Although thousands of miles and drastically different lifestyles separate them, college students across the U.S. are pledging to stand in solidarity with factory workers in Bangladesh, where poor working conditions threaten their lives daily.
United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national student labor organization that fights for workers’ rights, hosted a worker speak out at Boston College on Wednesday night. The organization, working through the newly formed BC chapter, brought to campus two Bangladeshi garment workers who are traveling throughout the country to raise awareness about the unsafe working conditions and low wages that affect millions of factory workers not only in Bangladesh, but worldwide.
Their ultimate goal is to persuade brands to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord-a legally binding agreement between retailers, labor organizations, and non-governmental organizations to maintain minimum safety standards in Bangladeshi factories. On a local level, BC students have started a campaign for the University to do business only with brands that sign the accord.
“The reason we started this organization at the core was to bring the issue of conscious consumption to the table for BC’s campus,” said Achilles Aiken, A&S ’14.
Garrett Strain, a national coordinator for USAS, began the event by asking those in the audience to name brands they see in the BC Bookstore, and countries of manufacture for the clothes on their backs. Jansport, Under Armour, and Champion were some of the brands that were mentioned, and Strain explained how companies such as these use subcontractors to employ factory workers in developing countries, including Bangladesh, Taiwan, Thailand, and China, for the lowest possible cost.
Speaking through a translator, two women who worked in Bangladeshi factories then spoke about their experiences as workers and now advocates for their fellow laborers. First to speak was Aklima Khanam, a 20-year-old survivor of the Rana Plaza factory collapse that occurred in Bangladesh in April 2013 and killed over 1,100 workers. She began working in a factory when she was 14 years old, and, like her coworkers, she was frequently met with verbal abuse if she did not meet production quotas. She told the story of the factory collapse, and specifically how workers heard that the building was going to crumble, yet were still forced to go to work.
“The workers didn’t want to go in, but the management became physically abusive and forced us into the factory,” Khanam said.
That day-April 24-the factory collapsed, and those who were not killed were trapped. Khanam and three others were trapped under machines and rubble for 12 hours until they were rescued.
“We haven’t received any compensation from the brands that sourced to the factory or from the government,” she said. “If all of the brands that sourced to Rana Plaza had signed up for the accord for building safety in 2010, then so many workers would not have died.”
Following Khanam, Aleya Akter, the general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, spoke on the process of organizing workers to demand better rights. In 2006, she helped form a workers’ association, and when her company found out, she was suspended, observed under extreme scrutiny, threatened, and physically abused. Conditions in factories, Akter said, are worse than ever, and the accord requires officials to inspect factories.
“What we have come here to ask of you is this: if companies like Jansport and Columbia are willing to sign up to the accord, then fine, continue to do business with them,” Akter said. “But if they are not willing to sign up to the accord, then please, ask your universities to cut ties with them. We are requesting that everywhere along the supply chain … that you put pressure on them so that they sign the accord.”
Since last fall, 16 universities, including Duke, Georgetown, Brown, and Virginia Tech, have required their apparel brands to sign the accord as a condition of producing university apparel, and 10 brands that produce apparel in Bangladesh, including Fruit of the Loom and Adidas, have signed the accord.