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“It’s been a year of many fears for me,” Begum said as she discussed her work as a factory supervisor in a company that manufactures shirts. “But now they are very different from six months ago.
“I have seen many things since I moved to Dhaka from my home from southern Bangladesh. I have changed jobs from a knitwear factory, learned how to get better at my job, but this year our workers and our industry has really suffered,” she said, alluding to the numerous fires that have killed industry workers — an estimated 400 people in fires that were unreported, according to unofficial reports, and about 128 officially in the last year. The largest was the fire in November 2012 at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., which claimed 113 lives, with reports that the management locked the gates and did not let workers leave the premises when the first fire alert was sent out.
Begum said her concerns about building safety have been replaced by fears of countrywide anarchy given the political turmoil, which could require her to move back to her village, and to a life that was inured in poverty. “We are all scared that if the shipments cannot leave the factory, the factory owners will stop production and we will be out of a job,” she said.
Many of the garment workers at an evening meeting said that they dream of better lives for their children, and that their salaries are key to a better education for them. Bangladeshi banker and economist Muhammad Yunus observed that the growth of the garment industry has changed the lives of many workers. “The transformation process that Bangladesh is going through of empowering women who come from villages. These women move from a life of poverty to work in factories, live independently in cities away from their families and find change from rural norms. They earn their own money and gather economic strength. All of these factors have a profound impact on society and cause a slow and steady change,” he told WWD in an earlier interview.
Even as there are signs of change, workers admit there still is often an agreeable nod by employers on the surface but persecution when it comes down to brass tacks. “We were told it is OK to go ahead and form a union, but then we came to work and found a notice on the door saying that the factory would be closed for the next two days. It was a complete breakdown for our workers who need their daily wages,” said Abdul Rahman, a local leader on the factory floor in a large garment factory in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka.
As Farah Kabir, country director of Action Aid Bangladesh, said, “It’s a very mixed bag. As you follow the story there has been a lot of tension. It’s about how workers are being rehabilitated, about compensations to workers who have suffered and to their families; it’s about ad hoc responses from the government, tokenism and also real progress. There has also been individual and collective support for the workers from all over the world. Yet, there still remains a lot to be done.”
“These garment workers are working for millions of consumers and hundreds of global employers. We are all affected and we all need change,” B. Srinivasa Reddy, director of the International Labor Organization Country Office for Bangladesh, noted in November.
Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said garment workers in Bangladesh today still live in fear that another fire might rip through a factory or another building might collapse and kill them, despite efforts on multiple fronts to improve safety and working conditions. But workers are also aware of the international focus and effort to make their factories safer, which has given them some hope and raised the level of awareness, she added.
Akter, also a former garment worker who was blacklisted for trying to organize workers at a factory before she helped form the Center, said, “I think workers from Tazreen and Rana Plaza are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome….Their mind-set is that there can still be an accident at any time.”
As for the minimum wage increase, Akter said labor groups were seeking $100 a month.
“The $68 rate is still a poverty wage,” she said. “When workers ask for $100 and get $68, how do they have any dignity?”
Akter said less than 200 factories are registered to be unionized and less than 20 of those have collective bargaining agreements.
Akter said workers no longer feel as alone in the world.
“One of the improvements is that there is a [newfound] level of self-awareness,” she said. “Whenever these days they see a crack in a building or a spark [in a factory] they leave and say they will not come back until it is fixed,” crediting unions for talking to workers about their right to refuse dangerous work.
Despite what she sees as the multitude of shortcomings on the path to reform, Akter did not dismiss the significance of the moment for Bangladeshi workers.
“I think this is an historic turning point,” Akter said. “We are trying our best to use this opportunity, and the accord is one big piece of it. I believe worker justice starts with worker safety. They definitely have a brighter future, but it will be not be easy to get that — and we have a long way to go.”