Alerts

The Human Face behind the Global Economy: Testimonies of Bangladeshi Workers

September, 26 2004 Share

Testimonies

Nasrin Akther, Factory Worker

Janu Akther, Factory Worker

Robina Akther, Factory Worker

Maksuda, Factory Worker

Ms. Sk Nazma, President of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS)

Read about the Bangladesh Workers Tour in the U.S. in 2004

 

 

Nasrin Akther

Shah Makhdum Garments / Disney ("Pooh" label)

Nasrin is a 21 year old sewing operator at the Shah Makdhum factory for three years. She prodcues shirts that include Disney's "Pooh" label. Each factory line has 33 mahcines. Each line produces 120 shirts per hour, a total of 1,320 shirts a day if they work 11 hours.

Nasrin often works from 8am to 10pm, with only two days off a month. She makes a regular wage of 1,650 taka a month, not counting overtime. In dollars, this comes to $28.75, or 14 cents an hour. Taking a bus or bicycle rickshaw would cost 450 taka a month ($7.84 or 27 cents a day), but because she makes so little, she must walk to work and back, taking 30 minutes to walk the 3 kilometers between work and home.

Her factory is very crowded, hot, and badly ventilated. The water that's provided for them is dirty, causing the workers to suffer from diarrhea, jaundice, kidney problems, anemia, and eye pain.

 

My name is Nasrin Akther. I am 21 years old. I have been working in garment factories for three years. Since February I have been working in Shah Makhdum as a sewing operator.

I produce shirts including Disney's "Pooh" label. My operation is joining the side seams of the shirt. In my factory, each line has 33 machines. Each line produces 120 shirts per hour, a total of 1,320 shirts a day if we work 11 hours.

Until recently, I had to work from 8:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. each day. We get only two days off a month. I walk to work and back because I cannot afford to take a bus or bicycle rickshaw, which would cost 450 taka a month. In dollars that would be $7.84 or 27 cents a day. The factory is three kilometers away and it takes 30 minutes to walk. I normally get home at 10:30 p.m.

I get a regular wage of 1,650 taka a month, not counting overtime. In dollars this comes to $28,75, or 14 cents an hour.

If we want to use the bathroom, we have to get permission from the supervisor and he monitors the time. If someone takes too long for any reason, the supervisor shouts at her and humiliates her, calling her names. If someone makes a mistake, the supervisor docks four or five hours of overtime wage, or lists her as absent, taking the whole day's wage.

In my factory there is no daycare, no medical facilities. The women don't receive maternity benefits. The overtime is mandatory, but we are always cheated on our overtime pay. The supervisor makes us sign two separate payroll sheets. One tells the truth-that we worked four of five hours of overtime each day. The other says that we only worked two hours of overtime a day, as our labor law requires. That is the one they show to the buyers.

I cannot support myself with the wage I am getting. I have rice and lentils for breakfast, rice and mashed potato for lunch, and for supper rice and vegetables. I eat chicken once a month when I get paid, and maybe twice a month I buy a small piece of fish.

Because we have to work very long hours, seven days a week, we have no family life, no personal life, no social life.

In my factory, it is very crowded, very hot and badly ventilated. The water we have to drink is dirty. The workers often suffer from diarrhea, jaundice, kidney problems, anemia, eye pain. Our seats have no backs and since we have to work long hours, we suffer from backaches and shoulder pain.

Our lives have been stolen. We are treated like animals, and any workers who attempt to get together a union are fired immediately and may be blacklisted. We feel we have been born only to serve the needs of the owners.

If you make the same mistake more than once, the supervisor puts a red mark on your machine, they take you to the office and dock 4 or 5 hours overtime pay or count it as a one day absence so you lose a whole day's pay.

Many people have asked us what will happen to us when we go back to Bangladesh. If our bosses find out we are in the United States talking about factory conditions and seeking solidarity, they will fire us. But we know we have the support of the Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Center, the National Labor Committee and other groups. Also we know that we are speaking for all the workers in Bangladesh, so for us it is worth the risk and we feel proud to have made this trip.

