Category Archives: Sweatshops

Why sweatshop owners may start sweating

 Union activists in Bangladesh face threats and loss of work. Still, garment workers are starting to get organized, and factory owners worry that change is on the way
Daliya Shikdur, 20, organized a union earlier this year at the garment factory where she works in Dhaka. She's since been threatened and followed by men she says were sent by her boss.

Daliya Shikdur, 20, organized a union earlier this year at the garment factory where she works in Dhaka. She’s since been threatened and followed by men she says were sent by her boss.


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.

Some four million workers spend six days each week in the country’s 5,000 factories, stitching and sewing, cutting and measuring. Most begin their working day at 9 a.m. and remain hunched over machines until long after the sun has set and others here have made their way to mosque for the Maghrib, the evening prayer. The pay is astonishingly low. Newcomers to the industry make about 15 cents an hour.

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.

But this may not be enough. In September, garment workers protested in the streets, demanding an increase in the minimum wage to $100 a month from the current $39. Meanwhile, activists say factory owners still obstruct workers like Shikdur, including one at a factory that makes clothes for a well-known Canadian retailer, a factory they accuse of firing or threatening organizers. Suspicion still surrounds factory owners’ role in the unsolved murder of union activist Aminul Islam in 2012.

“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.”

The new law also gives a labour director, a government employee, the sole discretion to approve a union or shut it down without notice.

“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?”

After the collapse at Rana Plaza, hundreds of thousands of garment workers walked off the job to protest the lax enforcement of building and safety codes. Within three days of the collapse, protests had spread to Chittagong, the second-largest city.

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.

As recently as late September, at least 400 factories were forced to close as workers demanding a monthly minimum wage of $100 demonstrated in the streets.

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.)

“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.

 Getting organized

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.

 Hannan said it’s good to have his job back.

“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.”



“Hired at a Bangladesh sweatshop, Meet my 9-year-old boss”

Meem, 9, works 12-hour shifts at a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She dreams of becoming a sewing operator, buying more hair clips and helping her family.

Toronto Star reporter Raveena Aulakh works undercover in a Bangladesh garment factory for a first hand look at their working conditions.


DHAKA, BANGLADESH—Some days are good for Meem, others she likes to forget as quickly as possible.

The first time I saw Meem, which was also my first day at work at a sweatshop, she was having a good day despite the wretched heat. She sat cross-legged on the concrete floor, a tiny, frail figure among piles of collars, cuffs and other parts of unstitched shirts.

She had a pair of cutters in her hands, much like eyebrow tweezers, and she was trimming threads from a navy collar. She cleared one collar after another of threads until the big pile, which had been bigger than her, was no more. It took her all morning and she didn’t look up much, did not join any conversation. When it was done, she took a few gulps of water from a scrunched bottle, walked around for a bit, her little hands rubbing her back, and went back to trimming threads — this time, from navy cuffs.

She did that from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., except for an hour long lunch break.

Later, she said, it had been a good day: the electricity didn’t play hooky (which meant the three ceiling fans worked all day) and so it wasn’t oppressively hot, she had fish curry for lunch, and the floor manager didn’t yell at her for humming too loudly.

It was a very good day, she said again, dancing a little jig.


Part 2: Bangladesh’s tanneries make the sweatshops look good

Part 3: Why sweatshop owners may start sweating

Editors Note: The clothes on your back

Meem is 9 years old and works as a sewing helper in a garment factory. For a few days this summer, she was also my boss.

She taught me the tricks of trimming. She taught me to smile when my back ached. She taught me some Bengali words.

Sab bhalo. It is all okay.

Getting the job

On a sweaty day this August, I arrived at a factory in a neighborhood near Lalmatia in southwest Dhaka. The wide streets were lined with old buildings and were clogged with rickshaws, crowded buses and fancy cars. Clothes were hung out to dry from balconies, restaurants shared common front yards with abattoirs. At most street corners, there were shoe-shine men, tiny places that served tea and Bengali sweets.

Morning time was almost always more chaotic as schoolchildren in uniforms scrambled to get to class and grown-ups hurried to work.

Off a main street and at the end of a lane way was the sweatshop.

Hamid, formerly a sewing operator with a big garment factory in Narayanganj, is the owner. About three years ago, he took a loan and started his own business — a small factory that operates without a name — and today employs about 45 people.

I walked in the first morning just after 8, a bottle of water in hand, and introduced myself to Ali, the floor manager, as Rubina, the new sewing helper. He is a small, wiry man who, I later discovered, cooks and sleeps at the factory.

He nodded and told me to take a look around.

Getting the job hadn’t been easy. Before Rana Plaza collapsed in a Dhaka suburb on April 24 and 1,129 people lost their lives, reporters got into factories and chronicled the appalling safety conditions, child labour and subsistence salaries. Now big factories have security and careful screening. Outsiders, especially non-Bengali speakers, are looked at with deep suspicion.

Even though my appearance helped, it didn’t help that I don’t know Bengali and don’t look impoverished. Initially, I tried to get a job at a big factory with the help of some well-connected friends in Dhaka. But as a friend said, his factory owner friend simply asked him why he didn’t just give me — the down-on-her-luck relative — money.

In the end, a cabbie I had hired while on assignment in Dhaka last year came through. A friend of his friend owned a small factory making garments for local retailers and often taking orders from big factories when they faced deadline pressures.

The cabbie told Hamid that his wife’s cousin (me) was an Indian woman who had recently moved to Dhaka, knew a few words of Bengali and needed a new start.

