10 October, 2016

We are workers, not slaves: A Bangladeshi woman’s quest to change the fashion industry

Nazma Akter, garment worker
by Interview with Nazma Akter, garment worker and worker's rights advocate

In the wake of the latest tragic factory incident in Bangladesh, Fairtrade spoke to Nazma Akter, a garment worker, about workers’ rights.

Earlier this month, 31 people were killed after a fire engulfed a packaging factory north of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Though it has nothing to do with fashion, the disaster bought to mind the devastating Rana Plaza collapse which exposed dangerous working conditions and overcrowding in factories. And a new trend for ever faster fashion could have disastrous impacts on workers in developing countries who make clothes.

Catwalk collections will now be offered to consumers immediately after fashion shows in a “see now, buy now” revolution encouraging even higher levels of consumption and greater pressure on production. At Fairtrade, we believe in connecting shoppers with the people who make our clothes and that’s why we interviewed Nazma Akter, a garment worker, who has risked her life to achieve her dream of change in the garment industry.  

You were 11 years old when you started working in a garment factory, what was that like?

I started my journey in the sector in 1986. At that time law and regulation, a code of conduct, a safe working environment did not exist. Workers were treated as machines, we were just there to make the business a profit. I used to think, ‘we are workers, not slaves. Why are they are depriving us?’

We didn’t get paid on time, in fact our wages were often deducted without reason. We weren’t respected as human beings, discrimination was commonplace. There were no trade unions for workers to demand issues such as salary etc. The owner of the factory I worked at employed a local muscle man to threaten workers. Unfortunately this still happens in the industry. When I realized that management had no right to deprive us it made me angry. I decided I had to do something. I believed that to make a difference I had to fight for our legal rights.

What consequences did you face for engaging in the fight for workers’ rights?

My life was at risk because I fought for women’s rights to participate in decision-making both at home and at work, to end violence against women, to call for equal treatment in the workplace, dignity and respect. I was threatened by my boss, police, the local muscle man, I had my phone calls taped, my movement was restricted, and my neighbors said I was a bad woman. They even spread rumors about me in my community. For this reason my father and uncle didn’t want me involved in these activities any longer.

But despite these obstacles, nothing could not stop my work to achieve my dream of a safe workplace and equal opportunities for all, particularly for women in society. We still have a long way to go to achieve that dream.       

Has anything changed for the better since the Rana Plaza disaster?

Rana Plaza grabbed the world’s attention on issues of workplace safety and workers’ rights.  Before we talked about freedom of association, trade unions, the need for better relationships between workers and management but no one cared. Thousands of our brothers and sisters sacrificed their innocent lives for these issues to come to the fore.

Since Rana Plaza, 500 trade unions have registered, factories have safety committees, they have strengthened internal communication, and building and fire safety is a priority. Foreign companies are implementing awareness projects for workers, government monitoring has increased on safety. There are inspections for fire and building safety issues. But still workers’ health, especially reproductive health, is a serious concern. We have to go forward with healthy workers and a healthy environment. We are not cheap labor, we are skilled human resources. We deserve respect and dignity.   

What are you demanding from the garment industry? What do they need to do to improve the situation in the factories?

In Bangladesh, we have a wage grading system but minimum wages are not living wages. Our minimum wage of $68 is the lowest in the world. Many workers lose their ability to work past the age of 45 and have no savings for retirement. We demand a living wage, decent living conditions, safe accommodation, freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, negotiation, awareness, our children’s education, healthcare and pension schemes. Ensuring those rights would improve our industry and culture. Female participation is also necessary because more than 80 percent of the industry’s employees are women but there are few women in management, trade unions or leadership positions.

What are the biggest challenges in the garment sector and especially for women?

In the male-dominated garment industry, women are still treated as cheap labor and subject to unfair labor practices, without equal rights at work. Women are subjected to verbal abuse and sexual harassment. There are not enough opportunities for women to be promoted nor to participate in trade unions. These are big challenges. We need to change the mindset of brands, buyers, factory owners and consumers that women are not cheap, they should be valued. The government should also improve the dialogue between civil society, trade unions and the industry in Bangladesh.  

Fairtrade recently has developed a Textile Standard and program. Where do you see the benefits of Fairtrade for workers in the textile industry?

We know the Fairtrade Textile Standard, launched in March, focuses on working conditions, wages, and workers’ rights. It empowers factory workers and enables them to improve their working conditions collectively. It is the first standard in the industry to require living wages to be paid within a set time period. In addition to the requirements for textile factories, the standard also requires brands to commit to fair and long-term sourcing practices in their contracts to make wage increases feasible.

It is a really good initiative. No other standard prioritizes the inclusion of workers in decision making and problem solving processes. But going forward, the implementation of it should be strictly monitored.

What motivates you to continue your fight for better working conditions?

Bangladesh is the second-largest garment exporter in the world and with its predominantly female workforce I see an opportunity for women to become stronger financially. These women are already contributing our GDP, they are getting ready to involved in decision making processes and break their silence. This is my main motivation as I campaign for workers’ rights.  

What should consumers do to help improve the situation of workers along the supply chain?

Consumers have been encouraged, through a culture of “buy one get one free” deals, to want ever cheaper products and to want them now. But nothing in life comes for free. At the moment, women and workers are paying with their blood and sweat so consumers can enjoy cheap fashion. I don’t believe anyone really wants that.

We all need to be able to eat well, have a decent life with access to education and healthcare. Let’s slow fashion down, and transform the industry to change people’s lives for the better.

This article first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business on 30 September 2016.

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