Surviving a sweatshop

Aleya Akter (right), and Aklima Kahanam (left), sign a letter regarding sweatshops and working conditions in Bangladesh, Monday, April 1.

When the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh last year, more than 1,000 workers died.

Yesterday, United Students Against Sweatshops brought a survivor of this deadly event and an advocate for workers’ rights to speak at WSU.

Aleya Akter, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment & Industrial Workers Federation, and Aklima Khanam, survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse, spoke to students about their experiences in the Bangladesh sweatshop industry and the current attempts of workers to unionize.

Khanam, a 20-year-old garment worker, told the audience her experience working in the Rana Plaza building, as well as her story of surviving the massive collapse, through the translation of Selina Akter, the president of the WSU branch of USAS.

Khanam said she has worked in the garment industry seven days a week from 8 a.m. until midnight for the last six years, and often suffered abuse while on the job.

She told her story of the building collapse, and said the day before the collapse bricks from the building were falling on workers, but the managers told them to return the next day anyway.

When the workers returned the next day, Khanam said managers forced them to enter the building, threatening to cut wages or take away jobs. After working for only 40 minutes, the building began to collapse, she said.

Khanam was trapped in the building under a piece of machinery for 12 hours, and said she can no longer work due to the injuries she endured.

“If we had unions in our factory, they could probably speak up about the safety conditions,” Khanam said through Akter. “An accident could have still happened, but probably not as many worker’s lives would have been lost.”

Garrett Strain, a national organizer for USAS, explained how the global garment industry operates, and how this creates an unsafe environment for workers that make forming unions or protests difficult.

“In that environment it’s very difficult for workers to organize,” Strain said. “It has even resulted in factories not undergoing necessary repairs to keep their buildings safe.”

He explained that large companies, such as Nike, Adidas, Gap, and JanSport, subcontract the production of their clothing to factories around the world. He said Adidas alone has more than 1,000 factories across the globe.

Strain said companies’ reasoning behind this is that with a large number of factories, companies can get these factories to compete against each other for the highest production at the lowest cost.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in April 2013 is an example of the conditions workers are expected to endure, Strain said.

Aleya Akter then told her story of working in the garment industry. After facing years of abuse, she said she tried protesting.

“When I started to speak up and protest, my managers put me on suspension for a long time,” Aleya Akter said.

She said she began finding other ways to try and organize workers, attempting to unionize. Her first formal union was created two years ago, and in 2013 she helped start 25 more.

Aleya Akter then explained that a new accord is being petitioned in Bangladesh, titled the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, to help bring garment factories to an equal level of safety regulations.

“This accord will be a very powerful tool to stop future disasters,” Aleya Akter said.

While the management of the factories are often the ones who carry out abuses and fail to bring buildings standards up to safe levels, she said the brands who subcontract the work of the factories are ultimately responsible, as they turn a blind eye to the dangers that are posed to workers.

Strain passed around a petition during the presentation for students to sign in support of having WSU ask the clothing companies that have contracts with the university sign the accord.

“If I as a consumer don’t buy JanSport, they won’t blink an eye,” Strain said. “If WSU terminates its multi-thousand dollar contract with JanSport, that makes a difference.”

Students in the audience asked several questions regarding what role they could potentially play in lessening their effect on the garment industry, but Strain emphasized the importance of pressuring the university to make the big changes.

“That’s a far more powerful action you can take as a student than any other individual consumer decision you can make,” Strain said.

Mark Jennings, junior electrical engineer major, said even though the university holds the largest purchasing power compared to students when it comes to many of these brands, he still feels empowerment from the influence students have over the university.

“The real solution truly is more on our end,” Jennings said. “This might be the solution, basically getting college students to stop being apathetic.”

More than 20 students helped deliver the signed petition and a letter to President Floyd’s office yesterday, where they were received by his executive assistant.