person holding cell, but there [were] about 150 people in there. Like cattle. They kept us with murderers and criminals. Screaming, yelling. They considered us animals, not people.”

In addition to Kalpona’s personal courage, Babul Akhter highlights her integrity. “She has been offered money, big money, by factory owners to [be quiet and] drop demands,” he said. “She always said no.”

Having seen her up close, Babul appreciates Kalpona’s struggle against the odds. “We were both child workers and didn’t get much of an education,” he says. “You wouldn’t think it by speaking to her. She taught herself English and really improved herself in a way that’s truly wonderful.”

Increasingly Radical Grassroots

Yet not everyone is as effusive about Kalpona Akter. Some of Kalpona’s younger activist peers suggest that she is no longer radical enough in her approach to the labour movement.

Sritee Akter Sahida has made a name for herself as a firebrand labour activist. While Kalpona built an international reputation and high-level connections, Sritee remained hyperlocal, traveling to labour meetings almost every day to address workers. She has a touch of disdain when she speaks of “celebrity leaders” who, she says, “spend more time abroad” than with workers at factories.

She concedes that Kalpona Akter has blazed a trail for women activists in Bangladesh, but says it is important for labour leaders to remain grounded.

Workers in a textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh | Source: Shutterstock

“I get my hands dirty. You can’t forget the pain a worker feels when she is sacked. If you lose touch with the soil and the people, you lose the ability to make a difference. You can never forget your roots,” says Sahida, who is now secretary of the Garment Worker Solidarity Federation (GWSF).

Some might see Sahida’s comments as sour grapes. By criticising those who have earned international distinction and valuable connections, it belittles the international platform for change that comes with that. On the other side of the debate, some suggest that Kalpona’s direct action approach isn’t necessarily a model for everyone in the developing world.

“I have no doubt that the situation in Bangladesh must have been so desperate and dire for Kalpona to risk her life and her family’s resource to speak out for her people,” says Lanvy Nguyen, the founder of US-based Fashion4Freedom, an ethical supply chain agency specialising in Vietnamese production for fashion brands like Maiyet.

According to Nguyen, while protests can be one way to instigate change, “quietly changing out each brick of an exploitative system will create a more sustainable path and a stronger one towards equity,” she says, pointing to examples like labour rights activists Zen Feiyang of China and Moeun Tola from Cambodia.

“As a foreigner and an impact-investor in Asia, it’s one thing for me to make demands for labour rights; it is entirely a different level of risk for a poor Asian female worker to push for rights and justice for herself and her co-workers in an exploitative environment,” she says.

Nguyen’s view is one that is no doubt familiar to Kalpona Akter. But, with nearly two decades of grassroots and global activism under her belt, Kalpona’s breadth of experience counts for a lot. Not discounting the risks, escalating a situation in order to amplify an injustice is sometimes the most effective way to get results — and it seems to have worked on more than a few occasions in the Bangladeshi context.

As for Sahida’s insinuation that Kalpona might secretly harbour grand ambitions or wish to transition from labour rights activism to a bigger forum, she balks at the very suggestion.

“You mean join politics [or business] somehow? No, no way. The corruption I see in the power around me, no. No. The politics we have here is dirty politics; it’s not my cup of tea,” Kalpona insists.

Kalpona Akter is the first to admit that not all her tactics have been successful over the years and that there is an incredibly long road ahead to fight for workers’ rights. But, equally, she feels comfortable acknowledging her role in the progress that has been made so far. She is not one prone to false modesty. She’s too busy for that; too secure in herself; too focused on the end game.

“Bangladeshi workers aren’t dying in their hundreds like they were a few years ago,” she asserts. “They have less fear to speak up now and there are more females working in the front line of the movement. Working conditions are not as miserable like they were in my time either. I know my achievements and what they mean.”

“I’m OK just being an advocate.”

Additional reporting by Syed Zain Al-Mahmood in Dhaka.

This article appears in BoF's latest print edition.

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