Before coming to the U.S. I did not know before anyone knew or cared about what is happening to us in Bangladesh. I am so happy to know that student community, religious groups, unions and citizens in the United States are concerned about our situation. I want to ask you to please help us to keep jobs in Bangladesh, but with improved conditions.

Thank you very much.

Back to Top

 

 

Janu Akther
Actor Sporting Ltd. / University production

Janu is 22 years old and started working at the age of 12, having to leave school after the 4th grade. She has been working for Actor Garments as a sewing operator where she produces caps for many universities in the United States.

Janu often works 13 to 14 hours a day and sometimes 19 or 20 hours, working for only 8 cents an hour. She receives only one, or at most, two days of fa month and is given only a 10 minute break where the company would give the workers a piece of bread and a small banana.

Because she makes so little, She has to share a tiny room with three other co-workers. The rooms only have 2 beds, so two of them share each bed. Five family with a total of 30 people in the row of rooms where she lives share just one bathroom, one kitchen, and one stove causing her and many other workers to have to skip breakfast or using the bathroom so they may get to work on time.

 

I am Janu Akther. I am 22 years old. When I started working I was 12. I had to go to work because my family was very poor. So I had to leave school after the 4th grade. For the last 10 years, even as a child worker, I have had to work 12 or 14 hours a day and sometimes up to 20 hours. I have been working for 10 years, but I still have no savings. If I die today, my family would have no money to bury me.

Now I work for Actor Garments where I produce caps for many universities in the United States. I am a sewing operator, I do the stitching on the visors of the caps.

Until very recently, I had to work 13 to 14 hours a day and sometimes 19 or 20 hours. We had one day or at most two days off each month. When we had to work until 10 at night, we were given a 10 minute break from 7:10 to 7:20 p.m. and the company would give us a piece of bread and a small banana.

Our lunch is from 1 to 2:00 p.m. There is no place to eat lunch, so we have to eat outside the factory at the side of the road under the hot sun and if it rains we get wet.

When shipments have to go out to the U.S. we have to work 19 or 20 hours until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. There is no space to sleep so I have to curl up next to the machine to sleep for 3 or 4 hours, then I go home at 6:00 to wash and eat breakfast, and I have to be back working by 8:00. a.m.

Usually I leave work at ten and I get home at 11:00 p.m. It is not safe on the road and I fear being robbed, like when I am carrying my pay. Many workers have been robbed. I get home at 11:00 at night and I start cooking supper-I have to cut the vegetables, wash the vegetables, sometimes wait for the stove to cook. I eat at 12:30 and go to bed at 1:00 a.m. I have to get up again at 5:00 a.m.

I earn the monthly wage of 965 taka working a standard shift from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. They tell me that is $16.31 a month, or 8 cents an hour. The most I have been able to earn, working the whole month between 14 and 20 hours a day, every day, with only 2 Fridays off, is 2160 taka a month. [$37.60]

When Charlie asked me what I thought the price of a cap was, I thought it would cost 15 taka-26 cents. Later I learned that one of these caps costs $17 or $18 in the United States. That is more that I earn in a whole month. I was surprised and I thought that this is a terrible injustice against us.

Many people have asked me how much I would need to earn so as not to live in misery. I think that if we could earn 4,000 to 5,000 taka a month, which in dollars is about 34 cents an hour, we could live with some decency.

On the production line there are 30 machines with 30 operators and 10 helpers. The supervisors give us a production target of 370 caps per hour, but we can barely complete 320 caps per hour, so we have to work as fast as we can. But because of this we sometimes make mistakes and then the supervisors shout at us and call us bad names, or they slap us, or hit us with a stick or a cap, or jab us with scissors. Sometimes we cry because of this rough treatment, and then they threaten us not to cry.

If you make the same mistake more than once, the supervisor puts a red mark on your machine, they take you to the office and dock 4 or 5 hours overtime pay or count it as a one day absence so you lose a whole day's pay.

