OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Bangladeshi garment worker activist Kalpona Akter doesn't want to simply transform her country: she wants to transform the world. On-stage at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, Akter said she was representing the disadvantaged across the globe: “With me [are] four million voices coming from Bangladesh — and millions more from other countries."
Akter started working in a Bangladeshi garment factory when she was 12 years old. She was paid $6 a month for over 400 hours of service. She was often slapped by her supervisors. She was forced to stand for 16 hours at a time.
An outside training class taught her that these abuses were not inevitable, but actually unacceptable. So she chose to organise the workers in her factory. After applying for union registration, she was promptly fired. “That was a stupid decision; they shouldn’t have fired me!” she said. “In a factory, I would have been be organising 2,000 workers.” A staggering 29 years later, she is organising workers everywhere, even spending stints in prison defending their lives.
Bangladeshi workers have long suffered the abuse of factory owners. But the grave situation received unprecedented global attention in 2013 when Rana Plaza, a building that housed five factories, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.
With me [are] four million voices coming from Bangladesh — and millions more from other countries.
Five years later, cheap apparel manufacturing remains a cornerstone of the country's economy. At its over 4,000 factories, 85 percent of the workers are women, the majority of whom have migrated from the countryside in search of a better life.
“The job they had before was as a housemaid or working in the agriculture field,” Akter said, noting that most workers are in their late 20s and make an average $68 a month, with a $10 bonus if they’re lucky. “As soon as they come into the industry, their dream is broken.”
In 2013 after Rana Plaza, several major apparel brands, including H&M, signed a legally binding fire and building safety accord that covered 1,600 factories across the country. Only a few global brands, most notably PVH, had signed the accord before the Rana Plaza deaths. And several major apparel retailers, including Walmart, VF Corp and Gap, refused to sign, instead forming a voluntary organisation called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. A new accord, which will go into effect this year, was once again not signed by Walmart and Gap. Abercrombie & Fitch, which signed the 2013 accord, did not sign again in 2018. A spokesperson for Abercrombie & Fitch directed BoF to a corporate statement that indicated it also joined the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which announced plans for "a long-term, permanent" safety-monitoring programme. "A&F remains steadfast in its commitment to being part of a long-term solution for continuous on-going safety, in line with the commitments it has made in Bangladesh, and elsewhere throughout its global supply chain," read the statement.
Neither Abercrombie & Fitch nor Gap Inc. would directly address why they haven't signed the accord. “As a founding member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, we’ve been working hard to help drive positive safety changes for garment workers in Bangladesh," said Laura Wilkinson, a Gap Inc. spokesperson, in a statement. "Today, the 50 garment factories that manufacture clothing for Gap Inc. in Bangladesh are becoming safer, thanks to Alliance remediation work that includes installation of sprinkler systems, fire doors, handrails and other safety measures. Going forward, like all Alliance Member companies, we remain committed to sourcing from factories that maintain a high standard of safety.”
(BoF has also reached out to Walmart for comment and will update accordingly.)
Akter, whose coworkers have been murdered for speaking out against factory abuse, is determined not only to improve the conditions for those in Bangladesh, the second largest apparel manufacturer in the world, surpassed only by China, but also for those in other developing nations were cheap clothes are only now becoming a major industry. As Akter posited, these conditions have long existed, it’s just the locations that have changed. (In the early part of the 20th century, sweatshops were prevalent in the US.) “In next 10 or 20 years, will they be in Bangladesh? No, but they will be elsewhere,” she said. “This is the time for all of us to work together and make changes. There is only one thing. A job with dignity.”
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.