M A Shahid :: Kalpona Akter, a long serving Bangladesh garment sector union leader was last week arrested in New Jersey while protesting at a retail centre demanding US companies do more to compensate victims of the Rana Plaza garment factory fire which claimed over 1100 lives and left up to 2500 people horrific lifelong injuries.
Miss Akter, was protesting ahead of the second anniversary of the tragedy. She is touring American university raising awareness. 18-year-old survivor, Mahinur Begum, who started work at age 13, is with her.
Miss Begum survived several hours covered in heavy debris and dust in the building fire until pulled to safety related to reporters that she endured 14-hour working shifts and said emotional and physical abuse was present.
The Rana Plaza perhaps due to the number of victims focused international attention on the burgeoning garment sector that has had accidents, fire incidents and poor working conditions blighting the sector for years. The sector employees around 4 million workers in cosmopolitan areas in high rise buildings often hurriedly constructed using substandard materials and bypassing local safety requirements. The sector is notorious for using cheap labour, often women working in cramped unsafe conditions, child labour exploitation and health and safety breaches; not unlike the long gone Dickensian sweatshops of London’s east end rag trade. The sector attracts foreign revenue to the tune of £15 billion per annum and is only second to China for supplying western companies with readymade garments.
Kalpona Akter, a former child labourer in a garment industry with a colleague, founded the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) in 2001. Their aim is to promote worker rights and “establish a congenial atmosphere in the working place to increase productivity and contribute to the national economy.” A non-political non-governmental organization, BCWS is widely known for its credible research on labour rights compliance in the ready-made-garment factories and is committed to lawful means of redressing labour rights violations.
The garment sector supplies top fashion companies in the west such as Benneton, Matalan, Wallmart and Gap. The Rana Plaza tragedy was a wakeup call after previous incidents and worsening conditions for workers.
It raised issues about ethical fashion and some companies have been shamed into taking a more proactive action to address worker safety and conditions forcing many factory owners to implement some basic safety changes including basic fire safety training and equipment such a fire extinguishers. The factories are making improvements under pressure from union leaders and international buyers such as Gap and Primark and a victim compensation fund has been set up but campaigners say this is woefully inadequate. However, the companies’ claim they can only achieve so much as it is for the Bangladeshi government to work with factory owners to improve conditions enabling this market to continue creating much-needed jobs in Dhaka and elsewhere in Bangladesh.
New Jersey police say Miss Akter will now face a charge of trespassing and will appear in Court 0n 24