I have to ask permission to use the bathroom and they give you only two minutes. The supervisor checks the time. If I need more than two minutes, the supervisor yells at you and calls you bad names.

We only have tap water to drink, which is filthy and makes us sick. The workers often have diarrhea, jaundice and kidney problems. Because we have to sit on stools with no backs working so many hours, the workers also suffer from back aches.

The factory is cloudy with dust. It is not well ventilated, without enough air or light. The air of the factory is polluted with dust from the cloth. This dust goes into our noses and makes us sick with coughs and respiratory problems.

Due to the constant pressure, long hours and dirty environment the workers often suffer headaches, eye pain, coughs and gastric problems and anemia.

When any worker reaches 30 or 35, the managers push them to leave the factory, because they no longer have enough energy to do the work. When she quits or gets fired, the company never pays their severance pay. They leave with no severance, no Provident savings fund, no savings, they leave with nothing. So they have to return to their villages to beg.

In my factory the supervisors treat us like dogs. I would like to be treated as a human being. If we try to make any demand or to argue, the supervisors threaten us and say they are going to fire us, or they fire us immediately without our Provident fund or severance pay. For this reason we cannot make any demands, we have no power, we have no possibility to organize. We would like to form a union, but for all these reasons it is impossible for us to organize.

When U.S. buyers come we are instructed to lie, that means we have to say that we are receiving our wage on time (on the 5th of the next month), with correct overtime and that we have one day off a week and that we never work after 8:00 at night. They also tell to wear our best clothes and to put on make-up so that we will look healthy. We have never heard of the Codes of Conduct which are supposed to be hung on the walls, but coming here we have heard that these companies have Codes of Conduct to protect our rights.

Because I earn so little money, I have to share a tiny room with three co-workers. We have two beds and two of us share each bed. We have nothing else, no chairs, no table, no cooking equipment, no radio or TV or clock. I had to borrow the clothes from my relatives to come to the United States.

Five families with a total of 30 people in the row of rooms were I live share one bathroom and one kitchen and one stove. So in the morning I have to stand in line to use the bathroom and to use the stove. Sometimes I have to go to the factory without having breakfast.

For breakfast I eat some rice and lentils, for lunch I have rice and mashed potatoes and at night for supper I have rice and vegetables. At the end of the month, when I get paid, I can have two small pieces of chicken. In the United States, we have been eating eggs, chicken, fish, lamb, fruit, enough rice, but in Bangladesh we cannot imagine having this plenty.

Before coming to the United States, we didn't have any idea that the university students and citizens of the U.S. cared about our situation. I am so happy to hear that we are not alone, that they are with us in our struggle.

We ask the students and citizens of the United States to please help us to protect our rights. We need these jobs because we have no alternative for employment in Bangladesh, and we are willing to work very hard. I ask that you help us win our struggle to protect our rights and to be treated as human beings.

The people in the United States have been so friendly and generous that I could never have imagined this before coming here. Thank you very much.

Back to Top

 

 

 Robina Akther

Robina is 18 years old and has been working as a sewing operator in the garment factories for the past two years sewing clothing for Wal-Mart and other U.S. companies. She was fired from the last factory she worked at after she was seen attending a meeting with people from the U.S.

Robina earns 1,700 taka a month, which comes to $6.75 a week and just 14 cents an hour. In the last month, Robina has been forced to work four 19-hour all-night shifts from 8:00 a.m. straight through to 3:00 a.m., after which the workers slept on the factory floor. Her typical work shift is from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., six or seven days a week.

Robina never had the chance to go to school, but with help from her friends, she has learned to sign her name. She lives with seven other people in a single room, sleeping on the floor. Typically she gets just five hours of sleep a night.

Robina works 12 to 14 hours a day sewing clothing for the largest company in the world, and yet her wages are so low she cannot even afford to purchase a toothbrush and toothpaste, and must clean her teeth with her finger, using ashes from the fire.

 

My name is Robina Akther.

