What It's Like To Work In A Bangladeshi Factory

More than 1,000 garment workers were killed last month, when the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed last month in Bangladesh. Host Scott Simon speaks with Kalpona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, who began working in garment factories at age 12.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. More than 1,000 people are now confirmed to have died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh more than two weeks ago. It is the worst industrial accident in nearly three decades. But this week, rescuers managed to dig out a woman who survived beneath the debris for 17 days. They heard her call out: Save me. Most of those killed in the collapse were garment workers who earned little more than a dollar a day toiling to make clothes sold by some of the world's most famous companies. Kalpona Akter started working in garment factories in Bangladesh when she was 12 years old. She is now an activist and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Ms. Akter joined us over Skype from Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, and described what it's like to work in the factories there.

KALPONA AKTER: I mean, to be working in a factory like Rana Plaza, it is like every single moment you need to think about that you are in a death trap. Anything can happen anytime.

SIMON: Help us know what those conditions are like.

AKTER: Generally, how this look like: long shift in hours is common, like workers are forced to do overtime. In some cases, workers wanted to do it too because the wage they get, it is so, so low, it is lowest wage in the world that our workers are getting, which is $37, is the minimum wage and that is for per month.

SIMON: Thirty-seven dollars per month.

AKTER: Yes. And the verbal, and in some cases physical abuse is also very common. If workers, like, do minor mistakes they are being slapping by the production managers, supervisor or line chief. The safety issue, the factory where I worked, that also caught fire back in 1990 and we have been locked in production floor. Many of my coworkers has been stampeded in the stairs because the stair was blocked with merchandise.

SIMON: They couldn't get out because the stairs were blocked.

AKTER: Exactly. So, that was like in my time, in 23 years back. These deaths, what we are facing today, these deaths could be prevented if the factory owner would comply with the law, if the government would do the monitoring, if the Western retailers pay more or pay more attention, these deaths could have been prevented.

SIMON: Do you think, although you talk about factory owners and government inspectors and others being held accountable, do you think Americans who will buy stuff this weekend also have some responsibility in this?

AKTER: Of course. The consumers who are going to shop this weekend, definitely, they does have responsibility. I'm not here to make you feel bad that you are buying clothes which are made in Bangladesh and behind of this label the workers are dying. I wanted to tell them, please buy these clothes, which is made in Bangladesh. If you don't buy, that'll be boycott. And not buying is not the solution. Boycott would be suicide for these female workers who work in these factories. But in the same time, I wanted to give a message to you all that we need these jobs but we want these jobs with dignity. We want these jobs with a decent wage, a safe working place and with a union voice, OK.

So, you consumers can purchase with responsibility, buy with responsibility and make accountable to these brands, to tell them to pay more attention to these workers, to pay full and fair compensation to those workers, the victims of Rana Plaza, and tell them to adopt legally binding fire and building safety agreements for Bangladeshi factories where they're sourcing from. Please, tell the store manager that you demand them to sign on these fire and building safety agreements because these deaths can be prevented.

SIMON: So, you want Americans to continue to buy products made in Bangladesh because it's good for workers there. But at the same time you want American consumers to try and put some kind of pressure on companies to comply with safety standards and pay people more.

AKTER: Exactly, exactly. It is not a huge amount of money we are talking about. You know, the Workers' Consortium, a U.S. reported monitoring group based in Washington, they did research and this research says that tailors pay like 10 cents more per garment, that can help to make a safe working place for our workers in Bangladesh.

SIMON: Kalpona Akter, executive director for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, joining us on Skype from Dhaka. Ms. Akter, thanks so much for being with us.

AKTER: Thank you so much.

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