By: Rick Westhead
DHAKA, BANGLADESH—By day, Daliya Shikdur manned a sewing machine in a local garment factory, her fingers a blur as she stitched the inseams of 130 pairs of jeans every hour.
By night, the elegant 20-year-old, wisps of black hair framing her high cheekbones, prowled the choked streets of Dhaka as a prostitute.
At least that was the story that was spread through the slum of Khanbari, where Shikdur lives alongside 150 other families who survive hand-to-mouth, many of them garment sector workers, rickshaw drivers and small business owners.
Truth was, Shikdur spent most evenings this spring trying to coax her 1,285 co-workers at Natural Apparels Ltd. to sign a union card.
“People said I was a prostitute because they thought there was no other reason a young woman would be out by herself after work,” Shikdur said during a recent evening in her home.
Shikdur is strong and confident, proud of her skills on the factory floor, and of her role as a union organizer. She is beautiful and strong-willed enough that she refused to consider an early marriage — no small act in a country where the U.N. says 75 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18.
Shikdur had the simplest reason for organizing a union: she was fed up.
After five years working at Natural Apparels, stitching pants destined for the Swedish retailer H&M, Shikdur was making $58 a month, plus another $10 for 12 hours of overtime. Not bad money for the daughter of a single mother from Jhalokati, a cursed rural district of rivers and oft-flooded farmland where illiteracy rates eclipse 55 per cent.
But life hadn’t worked out as it was supposed to after Shikdur’s move to Dhaka in 2008. This is her third factory job and her skills should have earned her respect — or at least the certainty that she would be paid the money she was owed. Shikdur could stitch hems and inseams, pockets and cuffs as fast as any of her peers.
Her boss was legally obligated to pay a $35 bonus for working 18 days straight, but those bonuses often went unpaid, and were often cut to $13 without explanation.
After several months of lobbying, Shikdur persuaded 450 of her colleagues to sign a union registration document.
“Having a union is about doing good for everyone, but it’s also about me,” she said. “I want better for myself. I want a better salary. I want to know I will get the bonus they owe to me. Shouldn’t I have that?”
On May 5, the government approved the request, making Shikdur and her colleagues members of an exclusive group.
United by tragedy
No country has come to depend as much on the ready-made garment industry as has Bangladesh. While the country’s $27 billion worth of clothing exports may pale next to China, the world leader with about $263 billion (Cdn.), garments account for 15 per cent of the Bangladeshi economy, compared to 3 per cent in China.
Safety is often ignored. Many factories have dicey wiring, exits that are nailed shut or blocked, and no fire extinguishers.
For the moment, the world’s gaze is fixed on Bangladesh. On April 24, 1,129 people died when Rana Plaza collapsed, and the consequences continue to churn. Western retailers are trying to explain why their clothes are being made in an eight-storey factory that had three illegally added floors and was built on swampland.
It’s not the first time in the spotlight. From April 2005 until June 2006, a series of tragedies forced the Bangladeshi government to reform. Those incidents included one that foreshadowed Rana Plaza when 64 workers were killed in the collapse of a factory, also built on swamp ground, and also with floors illegally added. But it took riots by 100,000 workers and pressure by the U.S. government, itself pressured by the powerful AFL-CIO union, to bring about those changes.
With reformed labour laws and pledges made by multinational retailers, Bangladesh doesn’t look so bad on paper until the laws are ignored and the tragedies return.
But this time, factory owners — the country’s plutocrats, who can afford sprawling homes in Toronto and other cities overseas — worry that change is coming.
More than 100 retailers have signed contracts promising to pay millions of dollars for safety improvements and redoubled factory inspections. The Bangladeshi government is similarly on a hiring spree, increasing the numbers of safety and labour inspectors.
Grassroots efforts to organize workers seem to be succeeding. Shikdur’s union is among 45 that have been approved this year. That gives Bangladesh 50 unions for 5,000 factories.
“The factory owners hate unions,” said Alonzo Suson, the country director for The Solidarity Center, a Dhaka-based non-profit that gives legal advice to workers. “They say these workers are ignorant villagers, country bumpkins.
“Many people now believe that if those workers at Rana Plaza had a union, they probably wouldn’t have gone back to work after discovering cracks in the walls a day before the collapse. The drumbeat for trade unions has become loud and clear.”
While the West watches
In July, Bangladesh passed a labour law that the government promised would improve conditions for many of the 3.2 million women and 800,000 men who work in the garment sector.
“We tell our people to be very secret about starting a union,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation.
“Go slow. There’s no need to even say the word union in the first few discussions. They should just talk about the working conditions and whether they are happy or not.”
“What will the director do a year from now, when the West is not so interested in Bangladesh factories,” said Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation. “Start quietly shutting the unions down?”