I'm about 18 years old. We don't have birth certificates in Bangladesh, so I don't know the exact day I was born.

Two years ago I went to work at the Western Dresses factory in Dhaka. I entered as a helper and my job was to measure and mark with chalk the location where the back pocket was to be sewn on the pants.

I had to do 120 to 150 pieces an hour. After just 7 days of working, the line chief attacked me, slapping my face very hard. My nose was bleeding. I was so frightened I was crying and half fainted. He slapped me four times, screaming that I was not making my target. I was beaten like that four times in the first six months. If the chalk marks weren't straight or if you weren't working fast enough, they hit you.

I worked from 8:00 in the morning till 10:00 or 11:00 at night, although I really had to be at work at 7:45 a.m. to clean the factory. I worked everyday. The factory never shuts down. In the first six months I did not have a single day off. When we work until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., the factory gives us a snack at 7:45 p.m. of a small banana and a biscuit. It is worth about 4 to 5 taka. I got paid 900 taka a month [$15.18; 7 cents an hour).

After six months I became a junior sewing operator. My job was to sew the flaps on the back pockets of these pants. I had to sew 120 pieces an hour. It was difficult to reach. If you made any mistakes or fell behind on your goal, they beat you. They slapped you and lashed you hard on the face with the pants. This happens very often. They hit you hard. It is no joke.

Before shipments go out, I have to work 7 or 8 nights a month, from 8:00 in the morning till 3:00 a.m. Not everyone on the factory has to stay. Generally, it is the young junior sewing operators who have a hard time completing these targets. When we work till 3:00 a.m., they give us a break from 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. Sometimes we even have to work straight through to 7:00 in the morning.

When we finish at 3:00 a.m. we sleep in the factory. We lay our heads on our sewing tables and go to sleep sitting there. The factory floors are too dirty to lie down. In a year I get less than 10 days off. As a junior operator I get paid 1600 taka a month ($26.98; 13 cents an hour). We are forced to work 5 or 6 hours of overtime a night, but they cheat us of our proper overtime pay.

In our factory you are not allowed to talk. If the supervisors even see you move your lips or make a gesture to a friend, they cut your overtime pay as punishment. We work sitting on hard wooden stools with no backs or arm rests. But if you even stand up to stretch, they cut your overtime pay.

We are not allowed to drink water while we are working. But some of us try to sneak in little bottles of water. If the supervisors catch us drinking, they take the bottle away. If they see a drop of water on the table or the garment, they hit you and cut your overtime pay.

It is the same with the bathrooms. You need a toilet pass, and permission is given just 2 or 3 times in the day. The bathrooms are filthy with no toilet paper or soap. And if you spend too long there, they dock your overtime pay. The factory is very hot, and some days my whole dress is wet with sweat.

Sometimes foreign buyers come to the factory, and they talk with some workers, but it is always in the presence of management. Everyone knows that if we spoke the truth, we could be beaten and kicked out without our severance pay or back wages.

When workers reach 30 or 35, the factory forces them to leave, telling them they have to quit. Eighty percent of the workers are women 16 to 20 years of age. The minute the older women have trouble with their eyesight, they are forced out. In Western Dresses they don't pay the legal maternity benefits, so the pregnant women have to leave with nothing.

Robina talking to students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Other than the three dresses I wear, I own nothing, not even a cup or a plate. I live in one room with eight people. Five people sleep in the bed and three on the floor. Among us is a couple, which makes me feel very shy. The bed is just a wooden platform without a mattress. The tin roof over our room leaks. So if it rains at night, we have to put out bowls to collect the water. We have to sit up and cover ourselves with plastic until the rain stops. 36 people share one water pump, an outhouse, and two gas burners for cooking. I clean my teeth with my finger, using ash. I can't afford a toothbrush or toothpaste. Lots of other garment workers are like me.

I go to work with no money, so I have to walk 25 minutes each way. As I cannot afford an umbrella, when it rains I get soaking wet, and have to work like that, with my dress all wet. It makes you feel miserable.

