When workers talk about Nazma Akhter in Dhaka, their affection for her is obvious. Even those who are not part of her Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, or the Independent Garment Workers Federation — which she claims has more than 70,000 members — talk about the fact that she has credibility and truly cares about the plight of the 3.8 million workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh, which generates $21 billion in exports. More than 80 percent of these workers are women, many of whom are migrants from smaller villages.
Akhter, who started working in the industry when she was 11, tells WWD that she understands their situation because she is one of them, and so can champion their cause. In some three decades since she began work at a factory, she has gained fame as a leader, one whose beliefs are backed by her words, her words backed by action. Employers are said to listen to her, too.
Here, Akhter shares some insights into the changes sweeping through the industry in the wake of the disasters at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. in November 2012 and Rana Plaza last April.
WWD: What is your main objective for 2014 given the state of transition and change in the garment industry in Bangladesh?
Nazma Akhter: One of our main objectives for 2014 is to ensure a stronger, more forceful collective bargaining. We are going to focus on educating our workers. Workers have to know their rights and keeping these in mind also learn and know to keep up the quality of production.
We also need to educate employers. Especially the management level on the factory floor needs a considerable amount of education because they are the ones who are dealing directly with workers.
Our main message for empowering girls and women is to raise their voices. Since I used to work in a factory from the time I was 11 years old, I know how difficult that is, and how important.
Things are looking up now in some ways. We have had a lot of accidents in 2012-13 and a lot of workers have died and been injured and that has been tragic for us. The only positive sign from all this is that people are taking a look at this issue and are trying to address it. The government has also been looking at making improvements and is involving the workers in making the changes. Many workers are getting involved with trade unions as compared to before and the employers are allowing these registrations — that is quite a positive sign.
WWD: What is the mood of the workers at this time? How have they responded to the wage increase?
N.A.: The workers are happy, but many have serious problems. The wage increase is something to look forward to but the fact is that rent is very expensive, as is food and other basic living costs. If the government can control these costs the workers will be happy and the wage increase will really mean something.
WWD: You had earlier said that you would keep protesting until the 8,000 taka wage limit was granted. Have you accepted the present level?
N.A.: Our demand was 8,000 taka. This demand was negotiated and after that we got 5,300 taka. But again we can only say that if the costs of living are controlled then this can be an acceptable level. We are not fighting on this count now. We want this to be implemented immediately and fairly and that is our main concern at this time.
WWD: Do you find that employers have become more considerate and open to negotiation after Rana Plaza?
N.A.: Of course the employers are being more considerate — they have no choice. It’s a shame for everyone in the country. If they are not considerate and respectful of the workers’ needs [situations like Rana Plaza] can happen again and again. They also have to respond to the international outcry on this — there is the Accord [the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety] and then there is Alliance [for Bangladesh Worker Safety] and all of these are watching how the employers now treat the workers. Recently, the employers and the trade union leaders and the workers made a human chain in protest against the problems in politics and it has helped all of us to work together.
WWD: What have been the actual changes after the Rana Plaza incident and with the deaths of more than 1,000 workers?
N.A.: You know, in terms of actual factory conditions, not so much has changed in actual terms — but there is a lot of talk of change. The living conditions for workers continue to be very poor, the factory conditions on the floor need to improve and change. There is also a lot of fear that brands will leave Bangladesh and it is something that both labor and the employers are worried about.
WWD: Are workers actually coming forward and joining trade unions more openly now?
N.A.: Yes, the workers have now begun to raise their voices and are beginning to join trade unions. But it is a learning process for them and cannot happen all of a sudden.
WWD: Some politicians have said that it is simply bad luck that many tragic accidents have occurred one after the other. Does that make sense to you?
N.A.: It’s not bad luck! It’s simple carelessness! Machines are made by humans and so are the buildings. It’s just that they are not respectful of the work conditions. Western people are getting more benefit and our workers are paying the price. Things need to be controlled better. The politics and the business should not mix, this needs to be more carefully controlled.
WWD: As a leader in the garment industry, and on behalf of the workers, what is your main fear at this time?
N.A.: At the moment, our main fear is about the political situation in the country. The politics are not in favor of us — we need a peaceful country for our work to continue. Even if the factories are able to work, the shipments cannot go through and the workers are afraid that this will affect their livelihood. The political situation is bad for everyone and people are being killed every day. It is disturbing and affecting the entire garment business.
WWD: Personally, do you fear for yourself when you are so outspoken on issues that the rich and the powerful may not agree with?
N.A.: I’m not afraid because I have worked in a factory and I have struggled for many years and found that I can survive many things. I feel that it is my responsibility to do something for my country and for my women. If I am scared I cannot achieve any of this. Over the years my office has been attacked, my people have been attacked, but I am looking at the way forward — not only for the workers — but also for the industry, because this is what keeps us all alive.
WWD: What would you tell international retailers at this time if you got a chance?
N.A.: I would tell the international retailers that they should play fair, they should not treat workers as cheap labor. They should help employers run an ethical business and make sure that our labor is not treated like victims of an unjust society. But we don’t want them to offer a cheaper price for goods and for the orders because if the factory owners don’t get enough orders, our labor loses out anyway.
My request to Western retailers is that they have to take care and hear the voice of the workers. Most of these are women who are coming from the country, from smaller villages. They have to worry about their health because if they get malnutrition or unhealthy as they get older their productivity goes down. We need women who are healthy. CSR programs should have a direct benefit for workers and should not be carried out as an eye wash.
WWD: Do you harbor anger and resentment against Western retailers?
N.A.: Western retailers have been talking about social issues in the last few months but the whole point is that they are not increasing prices. If they are not paying more then all this is just talk. It doesn’t help anyone. This is an industry and we have to sustain and grow the labor force. You cannot break one arm and expect the body to be whole. At the end of the day we need to do more than survive — this means many things, including respecting the workers, their relationship with their managers, safety conditions, the sanitation and reasonable working hours.
All the attention that is being paid to the workers in Bangladesh is helpful, but it is also an irritant. In some ways it ends up dividing the people and the issues and we all need to work together to make it happen. The Accord and the Alliance are sometimes working at cross-purposes and it is causing confusion among employers.
WWD: Do you think the workers are being treated like victims of the society at this time?
N.A.: Of course we are — even simply in terms of wages. And it is largely because international retailers are not paying a proper price for our goods. How much do they pay in India or Vietnam or Cambodia? It is so much more in those countries. They should pay equal in all the countries.
WWD: How many people are a part of your union at this time?
N.A.: We have solidarity movement members and also trade union members with a total of more than 70,000 members.
WWD: What about the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association? Do you find that they respond to the needs of the workers?
N.A.: The employers are business people. Now they are just beginning to realize the real needs of the industry. Sometimes they are reasonable, many times they are not. Whenever international pressure grows they listen a bit more — but they have to ensure that the labor laws are followed and not to put undue pressure on workers. At the moment it is crucial for everyone to keep the dialogue open and we are trying not to use angry words and accusing fingers.
WWD: Although many of the workers are women, are they faced with managers and employers who are mostly men?
N.A.: The employers are men, the managers are men, most trade union leaders are men, but we are able to overcome that. There have to be more women activists and women leaders. Women have a very strong contribution in our society and we have to ensure their strength is recognized. We have to ensure they know the labor laws and that they are educated on their rights.
Women have to help women.