At least 200 factories were closed during parts of May because of worker walkouts and political strikes, said Nur Mohammad Amin Rasel, an official with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
The owners’ lobby carefully watches protests, and what they cost them. A BGMEA survey of 35 companies, conducted from March 28 to April 23, found that strikes known as hartals — which are organized by the political opposition, not unions — forced factories to spend $3.16 million on air freight to meet their shipping deadlines. Others who relied on cargo ships had to pay late delivery discounts of $1.2 million.
The surveyed companies reportedly spent a collective $1.1 million to repair vandalized buildings and lost $2.6 million in cancelled orders.
Followed after work
Shikdur lives in a one-room shack with her cousin and her cousin’s husband. The corrugated metal walls are so thin that you can clearly hear the neighbours’ conversations. The roof is a blue tarp tied to a rusty sheet of tin.
Shikdur sleeps on a mattress of stacked cardboard, bound by twine and tucked beneath a single bedsheet. It’s rough but better than the concrete floor where her cousin tosses and turns each night next to her husband.
“She’s younger,” Shikdur’s cousin Salma Begum said. “And she needs a good sleep with the (union) work she is doing.”
Shikdur has often been followed after work by a group of men. They taunt her and demand she abandon her efforts to organize. One man has phoned her cellphone repeatedly and threatened to break her hands. The police weren’t interested, she said.
The harassment started before Shikdur’s union was certified and has continued since.
“At one point, I saw the men standing there on our factory floor,” Shikdur said. “They don’t work there. They shouldn’t have been there but the owner let them in to scare me.”
Shikdur delivered a list of 18 demands, including an immediate salary increase of 12 per cent; fire drills every three months; a bonus each Eid equal to an employee’s monthly salary; and $1.36 for dinner money when employees are asked to work overtime to fill urgent shipments.
“We will give them some time, and then we will strike,” Shikdur said. “I don’t think there will be a problem convincing employees.”
Mohammad Tanvir Ahamed, the head of compliance for Natural Apparels, insisted that Shikdur has not been followed or threatened and that workers have been paid their full overtime.
“We have had no problems,” Ahamed said as he stood in front of a stack of H&M corduroys. “Everything here is fine.”
In an emailed statement to the Star, H&M spokesperson Anna Eriksson wrote that the retailer “fully supports any workers wishing to organize.”
“H&M does not accept disciplinary or discriminatory actions from the employer against employees who choose to peacefully and lawfully organize or join an association.
“In April 2013, after a constructive dialogue with H&M, the management from Natural Apparels Ltd agreed that registration of trade unions is a workers matter and that management cannot interfere in any way. In May 2013, H&M’s auditors conducted follow-up worker interviews which indicated this was no longer an issue at Natural Apparels Ltd. No contradictory information has come to our attention since then, neither from the union at Natural Apparels or from Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.”
Eriksson wouldn’t discuss Shikdur’s complaints. “Out of consideration for the employees at our supplier, we choose not to comment on specific workers,” she wrote.
Eriksson said H&M plans to “look into” Natural Apparels again.
Friends in high office
The garment sector is well-represented in Bangladesh’s parliament. Tipu Munshi, a member of the parliamentary standing committee on textile and jute, owns Sepal Garments. Another factory owner, Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, was commerce minister and remains an MP.
In all, 60 per cent of the 300 members of Bangladesh’s parliament have direct or indirect ownership interests in the garment sector, said Iftikhar Zaman, executive director of Transparency International’s Bangladeshi unit.
“It’s a sad trend,” Zaman said. “In our first parliament as a country after 1971, 18 per cent of our parliamentarians were businessmen. The rest were doctors, social workers, lawyers, professions like that. Now, more than half of our politicians have a financial interest in the garment factories.
“Our political leaders don’t talk in terms of what workers deserve. They talk in terms of trying to appease international pressure. They do this because they have to, because they are afraid of losing orders, not because they think it’s the proper thing to do.”
One incident highlights the BGMEA’s influence and its ability to blunt enforcement of the law. After the fire at Tazreen Fashions in November, the lobby group’s inspectors reported that four other factories fell short of the building code or labour laws. The owners included BGMEA president Atiqul Islam, Islam’s predecessor and a former vice-president of the association. None of the four owners were prosecuted.
Factory owner Annisul Huq has twice served as president of the BGMEA, whose members account for 80 per cent of the country’s exports and who work with the government on security, building codes and labour issues.
Like other owners, Huq is suspicious of unions because they too often are controlled by corrupt officials.
“This idea of unions is dreamy. ‘Oh, let’s hear the voices of the workers,’ ” Huq said. “But unions will bring chaos. It’s going to shut down our industry. We hear from our friends in Cambodia where they have unions, and the owners there just have to pay bribes to the union leaders.”
Huq, whose company Mohammadi Group makes clothing for customers such as Van Heusen, said the U.S. and other western countries are hypocrites.
“Look at China, where 2,000 people per year die in industrial accidents,” Huq said.
