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Bangladeshi Workers: Still Fighting

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I want to take you back, perhaps in the Wayback Machine, to the lost age of 2013. If we can open the creaky vaults of our memories, we might recall that 1,138 workers died to make your clothes and clothes for other westerners at the Savar building in Bangladesh. I know, that might be a fuzzy memory at best, since no one actually cares what happens to these workers or wants to do anything to help them not die. But that doesn’t mean these workers aren’t still fighting for dignity.

“Please don’t cut off my hair,” Bobita sobbed to the attending doctor in the emergency ward of the Centre for Women and Children Health hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as he prepared to stitch up the gaping wound at the back of her head.

On Monday, January 13th, 22-year-old Bobita Akhter joined thousands of textile workers in Bangladesh—the world’s second largest garments exporter—to protest for fairer wages. Last month, the government raised the minimum monthly wage for textile workers to Tk 8,000 from Tk 5,300. But an overwhelming number of workers claim they didn’t see a significant pay increase when they received their monthly salaries in January. This incited a series of protests that started on January 6th. Workers took to the streets to block the airport, allegedly set buses on fire and vandalized cars. Police, in return, responded by firing tear gas, water cannons and swinging batons at the protesters. One protester reportedly died.

Other protests, however, were less violent. Workers walked out of factories, refusing to work until the wage issue was addressed. Bobita was a part of one of these strikes, joining a procession of workers who staged a walkout after their lunch break.

“Everyone was running in different directions and I was trying to escape through a side street when a brick hit me on the back of my head,” Bobita explained.

She thinks it was either the police or security hired by factory owners that threw the brick at her.

“We throw bricks at the factories or if things get really violent, we throw it at the police, but we’re not going to hurt one of our own, that’s how I know it was someone from their side,” she said.

Bobita works for the NASSA group, where she is responsible for sewing up to 80 pockets an hour on women’s jeans for ZARA. Women like Bobita, who started working in the industry at 16 years old, make up 80% of the 4 million RMG (Ready Made Garments) workers in over 4,500 factories in Bangladesh. The industry has transformed Bangladesh’s economy, contributing 83.49% to Bangladesh’s total exports of $36.66 billion and will play a large part in Bangladesh’s plan to move from a developing country to a middle income country by 2021. The industry has also played a significant role in economically empowering Bangladeshi women from vulnerable socioeconomic classes. Traditionally, these women worked as domestic help in people’s homes for paltry wages with almost no days off but the textiles industry provided them jobs with more dignity and the promise of economic freedom.

“Working in the garments industry means that I don’t have to depend on my family,” Bobita said. “Women like me are independent and we don’t have to suffer abuse by our husbands or in laws. But we deserve living wages.”

Bangladesh is a nation lead by a woman prime minister and its economy is also largely reliant on women, but the average textiles worker makes less than $100 a month, about one-quarter of the suggested living wage—TK 37, 661 or $448 USD—by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international alliance of trade unions and labour rights activist who are working together to demand garment workers are paid a living wage.

You know, we could actually do something here to help these workers. We could hold our companies accountable for their supply chains and work with Bangladeshi laborers to ensure that they receive that minimum wage by creating a legal framework to prosecute the companies who contract with these factories. I’ve even written a book about this and then expanded upon the legal structures to start moving this process forward, not that anyone cares or is going to even ask a single Democratic presidential nominee about these issues so we can move forward on it the next time we have power.

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