Skip to main content

The bloodshed behind our cheap clothes

By Kalpona Akter, Special to CNN
updated 9:48 AM EDT, Fri May 3, 2013
Members of the Bangladesh army pray at the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar near Dhaka on Tuesday, May 14. The army-led effort to search for bodies has ended nearly three weeks after the nine-story building collapsed. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/14/world/asia/bangladesh-building-collapse-aftermath/?hpt=hp_t2'>The final death toll stands at 1,127</a>. Members of the Bangladesh army pray at the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar near Dhaka on Tuesday, May 14. The army-led effort to search for bodies has ended nearly three weeks after the nine-story building collapsed. The final death toll stands at 1,127.
HIDE CAPTION
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Photos: Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Photos: Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
Building collapses in Bangladesh
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kalpona Akter: Deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh was inevitable, considering conditions
  • Akter started work in Bangladesh's garment industry at 12, working 23 days in a row
  • Akter: 1,000 Bangladeshi workers have died since 2006 in factory fires or accidents
  • Akter: Multinationals that buy cheap clothing need to demand safety and pay living wages

Editor's note: Kalpona Akter, a former child laborer, is executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.

(CNN) -- For workers of Bangladesh, the worst kind of tragedy imaginable struck last week when the Rana Plaza garment factory building -- just outside my home city of Dhaka -- collapsed, killing more than 500 workers. Despite the many warnings of dangerous cracks in the walls reported to supervisors, police and the media earlier in the week, thousands were still sent to work on Wednesday to proceed with business as usual.

There's no question that this building collapse is tragic, but for garment workers, it's not surprising.

I began working in Bangladesh's garment industry at the age of 12, making just $3 a month. I went to work because my father had a stroke and the family needed money to cover basic living expenses. I worked 23 days in a row, sleeping on the shop floor, taking showers in the factory restroom, drinking unsafe water and being slapped by the supervisor.

Bangladesh vs. the U.S.: How much does it cost to make a denim shirt?

By the time I was a young woman working at a factory that made clothing for a big U.S. retailer, I knew the time had come for change.

The factory owed my coworkers and me overtime wages, but it wanted to pay us only half of what we had earned, making it even harder for us to support our families. So I helped lead a strike to hold our manager accountable.

Kalpona Akter
Kalpona Akter

I was fired and blacklisted, but my work was far from over. I later learned labor law, English and computer skills so that I could help win justice for garment workers. Today I lead a worker education and advocacy nonprofit that counts tens of thousands of garment workers as members.

Opinion: Who really pays for our cheap clothes?

The sad reality is that tragedies like this have become business as usual, advanced by some of the most highly profitable American and international corporations in the world.

I began working in Bangladesh's garment industry at the age of 12, making just $3 a month.
Kalpona Akter

Last November, 112 workers lost their lives when the Tazreen Fashions factory, which produced garments sold by Wal-mart, Sears and other retailers, caught fire. Much like New York's infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire more than 100 years ago, the workers at Tazreen were trapped inside, with many jumping from upper story windows to try to save themselves. The death toll at Bangladeshi factories stands at nearly 1,000 since 2006, based on estimates by the Bangladeshi government and an advocacy organization.

In the case of these two recent tragedies, there is plenty of blame to go around -- from the Bangladeshi government for looking the other way at safety violations, to the incredibly dangerous circumstances workers face when they try to unionize, to the pressure factory owners and managers are under to turn out high product volume at low prices no matter what.

A woman mourns before a mass burial in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Wednesday, May 1, seven days after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in nearby town Savar.
A woman mourns before a mass burial in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Wednesday, May 1, seven days after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in nearby town Savar.

It is the responsibility of the government of Bangladesh to make a sustained, concerted effort to rectify the dire situation. Strict, well-enforced factory codes and clear support for workers' rights are paramount to protecting Bangladesh's garment workforce.

But more tragedies can be prevented only if the multinational corporations and retailers whose goods are produced at these factories are willing to stand up and do what is right.

A coalition of labor and non-governmental organizations in Bangladesh, Europe and the United States has developed a protocol for an innovative two-year inspection and renovation program to finally make these factories safe -- the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.

Pressure on Bangladesh over labor
Why Bangladesh said no to aid
Did Western brands fail factory workers?
The high cost of cheap clothing

In addition to facilitating government-supported employer-labor relations and stringent oversight of factory safety management, this protocol focuses on the responsibility of brand owners and retailers to support safety standards.

If Wal-mart and its fellow retailers that count on Bangladeshi labor demand change, we can be sure it will happen. As the protocol states, these corporations must verify that the factories they use comply with applicable safety standards. They must ensure that their pricing of garments makes it feasible for the factories to stick to standards. No longer should a Bangladeshi factory manager feel forced to pressure his employees to work in a deadly environment to meet a corporation's bottom line.

As for the tragedies that have already taken place, these brands should contribute to worker compensation funds for victims and victims' families, including those in the fire at Tazreen. To date, Wal-mart and Sears have refused to contribute. Both companies maintain that subcontractors had used the factory without their authorization, so they are not responsible. I single out Walmart because its past actions have been painfully inadequate. Walmart has refused to sign onto the protocol designed to enhance fire safety and improve factory structures, saying it is putting its own standards in place, which are perfectly adequate. Yet those are Band-Aid measures that are woefully insufficient.

Last fall, Wal-mart refused to admit its connection to the Tazreen factory until my colleagues and I went there the day after the fire and photographed products with Wal-mart's labels in the wreckage. We must no longer tolerate this willful ignorance on the part of multinational corporations about where their goods are produced.

It's high time that companies like Wal-mart, The Gap, and others step up and demand the safety of Bangladesh's garment workers. Too many Bangladeshi workers live and work in fear for their lives each day. The fire safety protocol is a critical first step to making real change, and I urge Wal-mart to become a leader in the fight to save Bangladeshi lives.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kalpona Akter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT