On Wednesday, Oct. 27, students at the College witnessed direct testimonies of the severe injustice experienced by garment factory workers in Bangladesh through a nationwide campaign entitled “25 Cents More.”
The campaign, which emphasizes protecting factory workers’ rights and persuading clothing retailers to charge an extra 25 cents for each Bangladesh-made garment sold to increase the workers’ wages and improve their living conditions, bought three native Bangladeshi women to Brower Student Center to speak of their experiences.
These speakers included factory workers Robina Akther, 18, and Maksuda, 19, and Sk Nazma, who is president of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Their accounts were translated by Rafiq Alam of the National Labor Committee (NLC).
Representing the workers was Charles Kernaghan, director of NLC. Their life stories illustrate an “enormous gulf between people who make our products and people who purchase them.”
These women produce clothing for large American corporations like Wal-Mart, but most do not even know what Wal-Mart is. This is partly due to the corporations’ failure to protect their workers’ legal rights. Although their rights exist on paper, many factories in Bangladesh do not acknowledge them.
The purpose of the Bangladesh Workers’ Tour is both to inform others of these injustices and to promote reform.
The rights the workers do not get include extra time off from their six to seven days a week at the factories, maternity leave and benefits, and an end to the brutality of supervisors.
“I have to sew 120 pieces an hour. It is difficult to reach,” Akther said. “If you make any mistakes or fall behind on your goal, they beat you.” Akther said she works 14 plus hour shifts at 13 cents an hour.
Maksuda does not do much better at 17 cents an hour. While pregnant she found no sympathy from her supervisors. When she felt too tired to continue one day, her supervisor kicked her violently in the stomach. To this day, her daughter has a bruise from the incident.
“Still, the most tragic part is that I have been working eight and a half years now but have nothing in my room,” Maksuda said.
She said she barely earns enough to support her daughter. Workers’ meals consist of small portions of rice and lentils, and sometimes up to eight people can live in one room. Tired and mistreated at work, the women return home to no comforts or luxuries.
This is why, the speakers said, a 20-cent raise to their wages would mean so much. At the very least, they said, it would allow them to buy more nutritious food.
Although they may sound meager to the average working-class American, these goals are extremely difficult to achieve.
“While the trademarks and products of companies are protected by enforceable laws, the factory workers are not,” Kernaghan said. “Companies say that to protect these workers would be an impediment of free trade.”
The women now understand where the garments they make are sent, and who eventually buys them. They asked that students who are interested in correcting this problem get involved or pay the extra 25 cents themselves through donation even if the companies do not charge it.
After coming to American on the Bangladesh Workers’ Tour, the women of Bangladesh said they have no lives other than to work in the factories, therefore, they do not expect reform to come overnight. They made it clear that even the slightest improvement would mean the world to them.