I mostly eat rice, potato and mashed radish, and also lentils and some vegetables, and I only drink water.  I have never been to a cinema hall. I have never ridden a bike and I cannot afford a TV or radio. I have no relaxation in my life. No fun, or amusement. I never go out with my friends. We live only to work. Even living like this, I still have to borrow 400 taka a month to survive.

If I could get one day off a week, I could rest with a deep slumber.

I had to take off Friday, April 23. Fridays are supposed to be our day off. I came in and worked all day Saturday, April 24 till 10:00 p.m., but the supervisor docked me for both Friday and Saturday. I asked the supervisor why he did this, why he marked me absent when I worked on Saturday, and he responded, "Is this factory owned by your father?" Then he fired me, cursing very filthy words at me.

I never had a chance to go to school. When I was small I can remember going for just a few days. We were too poor for me to continue.

I never knew where the clothing I sewed was going. Surely I never dreamed that I would ever have the chance to come to the United States. But here I am. The other day we went into a Wal-Mart store and I found the clothes that my coworkers and I sewed.

Please help us win our rights. Thank you for hearing my story.

Back to Top

 

 

 Maksuda

Maksuda is 19 years old and has worked in the garment factories since she was 11. When she first started, as a helper in 1996, she earned just 2 cents an hour and 99 cents a week. Currently Maksuda, who also frequently sews Wal-Mart garments, is earning $8.34 a week, or 17 cents an hour. Maksuda is a single mother with a two-year-old daughter. The factory at which she was working during her pregnancy cheated Maksuda of her legal right to maternity leave at full pay. Her typical work schedule is from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., working six or seven days a week. It takes her 25 minutes to walk home at night, and it is only after she feeds her child, and washes and prepares their clothing for the next day that she can go to bed, usually around midnight. Like Robina, she gets up at 5:00 every morning. Both women have told us, "We have no life. We live only to work."

In the wake of the devastating floods, Maksuda's one-room house is still under two feet of filthy water and sewage. She has lost most of her possessions.

 

Masuma in her neighborhood. This is the way she took to go to work.

My name is Masuma [nickname for Maksuda].

I had to go to work in the garment factories when I was 11 years old. I started as a helper. The sound of the machines was so loud and the factory was so crowded with people that it made me feel dizzy and frightened, and so sick that I vomited a lot at the beginning. It is very punishing to work so early, and I felt very hurt, but I had no choice, because my family is very poor. I never had a chance to go to school.

At the factory, we worked from 8:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night. We worked everyday, seven days a week. At most we got one day off a month. Sometimes they let us out at 8:00 p.m. That was the earliest. Two or three times each month, we had to stay working all night from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. At the beginning, I earned 250 taka a month. [$4.25]

After two months I was promoted to sewing operator. Then, I moved to another factory, and later joined the Lucid Garments factory. When I had been worked at Lucid for a year and 3 months, I became pregnant. When I was in my seventh month, one day I became sick and my head hurt. I felt weak and nauseous. I couldn't keep up with the rapid pace of production and I asked my supervisor if I could take a break to rest. He screamed back at me that he did not want to hear anything about my being pregnant. "You are here to work," he said. "No," I said, "I need to rest. I can't work as hard." He said, "Leave the factory if you don't want to work."

I was sitting at the side of my machine. The supervisor was standing over me. Then he violently kicked me, hard, in the stomach and I fell to the floor. I fainted. My co-workers picked me up. I was crying. My co-workers went to the production manager and told him what had happened, and he let me go home that afternoon, but I had to come back the next morning.

After the supervisor knocked me down, I felt my baby shift. This happened two years ago. My daughter is now almost two years old. To this day, she has a bruise on her head and we have to be very gentle with her. If you touch it, she cries. The doctor says that eventually it will heal.

I worked until I was 8 ½ months pregnant, and when I couldn't work any more I asked the factory for my maternity leave and benefits. The law says we should be paid for six weeks before the birth and six weeks after. But the management said, "No, in the factory we do not have the law of maternity leave."