“At least 800 died in the U.K. last year in industrial accidents,” he said.
(For the record, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reports 72,000 workers died in workplace accidents in 2012. According to British government statistics, 148 people died in the U.K. in workplace accidents during the fiscal year ended March 2013.)http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/fatals.htm
“Our problem in Bangladesh is we are too nice,” Huq said. “We open up too much to (the media) with information.”
But since the Rana Plaza collapse, many western journalists have been refused entry to Bangladesh. The Star waited two months for journalist visas to travel to Bangladesh, during which time neither the officer in charge of press visas nor the Bangladeshi high commissioner to Canada returned calls. Star reporters later entered on tourist visas.
Huq also criticized foreign media for coverage of the murder of Islam, the labour activist who was killed in April 2012, two years after he was arrested for helping organize protests in Dhaka. Huq insisted Islam wasn’t killed for his organizing.
“He wasn’t important enough to murder,” Huq said. “I’m sorry he is dead, but until he was murdered I had never even heard of him. And now the U.S. demands better working conditions and unions here.
“Well, the U.S. has just given Colombia free-trade status,” he said. “More than 700 trade union people are killed there and they get free-trade status.”
(According to the International Trade Union Confederation, there were 2,832 murders of trade unionists in Colombia between 1986 and 2010. Congress passed a free-trade law with the South American country in 2011.)
“There is no justice,” Huq said.
In the waning weeks of 2012, Imran Hossain Hannan and three co-workers quietly organized a union.
Hannan, 22, started work at the factory in October 2010, and after a few months was sewing zippered flies onto 100 pairs of pants each hour.
“No one can do more than me,” Hannan said during a recent evening at his home. “One day I will do 150.”
Hannan had only worked at the Rebecca Fashions factory, which has contracts with Canadian firms Reitmans and Fame Jeans, for a few weeks before he understood the need for a union.
“We were paid late, never got our overtime, didn’t get bonuses, had low wages and no holidays,” Hannan said. “The women had no maternity leave and we had no daycare centres or doctors. One time in early 2011, a woman was stitching buttons and a needle on a machine went right through her thumb. She went to the hospital and the factory refused to pay.”
In October 2012, Hannan and others filed a union application, and on Dec. 14, their union was registered.
Following his shift on Jan. 15, 2013, stitching pockets on pants headed to Reitmans stores across Canada, Hannan was asked to meet a supervisor.
“He gave me the salary I was owed, and said it wasn’t possible for me to work there anymore,” Hannan said. “I asked why, what did I do wrong? He just said it was dangerous for me to be there.”
Hannan said he and three other union organizers were fired.
The factory’s owner Yasser Khan said Hannan is lying.
“The four at my company were not fired, they quit,” Khan said in an interview. “It’s something you see in Bangladesh.
“They get their pay at the end of the month, they go back to their village for 10 days or so, and when they come back to the city, they look for new work, for more money than they got at their previous job. I didn’t fire them for having a union. I didn’t even know they were forming one.”
Khan, who said his company records a profit margin of about 3 per cent on $8 million in sales each year, agreed to rehire Hannan and the others in August.
“The BGMEA just said it would be best if I rehired them, so fine, I did,” Khan said. “But since Fame Jeans in Canada heard about this case, they have cancelled $150,000 in orders from me. It’s still sitting in my factory.”
Fame Jeans executive Alen Brandman said his company has no knowledge of the firings. “Fame Jeans policy is that if a shipment is late or does not meet our quality standards as per our purchase order we reserve the right to cancel the order,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
“The conditions are better. At least there’s a fan overhead. But I’m still insecure. They haven’t told me what my salary is. They just say ‘work and don’t worry about that.’ And I’m not allowed in any common area near other employees.”
Reitmans chief executive Jeremy Reitman said in an interview that the company is investigating Hannan’s claims of being fired unfairly.
“We don’t contract to them directly, but sometimes we use agents for this work, and we may have in this case,” he said. “We’re looking into this.”
‘If you paid more . . .’
Late on a Thursday evening, Shikdur sat on the floor of her home, next to a bowl of shrimp and potato simmering in a green banana curry.
She was flustered after getting into a fight with her supervisor earlier in the day.
“I averaged 130 pieces each hour and they marked me down for 110,” she said. “I said to my supervisor, ‘Why are you doing this? I will complain.’ He said, ‘You go and do whatever you want.’ So I called him a son of a bitch.
“He left and went to the compliance office and filed a complaint. I got a warning notice.”
Her cousin Begum looks concerned. “This is not safe,” she says.
Shikdur clucks her tongue and tucks her hair behind her ear. She knows that it’s possible she’ll wake up one day soon without a job.
“I just wish people in the north just paid a bit more for your clothing,” she said. “You spend more on a shirt than I make in a month. Maybe if you paid just a bit more, we could have a good life here.”