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Sweatshop workers tell story

Published: Thursday, October 21, 2004

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

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Mariel Rodriguez-McGill

From left, Robina, a translator, Charles Kernaghan, Maksuda, and Sk Nazma talked to students about working conditions in Bangladesh´s sweatshops.

Cheap clothing from sweatshops has been a global issue that several organizations have tried to address this year. In an attempt to bring attention to this issue, the Global Justice Project (GJP) sponsored an event titled "The Bangladesh Workers' Tour," which brought teenagers from Bangladesh to campus to give a first-hand account of their experiences working in sweatshops that produce clothing for mass corporations like Walmart and Nike.

Bangladesh's garment industry is the main source of income for its citizens. This sector has been the most developed area of business due to its labor-intensive nature, simple technology, and small capital. As a result, 76 percent of the total exports coming from Bangladesh are produced by its garment manufacturers. The reality is that they are only able to produce massive amounts of clothing due to the inexpensive labor available throughout the country.

Robina, an 18-year-old teenage girl whose last name was not released, has been a factory worker at Western Dresses for about two years and earns 900 Takas, or $15.25, a month for making 150 pieces of back pocket flaps an hour. She talked about her experience with employers.

"If you made any mistakes or fell behind on your goal, they beat you," said Robina. "They slapped you and lashed you hard on the face with the pants." Her normal working day included sitting on a little wooden stool for 16 hours, inhaling the dust off the factory floor and being surrounded by the heat of the overcrowded factory.

"These people are the hardest working women in the world, but they're also some of the most abused," said Charles Kernaghan, the executive director of the National Labor Committee for Worker and Human Rights.

Maksuda, a 19-year-old and a single mother, has been a factory worker since she was 11. She became pregnant with her daughter at age 17 and found herself unable to keep up with the rapid production of goods. Her manager noticed her slow down and said that he didn't want to hear her excuses about being pregnant.

She tried to respond but according to her, "He violently kicked [her], hard, in the stomach and [she] fell to the floor. [She] fainted." She worked until she was eight and a half months pregnant and tried to ask for a legal maternity leave but was told that there was no law for this in the factory.

She had to quit her job and take out a loan to cover costs for the delivery of her baby. Soon after the birth, she had to go back to work and begin paying off her debts.

Not only were there first-hand accounts by teenage workers given at the forum, but also a speech from Sk Nazma, the president of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.

"[They] are not asking for a boycott. [They] need these jobs. In fact, [they] desperately need these jobs, since [they] are a very poor country," said Nazma. "But [they] also demand that the workers be treated as human beings, with their rights respected, and paid a fair wage. And [they] want the right to organize more than anything else."

There are about 1.3 million garment workers in Bangladesh but no union exists with a legal contract in any one of these factories. There are many established labor laws in Bangladesh, but none of them are applied in society because the local owners believe that they themselves are the law.

"These women can't win their rights in Bangladesh if they don't have a voice in North America and the biggest nightmare that corporations have are that we, the teenagers of America, become the voice of these workers," said Kernaghan when asked how BC's students could help with the workers' plight.

Kernaghan stated the difficulty in shopping smartly in order to avoid purchasing clothes manufactured in sweatshops. "There are no good companies where you are sure that what you are buying aren't child sweatshop-made clothes," he said.

He stated that a great way to help the plight of these abused workers is to build up the college's anti-sweatshop movement, currently undertaken by the Global Justice Movement.

This event was sponsored by the GJP, the Organization for Latin American Affairs, the Undergraduate Government of BC, and the Women's Resource Center. Other groups outside of BC involved in this event were the National Labor Committee, the Worker's Circle Forum and various groups that are involved in human labor rights throughout the world.

"Kernaghan, the executive director of the National Labor Committee, is the leading anti-sweatshop organizer, if not in the country, then in the world," said Charles Derber, a professor in the sociology department and adviser to the GJP. He also stated that this was an important event for BC, a university seeking to promote Jesuit ideals.

"In a Jesuit campus, it is quite important for these events to occur, since one of the core features of the Jesuit doctrine is that every worker is entitled to human dignity," said Derber. "Take a look at the bookstore; it now makes sure that the clothing they sell is not made from sweatshop labor. Simply, this event was sponsored to encourage students to get involved and be incensed at the conditions of sweatshop factories all over the world."

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