Sweat, Tears and Blood

By Zarin Nabar

A speech given at a One Struggle event,
July 28, 2013, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL

I was invited here to speak for few minutes on Imperialism and its effect on Bangladesh, which is where I am from. I was hesitant, because truthfully, I know nothing about imperialism or politics besides the basics politics which we all know of.  Then I realized I do understand, however, a little about what is going on in Bangladesh or in any other third world country that has got labor to offer to the rich countries. I realized I do understand when human lives are being exploited. I do understand when a female worker is being used and abused in every way possible. I do understand right from wrong, and when there are dead bodies piled up in front of a burned or collapsed factory, that somewhere, someone is responsible. I do understand that the expensive, showy, brand name clothing on that girl or boy has got blood on them. Some people do not see the blood, some people ignore the blood, but today’s discussion I hope can open a few eyes to the murder and bloodshed that is happening overseas for one piece of clothing that has got so much to tell.

The Bangladesh garment industry is the second largest exporter of clothing, after China, having 3 and half million garment workers, and the majority of them are women. The percentage of girls ranging from age 10 to 17 is unknown to me. Those children become  women at the age of 10, 11, or 12…as soon as they enter into a garment factory. They become numbers and statistics amongst three and a half million workers.

No more numbers. Now I am going to share with you what I have seen, read, heard, observed, and realized while growing up in Bangladesh. Our family had moved to Chittagong from another district when I was in the middle of 4th grade.  Chittagong is the district in Bangladesh where the first garment factory was built.  Chittagong has a large number of garment factories.  In Chittagong it is common for anyone to be familiar with garment workers.

My father was an accountant by profession. He worked in many companies including a garment factory where he was in charge of handing out the monthly salary to the workers. Many times he would come home and tell us how sad he felt when he had to inform the workers they would not be paid for the month because his boss just called and informed him that the workers would not get paid. He would describe the look on the workers face with such sad details.

The “help” or “servant,” (as they are called in Bangladesh) that we had was 17 years old. Her name was Aqlima, and she had worked in a garment factory for 3 years. Then she decided she would rather work at someone’s home rather than take the torture in the factory. The things I am going to say are based on my father’s experience, Aqlima’s experience and what is common knowledge in the general public in Bangladesh.

In our family, all of us were to wake up early in the morning to pray. After our prayer we would go to the roof of the building to enjoy a beautiful morning. The quiet street would not be filled with cars or noises yet. We would only see a group of garment workers walking. Sometimes a group contained as many as 15 females walking together followed by another group behind them.  Being only in the 4th grade, I would have many questions. Where are they going? Why before sunrise? If they are out on the street so early, how dark was the morning when they left home?

Gradually I was getting all the answers through family, friends, newspapers and very rarely television.

One sees garment workers all day long.  Before sunrise, after sunrise, on the way to school, after school, and late at night when we are coming back from a family member or a friend’s house.  They are regarded as the lower class people of the society.

Why do we see them? Why not any other working people? Is it because there are so many workers around? Then I realized, it is because they walk. While we are in a rickshaw, an auto rickshaw, in a taxi, or a bus, we see groups of garment workers walking.  They walk mile after mile after mile to reach to their factory, because they are not paid enough to pay for their transportation every day. They are not paid enough to eat or live well, so transportation is a luxury. They have got two legs for that, so they walk every day.  It does not matter how long a shift they have worked, and it does not matter how exhausted they are. It does not matter if they have reached home at 3 in the morning and will have to go back to work at 7 in the morning again. What does this walking do? It makes any 15 to  30 year old garment worker a target and a victim of rape, assault, and harassment on the street.

Every other day there was news of a garment worker being raped and left on the street. It would hardly be front page news, and even when it was, we all had gotten so used to it that we would just think it was a common story. They are so low in class, they do not have any higher connection for their rape case to reach higher media, or the money to pay for a good lawyer to fight their case. It only gets placed in a local newspaper. This is a common rape story of a garment worker.  I remember reading many similar stories as this in the newspaper.  Late at night, perhaps at 2 am, a garment worker no more than 15 years old, was on her way home from work, alone. She was beaten and raped by 3 men and left on the street to be found by a group of garment workers making their way to the factory for the morning shift. Suddenly, I understood the garment workers’ reason to be in a group, or to always to be with someone. It’s for their own safety! Does this cleverness always work out? No, not everyone lives in the same direction, not everyone has the same working shift. When a rape victim gathers courage to go to the police, the police merely yawn and say, “Who will get raped if not you? You garments girls are always on the street.”  A common conversation with friends at school, or with a cousin, or with a neighbor used to be like this, “Have you heard that another garment girl got raped again?” “Oh yes, so sad, and the police are just sitting there”. “Yes, so sad their life is. Anyway, when is your daughter getting married?”