They just cheated me. But we workers are obliged to accept the management's decisions, there is nothing we can do.

Each month, I have to borrow money to survive. So when I was pregnant, I could not buy good food to help my baby grow. I could not buy vitamins or iron or calcium pills. Nothing. I had to borrow 10,000 taka [$169] to go to the hospital when my baby was born, and I am still paying off that debt at 500 taka a month with interest.

Soon after my daughter was born, I had to go back to work. I am again working from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week. Now I am earning 2,100 taka a month. [$35.14/month; 17 cents an hour].

I have been working so hard for 8 years, and I own almost nothing. What I own is just this: an old fan; a primitive wooden bed frame, but I can't afford a mattress; a broken metal rack; three pillows and 3 sheets, and 3 dresses.

I live with my mother. We have one room divided in two. We rent one side to four workers, who share one sleeping platform. On the other side is the sleeping platform that my mother and baby and I share.

I cannot remember the last time I ate an apple or an orange. I see people buy these things on the street, but I can only dream of them. We can't afford to buy fish or meat, or milk or baby food. We live on rice and lentils and water. Even living this way, I still have to borrow money each month to survive.

Robina, Maksuda and Ms. Sk Nazma in front of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire location in New York City

In the factories, we don't know who the foreign buyers are. We have no idea where the garments we make go. All we know is they go foreign. If we ask questions in the factory about such things, they say, "It is not your job to know this. Your job is to make the pants."

I never ever dreamed I would come to the United States. I had no idea where the United States was. I have never seen a picture of it. But here I am.

Now I know that it is you, American people, who buy the clothing we sew in Bangladesh. And I want to ask your help. We don't want a boycott. We need these jobs. But we want the companies to stop beating us, and torturing and abusing us. We want one day a week off. I need time to be with my daughter. The companies should pay us our overtime correctly and not cheating us as they always do. We are willing to work very hard, and with good quality. We will work 12 hours a day, from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 at night, six days a week. But it is wrong to force us to work until 10:00 at night every night, and the all night shifts to 3:00 a.m. are too cruel. Also, the companies should give us our maternity leave with pay as the law says.

Charlie [Kernahgan] and Barbara [Briggs] asked me what difference it would make if I could earn 4,500 taka a month. [$75.89/month; 37 cents/hour]. For me this would be a dream. It would be a great help. I could afford to buy milk for my baby, and baby food. I could repay my loans. I could buy fish and fruit sometimes. I could buy a new dress, so I could go out once in my life without having to wear my dirty dress from work. I would like to have some savings for when I get older.

Soon we will return to Bangladesh. Thank you for listening to my story. Please don't forget the garment workers in Bangladesh.

Back to Top

 

 

Ms. Sk Nazma

President of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS)

Herself a child worker, Sk Nazma started out as a helper in the garment factories when she was 10 years old. Eventually she attempted to organize one of the first unions in the garment sector-an effort that was met with mass firings, a lock-out and violent repression by factory management. BCWS's offices are a beehive of activity, overflowing with workers who come seeking help and training.

Right now, the BCWS, the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) and our other partners in Bangladesh are working around the clock to help the over-500,000 garment workers in the Dhaka area alone, who have lost their homes in this year's tragic floods. Many of the workers' homes are still under two to six feet of water (really more of a thick, sickening muck of sewage, garbage and mud.) Clean drinking water and food are rare, and disease is spreading rapidly. The emergency work of the NGWF and BCWS-distributing desperately needed food, water purification tablets and other necessities-is literally saving scores of lives. (Thanks to NLC member support in response to the request for flood relief donations, and a generous contribution from Anita Roddick, the NLC has been able to forward $22,000 in emergency aid to Bangladesh.)

Recently, the BCWS and NGWF won a major victory for the more than 1.8 million garment workers in Bangladesh, 85 percent of them women, when the government in Bangladesh along with 18 of the largest apparel companies in the world, finally agreed to respect women workers' right to three months maternity leave with full pay. The government is now saying they will extend the legal paid leave to four months.

