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Bangladeshi workers speak out

Survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse share their experiences in the factories

By Marissa Piccolo
On April 11, 2014

Aklima Khanam was trapped for 12 hours when the garment factory she was working in collapsed around her.
A victim of the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, Khanam spoke to UConn students Thursday about the horrific conditions found in non-unionized factories that supply apparel to collegiate athletics and branding programs. The UConn Bangladeshi Student Association, UConn Students for Sensible Drug Policy and United Students Against Sweatshops coordinated the event for Speak Out at UConn.
Aleya Akter, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garment & Industrial Workers Federation, and Aklima Khanam, a survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse, both spoke about their experiences, and urged students to demand that the University of Connecticut cancel its contract with the VF Corporation. The VF Corporation is an apparel company that owns big name brands such as Northface, Timberland and Jansport, and that has refused to sign and join an alliance in favor of workers' rights.
The event began with a brief summary of the global garment industry, and how major companies such as Nike, Adidas and Champion save money by producing in countries with poor worker protection rights. They often hire subcontractors to prevent them from assuming liabilities, and will split up production between multiple factories to prevent workers from unionizing (Adidas owns 1,232 separate factories). These multiple factories must compete each other to offer the lowest prices, or they risk being shut down. Factory managers thus abuse their workers, both verbally and physically, and require them to meet unreasonably high quotas.
"I was required to do 100 to 150 pieces an hour," said Khanam, "If I made a mistake I would be abused." Khanam then recalled the day her factory literally collapsed. She said it was obvious that the building was about to crack; however management physically forced workers inside the building. After a half hour inside, the electricity went off, however the boss simply turned a generator on.
"The roof fell in and one of the machines fell on me and I was crushed," Khanam said. "Just near me one of my male coworkers was hit by a beam and killed. I was trapped for twelve hours in the rubble."
At the time of the accident, Khanam was receiving the equivalent of $120 dollars a month for her work, and since the collapse hasn't received any compensation at all. Unable to find work, she cannot pay for her siblings' schooling.
"If the corporation signed the accord [that requires safety standards in working conditions], this disaster wouldn't have happened," Khanam said.
"It was university students we were making clothes for. Does that mean the students want us to be dying in factories? Or will they stand with us?" she ended poignantly.
Aleya Akter, who is 29 and has been working in the garment industry since she was 10, then spoke. In her factory, the time she spent in the bathroom was recorded and there was not even a place to eat. In 2006 when she wanted to start a union, she was suspended from work for 22 days. Her workers went on strike to make the management allow her to return, but it only escalated from there: thugs were hired to threaten her both in the street and on the phone and even attacked her friends. The Government of Bangladesh rejected the application for the union in 2006, however Akter later reapplied and received approval in 2013.
Akter still risks her life and faces hostility in Bangladesh for her dream of unionizing garment industry workers. "If there had been unions, Rana Plaza may have collapsed but the damage wouldn't have been bad," said Akter. Today, building inspectors let the union know when they see a safety concern and unionized workers have the right to not enter the factory if they see a problem.
"[Because of these unions] businesses just can't cut and run," she said. Even if these new inspectors find problems, the companies cannot just leave; they need to stay for at least two years and provide workers with some benefits.
One hundred and fifty brands that source from Bangladesh have signed accords about worker safety and fire prevention, however the VF corporation is the main player that is still refusing to do so.
"What we're asking you is to tell your university that the brands who haven't signed on have to do so. We're requesting your university cuts ties with Jansport and the VF Corporation if they don't sign the accord," Akter said, "If they don't sign the accord, anyday there might be an enormous disaster."
Akter and Khanam, joined by students, walked to President Susan Herbst's office after the event to deliver a formal letter asked to terminate the VF Corporation contract.

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