(Garment girl is a very common phrase used by the Bangladeshi. In many cases those two words suffice when describing something regarding their job, accidents or lifestyle).

Even though Bangladesh is predominantly a Muslim country, the majority of  garment workers do not wear a burkha or a hijab. Most females will have on something similar to what I have on today (salwar kameez or 3 piece). And yet, they try and cover more and more while walking to their work. They try to cover their body in every way. Not because they are from a certain faith, but because they want to be less noticeable, less accessible on the street or at work to their co-workers, or to their supervisors.

After miles of walking, being verbally harassed and abused on the street, fighting all the odds, they reach work. One would think, “relief!”  However, it is depressing to know that they reach work only to be beaten, sexually harassed, and verbally abused. Female workers are forced to be sexually engaged with the supervisor, manager or any other higher authority. A confession of a female worker about 30 years of age shown in a video (by Four Corners investigative journalism) said, “What can we do? Yes, the supervisor comes and slaps us in the face, or on the backside, or uses profanity, but what can we do? It is so degrading. We just wipe our tears and continue to work.” What courage she had to wake up every day and go to that job, where she was being slapped countless times?  They all walk to the factory to endure all of this so they can have a 12-14 hour shift, where they will endure much more harassment and not receive what they absolutely deserve from their hard labour.

The minimum wage for a garment worker is less than $38.00 a month.  A room very close to a studio is about $15.00.  It is beyond imagination how one manages to live on the remaining $23.00 for the rest of the month with a family.  Every day they wake up thinking, where do I get the expense for tomorrow? After a long day of work, when a worker is ready to go home, they soon discover the gates are locked, their pass card for work is taken away by a supervisor if the factory gets more orders with a deadline. Everyone is forced to go back to work. When one refuses, they are threatened to be fired, and to be non-hirable at any other garments factory. The garment factory owners keep the fear alive, and the workers are so oppressed they are less likely to complain, less likely to organize, less likely to demand a higher wage. There is no such thing as overtime pay. Their salary is cut for any excuse. When one works 12-15 hour shifts, they are bound to make mistakes, and no mistakes are acceptable. Each piece of garment must be flawless.

There is insufficient air at the workplace. It is common for a worker to faint due to the long hours and the heat. Every month someone loses an arm, a leg, or their life in a machine when fatigue causes them to fall on it, or to handle the machine wrongfully. Obviously there are no sick days and no medical coverage. If or when a worker dies due to an accident at the factory, one or more of their family members is compensated by being employed by the same factory. That is the compensation for a human life.  There is no cafeteria at all. Of course lunch or dinner must be brought from home, but there is no such place for a worker to sit and eat. They either go to the roof of the factory to eat lunch in the burning sun, or come out of the building and eat on the street.

Most factories issue limits on how many times a worker can use the toilet. Sometimes it is only once in a 12 hour shift, because if every worker spends time in the restroom, who is going to put the label of Benntton, Mango, or Zara on the shirt? Who is going to supply clothing to Walmart in time for it to have millions of dollars in profit?

Out of 365 days in a year on average, Bangladesh has a transportation strike for 100 days. Thanks to every political party, the number of strikes is increasing every year, when the entire country is muted. No transportation what so ever.  Even during a strike, every garment factory is open. Workers must go to work, because the goods must be produced, so it is ready to be shipped when the strike is lifted.  They don’t need a rickshaw, a bus, or a taxi  anyway. On their way again, they are the victims of picketing. Buses will be burned, cars will be broken into pieces, anyone visible on the street will be stopped and asked questions to figure out what political party they support. And who do we have on the streets on their way to work? The pain-enduring garment workers.

Tazreen Fashion is a nine story plant, located in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. On November 25th, 2012 it caught on fire leaving 112 dead bodies burned to ashes. 112 burned bodies were lined up in a local field. This fire was one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of country. When the fire alarm rang, the workers came down the stairs only to be ordered back upstairs to work again, because there was an order to fulfill, and there is no fire, it was a false alarm. The gates were locked. 112 people were burned alive.

The Bangladesh garment industry is the second largest exporter of clothing while notoriously having the poorest fire safety record. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires.  There have been 43 factory fires in the last 18 months. Workers are burned to ashes because there are no fire escapes. Over the last decade the garment industry in Bangladesh has mushroomed. No rules are needed.  All one needs is any kind of building for it to be transformed into a working factory. No engineer, no rules, no safety, just death traps.

I was watching a documentary by Four Corners, on the topic of Bangladesh and its cheap labour. In the video the journalist was pointing to the barred windows, and suggesting rightfully that those bars must go. The windows must be available to escape in case of fire. I had always wondered why the bars? Why are factory buildings so desolated? The answer is very simple. The buildings are high walled, windows are high and barred because nothing from the factory should go outside. No bundles of thread, no single piece of clothing, and not a single button should be stolen; nothing should be given to a relative or a friend standing outside the window. Everything must stay inside; even when the workers are being burned alive.