 

My name is Sk Nazma. I am President of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Our mission is to accompany the over 1.8 million mostly-women garment workers in their struggle for social and economic justice.

I know that what these two young workers told you just now is the truth. I too was a child worker. I started in the garment factories when I was 11 years old.

It is common for our women workers to be forced to work from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week, while being cheated of their overtime pay, and even beaten.

But as you have heard already, we are not asking for a boycott. We need these jobs. In fact, we desperately need these jobs, since we are a very poor country. But we also demand that the workers be treated as human beings, with their rights respected, and paid a fair wage. And we want the right to organize more than anything else.

Right now there are well over 1.3 million garment workers in the Dhaka area, but there is not one single union with a contract-not one in any of these plants. The companies don't allow it. In our export processing zones, by law, we still have no right to organize.

But do not misunderstand. We are not just sitting around waiting for the companies to give us justice. We are fighting back. But we need your help and solidarity.

At the Pantex factory just outside Dhaka, the workers were being forced to work five hours overtime a day with no overtime pay. Instead of the legal 48-hour week, the company said the regular workweek would be 66 hours. They worked seven days a week, and they faced physical abuse. On November 3, 2003, the workers went on strike. They blocked a shipment of garments from leaving the factory. The factory owner called in the police, who opened fire killing six or seven workers. A 13-year-old girl was shot in the stomach. The police beat the workers with clubs. Scores were injured. You could hear the cries of the women from the factory. The police tied them together with rope like cattle. In the end, some small improvements were won. But it cost the blood of those brave workers.

Bangladesh has pretty good labor laws on paper. For example, garment workers have the legal right to three months maternity leave with full pay. Yet, 95 percent of the factories violate this right. They get away with this in broad daylight. The factory owners say, "We are the law" or "that law does not apply in my factory."

In Bangladesh, we started a campaign jointly with our sister organizations, the National Garment Workers Federation and others. Working together, we wrote to all 3,700 garment factories demanding that they respect the maternity leave laws. We organized demonstrations. We marched. We distributed popular education brochures to the workers. We put posters up all over the factory areas. We talked to the media, and we held a conference which even government officials felt they had to attend.

In the United States, with the help of the National Labor Committee, a simultaneous campaign was launched, and today 19 of the largest apparel companies in the world have signed a pledge that anyone sewing their garments in Bangladesh will be guaranteed her legal maternity leave with full pay.

In fact, at our conference, the government Labor Minister even pledged to extend the paid maternity leave to four months. But we will believe the government and the companies only after we see some action.

You know, a few months ago, in July and August, Bangladesh was devastated with the worst floods in 30 years. In Dhaka, tens of thousands of garment workers' homes were under two to three feet of water. Maksuda's house was like that. They tried to live on the roof, but couldn't and had to flee. There were big outbreaks of dysentery malaria and dengue fever. There was no clean drinking water. Much of the city was under filthy water mixed with sewage, garbage and mud. The workers had no food.

I want to thank you. Because of your great solidarity, we were able to rescue thousands of workers and their families. With your contributions, we and our sister organizations were able to distribute water purification tablets, oral re-hydration saline solution, food, blankets and medicines. Your solidarity saved lives.

I want to say that we are very worried about 2005, when the World Trade Organization will lift the textile and apparel quotas, because we hear that so much work will go to China. If Bangladesh loses tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs, it will be a disaster. Seventy-five percent of Bangladesh's export earnings are from garments.

In this global economy, international solidarity is more critical than ever. It seems that all of us must struggle together to defend women's and workers rights, fair wages and the right to organize. This is our only hope. It might seem like nothing to you, but if our garment workers could earn 4,500 taka as a base wage-which is about 37 cents an hour in American dollars-it would make a huge, positive difference in our lives. Also, the workers need one day off a week. These are some of our struggles.

Thank you for your solidarity!


Back to Top