Bangladesh garment workers demand US retailers “End Death Traps”

Sumi Abedin, left, and Kalpona Akter, center, lead local demonstrators in protests at The Gap Tuesday.  Akter is the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Abedin is a survivor from the fatal factory fire in Dhaka in 2012 that killed more than 100 workers. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle TImes)Fires at garment factories in Bangladesh have killed more than 600 workers since 2006. This week a survivor visited Seattle to confront consumers with the human cost of cheap apparel. 

Five months ago Sumi Abedin jumped out of a third floor window at the garment factory where she worked. A fire was consuming the ground floor of Tazreen Fashions outside of Dhaka. She’d tried to escape at the first smell of smoke but discovered the exit had been padlocked by factory owners.

She jumped after a co-worker pried the bars from the window—but she wasn’t trying to save her life, just her body.

Bangladesh is the second leading exporter of garments (after China) but the industry has an abysmal fire safety record and labor activists in the country estimate that over 600 workers have died in factory fires since 2006. Abedin, 24, had worked in garment factories for five years and she knew what happened in fires.

“If I stayed in the factory I would be burned to ash,” said Abedin, through a translator, to an audience at the University of Washington this week, “I thought if I jumped at least my family could identify my body on sight.”

Abedin is in Seattle as part of the End Death Traps tour, which is visting ten US cities this month raising awareness about safety and labor concerns in Bangladesh’s garment industry. They hope to ensure full compensation to Tazreen fire victims as well as force corporations that manufacture in Bangladesh to sign on to a fire safety agreement.

“We’re wearing jeans made in Bangladesh,” says Reagan Jackson a community organizer at the local chapter of Making Change at Walmart, a national campaign fighting for better labor practices at the chain, “We’re directly complicit in their supply chain.”

In the charred rubble of Tazreen, where 112 people died, labor activists in Bangladesh found documents showing American chains, including Walmart, were supplied by the factory.

Walmart responded that they had stopped authorizing production at the factory and that “a supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies.”

Abedin is one of more than 3 million garment factory workersmany of them women—in Bangladesh today. Her father is a rickshaw puller and the $60 a month that she was paid at Tazreen (good pay in a country where minimum wage is more like $37 a month) helped her family survive.

Sumi Abedin, right, and Kalpona Akter lead local demonstrators in protests at The Gap and Walmart on behalf of workers rights for Bangladeshi garment workers. Akter is the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Abedin is a survivor from the fatal factory fire in Dhaka in 2012 that killed more than 100 workers. (Photo by Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

Sumi Abedin, right, and Kalpona Akter lead local demonstrators in protests at The Gap and Walmart on behalf of workers rights for Bangladeshi garment workers. (Photo by Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

She broke her arm and leg in the fall and was paid $1,200 for her injuries, money that’s almost entirely gone to medical bills now.

After her presentation at the UW I followed her outside and asked what she was going to do when she went home—if she would go back to a garment factory.

“I don’t want to,” she said twisting a white plastic bag full of Bangladeshi food someone had bought for her, “I’m really afraid that if I get a job in another factory there will be a fire again.”

It was an eerie prediction. That night the Rana Plaza building, which housed several garment factories collapsed in an industrial suburb of Dhaka. By the next morning over 200 were reported dead and more than 1,000 injured with the count rising every hour.

It was Abedin’s last day in the Pacific Northwest and The End Death Trap tour was headed to Renton’s Walmart. The original plan was to erect a makeshift memorial for the victims of Tazreen against the store’s outside wall.  But newly bought boxes of pink and white carnations were also included to honor the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse the night before.

Abedin, bundled up in a coat and scarf despite what most Seattlites would have described as a balmy morning, stood in front of a white scroll baring the names of her dead co-workers.

She had told me that the thing that surprised her most about America was that people that didn’t know her still cared about what happened to her. But as shoppers rattled their carts across the parking lot, many studiously avoiding the display, I wondered.

Then a young family, with a babbling toddler, strolled up asking what had happened.

“I don’t stand for lies or for things like this happening to other people” said Rachel Ziad anger rising in her face as she heard more details of the memorial, “If I had a way of knowing how to change it I would.”

After this last week, she’s not the only one that feels that way.

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

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