Bangladeshi Workers Recount Collapse
Published: Friday, February 14, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 14, 2014 02:02
The Georgetown Solidarity Committee, in coordination with the United Students Against Sweatshops organization, held an event on Wednesday with survivors of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, discussing the struggle for safe workplaces in the wake of deadly factory disasters.
According to USAS International Campaigns Coordinator Garrett Strain, poor conditions in factories are becoming a growing issue because of the competition between factories to produce goods at a lower price.
“It puts factory owners in a position that they are operating on such low margins that there is not even enough money left over to do basic things like make their factory safe for their workers,” Strain said. “No factory owner wants to operate a factory that could burn down or collapse at any minute.”
USAS, founded in 1997, is an independent monitoring organization that investigates working conditions in factories all over the world that produce collegiate apparel. Its goal is to put pressure on factories to improve labor conditions and to pressure universities not to do business with companies with unhealthy working environments.
Last year, USAS ran a campaign against Adidas after the apparel conglomerate refused to pay $1.8 million in severance pay to disadvantaged workers. The campaign produced the largest collegiate boycott of a major sportswear company in history, after which 17 universities ended their contracts with Adidas, including Georgetown. Adidas came to an agreement in April 2013 to compensate 2,700 former Indonesian garment employees.
“That victory came about because of students like you who made an intentional decision to stand in solidarity with workers on the other end of the supply chain,” Strain said.
The guest speakers at Wednesday’s event, Kalpona Akter and Reba Sikder, have spent years working in Bangladeshi factories.
Sikder, 19, was trapped in the rubble of the Rana Plaza for two days before she was finally rescued. She is now actively involved in organizing efforts to reform Bangladeshi labor practices. Akter translated the story on her behalf.
“I started as a domestic worker when I was seven years old,” Sikder said. “When I was 14 years old, I began to work as a factory worker in an attempt to earn more money.”
When Sikder finally found job stability at Rana Plaza, she was paid $90 a month for 110 hours of work per week. Her shifts lasted on average from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. On top of the low pay and long hours, the working conditions at the Rana Plaza were subpar.
“One day, after working two hours, I saw that my coworkers were rushed to leave the factory,” Sikder said. “There was a crack in the building and that’s when they said we should go home now and come back at 2 p.m.”
When they came back to work, managers told the workers that the building was fine and that they should come to work the next morning. The next morning, though, workers were in a dilemma whether they should go inside or not.
“Managers started yelling at them and said ‘Are you afraid to die? Let’s go inside and die together,’” Sikder said. “Then I went to the machine and started my work. When they started the generator, I heard one big sound and everything started collapsing.”
Sikder then remembers regaining consciousness and struggling to find her way around in the darkness. Sikder recounted the screaming and crying of her coworkers from every direction. She found a way out when a coworker felt air from outside.
“Suddenly, one of my coworkers found that there was some air coming from outside,” Sikder said. “We saw someone breaking the wall and rubble and we started screaming and finally he heard our voice.”
Sikder was rescued after two and a half days of being trapped in Rana Plaza. She broke down into tears when she recalled losing many of her coworkers. Sikder has used this traumatic experience as her motivation for fighting against poor working conditions in Bangladesh and abroad.
“I want my compensation and all of the factories to be safe for us,” Sikder said.
Akter is a former child garment worker herself but now serves as an internationally recognized labor rights advocate. She travels from university to university with USAS to spread her history of factory labor.
“It’s happening because of the huge ignorance from the factory owners, the government, and especially from the companies who let our workers die in these factories,” Akter said.