Working for Workers

KAMIA RATHORE In April of 2013, an eight-story garment factory outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers.  It was the deadliest garment-factory collapse in history, and it was completely preventable.

United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) invited a survivor from the building collapse, Mahinur Begum, on campus to raise awareness for their solidarity initiative. Ms. Begum shared her experiences with translation help from Kalpona Akter, an activist and former factory worker from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.

Ms. Begum, 18, started working in factories at age 13 to help support her family. Working in Raza Plaza, she suffered emotional and physical abuse as she and other factory workers were financially coerced into working long shifts in hazardous conditions with fear of no pay.

Mahinur Begum arrives at a Children's Place in Miami where she spotted the pants she sewed before the factory collapse.

On the day of the collapse, workers gathered outside of the building, refusing to go in because of the apparent instability of the building. Managers forced Ms. Begum and others inside and told them to begin working, but the building quickly began to collapse. Ms. Begum recounted the terror of being trapped under several machines and heavy concrete—how she could hear the yells of her coworkers, and how she quickly lost consciousness.

Ms. Begum received treatment at a Dhaka hospital, but after 20 days, was forced out. She paid medical bills with borrowed money and the slim compensation she received from the accident (roughly $1100 USD—less than a year’s salary). Ms. Begum tried to find factory jobs afterwards, but her untreated PTSD rendered her unable to function in a factory setting. She currently is unable to pay for medication and suffers long periods of pain due to her injuries.

Ms. Begum pointed to a lack of compassion and a drive for profit that caused the preventable factory collapse.

“I believe that if the brands [that outsource these factories] took responsibility and treated us as humans, this accident would have never happened,” - Mahinur Begum

Kalpona Akter spoke briefly about the initiatives and movements that have come since the collapse. Over 200 companies using Bangladeshi factories have signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which requires companies to have safe working environments, promote workers’ voices in factories, and ensure that inspections are more thorough and transparent.

“The changes and improvements made are huge steps forward”, Ms. Akter said. She worked in a factory in Bangladesh nearly 20 years ago, at age 12. She was drawn to activism after a successful strike and attending a legal workshop that she says changed her life. A union leader at 15, Ms. Akter was blacklisted and arrested multiple times, but never stopped advocating for workers’ rights.

USAS looks to pressure Bangladeshi factories that haven’t signed the Accord by convincing colleges to cancel contracts with the offenders. It’s a strategy that’s worked before—in 2009, USAS persuaded the company Russell Athletics to compensate workers in a Honduran union dispute, raise factory standards, and allow the workers to unionize with collective bargaining by pressuring colleges to cancel their contracts with the company.

“NOT ANOTHER RANA PLAZA.”

After the event, the group of roughly 40 activists made their way through campus chanting in solidarity. There’s a long way ahead until they reach their goal of getting all university-contracted companies to sign the Accord, but USAS is marching forward.

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