On April 25th, 2013, an eight story commercial building in Rana Plaza collapsed. The search for the dead ended on May 12th, with death toll being more than 1100.  The building was unsafe, and everyone was evacuated, but the owner of Rana Plaza factory, Sohail Rana, went to the media to explain that the danger was exaggerated and it was perfectly safe to work in the building. The workers were threatened to go back to work and finish their job. That same day it collapsed.  The images I saw are forever etched in my brain.  I felt like I was hearing the screams of those trapped under the rubble, under a pillar, under a beam.  One could go and on about the Rana Plaza tragedy. The air was filled with the smell of the dead, and the cries of the alive buried underneath. Most workers had to be rescued by having their arms or legs amputated. Who will restore their lost limbs; lost family members or the thousands of work mates? So many children lost their mothers in that tragedy. So many young lives are now gone.  For the rich, these were not lives that were lost, these were simply laborers who can be replaced or bought in any other factory. There are other garment factories where the orders can be taken for Walmart, Zara, Gap, Benetton, Mango and so many other international, greedy companies. Why waste time? Find the workers that are alive to keep on making the $2.00 shirts to be sold at $80.00.

The fire at Tazreen Fashion and the Rana Plaza tragedy shook the nation. It has given birth to a different suffering where the witnesses, rescuers, survivors will always be haunted with the images, the screams, and the blood. Rana Plaza workers’ families are yet to be compensated. No one wants to claim responsibility. Walmart is not involved in helping victims despite the documentary evidence that its products were made in that building just a year ago. International clothing line Mango refuses to pay any compensation. E-mail orders from the international clothing line, Benetton, were found in the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza.  One Benetton email found in the rubble asked whether the clothing had passed the strength test. Not Benetton, or any other company, bothered to ask if the place where there clothing was being made was safe for the workers who were making it.

All those international retailers are now singing the same song: they were not aware of what was going on. Yes, they ran for cheap labour overseas because those workers are robots, and they are earning less than $40 a month, cheaper than one Benetton or Zara shirt sold at the retail price. They did not know the person sewing every single button, sleeve and collar is deprived, demoralized, dehumanized and paid next to nothing.

These international retailers are making millions of dollars in profit with the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of workers overseas. A Bangladeshi garment worker does not know that one jacket made or completed by her is sold at close to $80.00, not even her monthly salary.

Greed, profit, money, capitalism, global marketing has taken priority over human lives. What could be more dangerous than that?

Australia is increasingly using Bangladesh to source their cheap fashion. From what I have read and understand, Australian retailers seem to win by avoiding, ignoring, not commenting, not taking responsibility, and not paying the workers just like the American and European companies.

A recent Australian survey showed that Australians would be ready to pay more for their clothes if they knew overseas workers were paid a decent wage and their workplace was safe.  It is time we start making people aware everywhere about what they are buying, where they are buying it from, and how much they should pay.

It takes thousands of burned dead bodies, thousands of interviews of the injured and their sufferings for us to wake up and ask for what is right. It takes us this long to ask these retailers for better pay from their million dollar profits.

As horrifying, disturbing, and heart breaking the images are of the dead workers, I say let’s post these pictures everywhere. Let’s protest in front of those big companies holding large images of burned dead bodies, large images of a father holding on to his daughter’s picture hoping to find her underneath the collapsed  building, dead or alive; images of a man holding on to a woman lovingly, their bodies buried under the cement, rubble, and pillars. Their bodies’ completely bloodied and a rod just a few inches away from the throat of the woman. No one will ever know what their relationship was. Were they friends, co-workers, siblings, lovers or just a man trying to protect a woman from the building collapsing on them?

A large image of just a hand coming out of the rubble of the 8 story building with a caption saying “Mom, I will never see you again.”

The fire at Tazreen Fashion and the collapse of Rana Plaza have affected me and so many others deeply.  The Tazreen Fashion fire was on November 25, 2012, and the Rana Plaza collapsed on April 25th, 2013.  My sister and I were discussing how sad it was. She said, “I don’t know why God is punishing just the garment workers like this, over and over.”  I looked at her in amazement and said, is it really God? Is he the one paying them $2.00 a day? Is God the one making them work 12-15 hours a day? Has God given license to Walmart, Benetton, Zara, or the Gap to murder workers? Is God the one making the rich richer and the poor poorer?  Or is it the greedy, capitalist nation trying to gain power over anything and everything? It is the international retailers trying to be God or gain control?  We must refuse to have gods that are murdering, blood-sucking, greedy, and anti-human.

———————–

Source: email forwarded from bosolidaritynetwork@googlegroups.com

July 30, 2013

Permission to repost: Expose imperialism and circulate in your networks.

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