Sweatshop Foes Rally For Improved Conditions

Bangladeshi Garment Workers Seek Help From College Students



Marching to the steady beat of homemade percussion instruments, a group of anti-sweatshop activists descended upon the academic spine Monday afternoon, awakening UB's often-sleepy campus with chants and cries for economic justice.

The rally, which kicked-off UB's "Sweatshop Day of Action," was part of a national campus-based campaign sponsored by the National Labor Committee for Human Rights that calls on universities to maintain their contracts for logo-bearing apparel in Bangladesh while improving factory conditions in the impoverished country.

NLC executive Charles Kernaghan and a contingent of garment workers from Bangladesh joined the rally to expose the plight of the Bangladeshi people and implore U.S. students to help in the fight against sweatshop labor.

"In Bangladesh, in our factories, we are being treated as animals, as dogs. We would like to be treated as human beings," said Rafiq Alam, a translator for the garment workers. "Because we produce and you consume you can put pressure on the companies so that they can improve their conditions, so they can keep jobs in Bangladesh."

The approximately 50 participants included students from the UB Environmental Network and Friends of NYPIRG, in addition to representatives from Communications Workers of America Local 14177, a local union currently on strike from the New Era Cap plant in Derby, N.Y. Union members were protesting wage cuts and safety concerns at the Derby plant as well as New Era factory conditions in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

"What's going on over there [Bangladesh], little by little they're bringing those conditions to the United States," said Carmella Kron, a CWA 14177 member.

UB holds a contract with New Era for university-logo athletic caps.

Waving signs proclaiming "UB profits from sweatshop labor," "Did a 12-year old make your clothes" and "UB and New Era: Partners in Disgrace," the group marched from the Student Union to the University Bookstore and Alumni Arena, ending with a presentation in front of Capen Hall, which houses the offices of top UB administrators.

One group of students hoisted a poignant cardboard model labeled with the names of companies notorious for alleged sweatshop abuses, including Nike and the Gap. The sign depicted a drill boring into a factory worker.

While the rally attracted much attention from passersby, some of whom joined in, perhaps the most poignant demonstrations came from the mouths of the garment workers themselves.

Janu Akther, Nasrin Akther and Sheikh Nazma addressed the crowd through Alam's translation, describing the conditions they faced everyday in Bangladeshi factories in an interview prior to the rally.

"In our factories we don't get any day off in a weekend. We can say, in a month, we barely get even one day off," said Alam, who added that Bangladeshi factories are operational seven days a week.

"In our factories, it is very hot, very crowded, very noisy, there isn't enough windows, it's poorly ventilated and the supervisor makes a target that's more than we can produce," he said.

According to Alam, there are about 3,500 garment factories in Bangladesh. The workforce, 85 percent of which is female, labors in 13 to 14 hour shifts.

Janu Akther, a 22-year old woman who began working in a factory at the age of 12, made baseball caps like the University of Wisconsin hat she brought along with her to the interview.

Akther's production line is required to manufacture 370 caps every hour, and, she said, is placed under constant pressure to expedite the production process. The young woman, who spoke earnestly and eagerly with an innocence incomprehensible in light of her experience, said that when someone made a mistake, supervisors would "hit them, strike them, zap them with scissors, beat them with sticks and sometimes dock their salary."

Alam said workers like Akther earn a monthly salary of $16.31 -equivalent to eight cents an hour - less than the cost of buying the cap in the United States.

When asked whether people in Bangladesh could survive on $16.31 per month, the women responded with a unanimous, emphatic "no."

"They've been working since they were 12, and if they were to die tomorrow, they can't be buried; they don't have a single cent," Kernaghan said.

A common argument leveled against the anti-sweatshop movement is that exploitative jobs are better than no jobs at all. The Bangladeshi workers agreed that they relied on jobs provided by U.S.-based multinationals for their existence, but pleaded for improved conditions.

"In Bangladesh we have massive unemployment. We need these jobs desperately. If we don't have these jobs then we'll be without food and we'll be thrown out on the streets," Alam explained.

"We don't want boycotts. We want jobs, but with improved conditions, with respect, with honor, with dignity, with human rights," he added.

Alam said Bangladesh has good labor laws, but the policies are largely ignored by factories and government inspectors who are often bribed by plant owners.

"There are laws that could be implemented by the owners, but they don't care about the laws because the owners of these factories are very elite classes of the society. ... They are very powerful. The government cannot act against them," he said.

The workers themselves, according to Kernaghan, lack the ability to organize and speak out against their employers. Workers who protest wages, hours or other conditions, he said, are fired and blacklisted from future employment.

Alam and the women who are currently touring the country and exposing their factory conditions are taking a big risk, Kernaghan said.

"If the owners know that we are here to start a campaign to protect our rights and improve conditions, it is likely that we would be fired. But we think, for the greater interest of the workers community, we should initiate this campaign. Otherwise, the conditions will deteriorate," Alam said. "We will not go back to the factories because we'll be fired and we may be attacked by the owners. We have plans to help them find employment in other sectors."

Nazma, for example, has secured a job as president of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.

"When you do a tour like this, you have a huge responsibility. It's not a game. They're going back to real conditions and the potential for real attacks and suffering ... We'll make sure not one hair on their heads is hurt."

Alam issued a plea on behalf of Bangladeshi workers, asking American college students to take up the cause of sweatshop workers and investigate the conditions under which a university's logo-bearing hats and apparel are produced.

"This is our appeal to you," said Alam. "Please, put pressure on the companies so that we can have our work without shutting down factories and at the same time we can have our rights as workers."

The national speaking tour is part of NLC's "Holiday Season of Conscience to End Child Labor and Sweatshop Abuses." The campaign is slated to appear at universities in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Alabama in addition to numerous stops in New York.