Hamid was in a bind. Some of his workers hadn’t returned from their villages after Eid and he had a deadline to meet. So he said yes, he would try me out for a few days. If I did well, we would talk money, said Hamid.

The factory wasn’t big: about two dozen sewing machines lined the walls of the windowless room, about half the size of a basketball court. Two cutting machines sat in a corner. The sewing machines had little benches for the operators, and almost all had piles of colourful fabric by the side. Three ceiling fans, covered with layers of dirt, hummed quietly.

In one corner was Hamid’s office. It had glass windows and a glass door. Most fabric was kept there before it was cut. A phone sat on the desk with an old computer that was almost never used.

There were no fire extinguishers, no exit other than the main door.

(I later counted another 21 sewing machines on the second floor of the same building. A rickety staircase was the only way up. Workers on the main and second floor didn’t socialize much.)

 The sole washroom was right at the end of the laneway, opposite the sweatshop. It was dimly lit, with puddles of dirty water, and the toilet was little more than a hole in the ground. It was used by every business on the floor; even for showering by those who live there, including Ali, whose clothes hung on a clothesline in the narrow hallway. Rats frequently visited.

At the factory, the sewing helpers, seven of us, always sat in the middle of the floor, trimming threads, ironing, folding and later packaging.

That first day, in the centre of the floor, sat Meem.

Her father, who worked at another garment factory, had an early shift and so he had dropped Meem off. Even though work didn’t start until 9, she was already trimming threads. Ali gestured for me to sit on the floor and in rapid Bengali told Meem to give me work.

As soon as his back turned, Meem, who was nibbling on a samosa, told me to take it easy.

“It is your first day . . . just watch for a couple of hours,” she said shyly.

She was easy to love.

No one at the factory, including Meem, knew I was a reporter. Except for a few questions about her family, I never interviewed her: everything in the story is what I saw, what I heard.

I watched her and I watched Ali and began to understand how the factory worked.

Ali preferred to cut fabric into shirt pieces himself and did so every morning before the workers arrived. He then distributed the pieces, along with matching thread, to sewing operators. Some stitched shirt arms, others collars, cuffs and pockets.

The week I was there, the sweatshop had an order for men’s linen shirts. No one knew how many exactly or where the shirts were heading.

The way each shirt was sewn, at least in that factory, was astounding for the number of steps each takes, the details and the tasks, the repetition and the relentlessness. Like most people, I had never thought of it before.

The fabric for the shirt body was cut into three panels — the back, left side front and right side front. The sleeves, cuffs, pockets, pocket flaps and collars were cut separately. One woman would feed fabric into a machine and hundreds of collars would come out strung together by thread. A helper would then separate them and trim any dangling threads.

One sewing operator focused on finishing cuffs; another stitched together collars; another sewed cuffs or collars to the shirt panels. Pocket flaps and pockets were sewn separately and then attached.

That is how every part of the shirt was made — sewn on its own and then stitched together.

Every part of the shirt went separately through the helpers who trimmed the threads. Once assembled, the shirt returned to the floor so any threads could be trimmed before it was ironed and packaged.

 I thought trimming sounded easy and it was, except I hadn’t counted on the hours spent sitting on the concrete floor without a backrest and the cutter digging into my thumb and forefinger.

It was back-breaking, it was finger-numbing. It was particularly rage-inducing. Not because it was painfully hard work but because children like Meem hunched over hour after hour, squinted at the threads, cleaned one collar after another, one cuff after another, one arm piece after another until the piles were depleted.

Then other piles arrived — some larger than the previous ones but almost always larger than Meem.

Nipping a hole while trimming was a terrible sin. It happened a couple of times a day.

Ali, who stood by the entrance watching, eventually noticed it and screamed at everyone until whoever was responsible owned up and then a sewing operator would try to salvage the piece, grumbling loudly.

There was a lot of yelling, mostly by Ali. It wasn’t clear how many shirts workers were expected to sew in an hour or a day but it was expected that they stay hunched over their sewing machines every minute they were at the factory. Snack breaks had to be quick, bathroom breaks even quicker.

Meem, the youngest, was often yelled at because she chatted too much and twice because she was humming a Bengali song too loudly.

Meem and the sewing helpers were paid the least, earning about $26 Canadian a month if they worked from 9 to 5 every day or about $32 if they worked overtime and stayed until 9 p.m. Most did. There were no weekends, except for a half-day every Friday, no sick leave, no holidays.

If a worker took a day off, it came off the paycheque.

Still, in a country where so many live in grinding poverty, Meem’s was a prized job, even though the minimum wage at this factory was between $30 and $38 a month.

“When I become a sewing operator, I will make very good shirts,” Meem promised. “No one will yell at me.”

That’s how big she dreamed: to graduate to a sewing operator one day.

School’s out

How Meem left school and started working at the factory is a fairly common story among poor Bangladeshi families: too many mouths to feed, too few bringing in money.

A few months ago, Meem’s mother, who worked as a domestic helper in Dhanmondi, an affluent Dhaka neighbourhood, found out she was pregnant and unable to work. Around the same time, Meem’s brother, a 15-year-old construction worker, argued with his parents about how much money he should contribute to the household. He left to live on his own.

With Meem, her three little sisters and a baby on the way, Meem’s father took her to Hamid and asked if she could work there.

Hamid said yes and just like that, school was out, 12-hour work shifts were in.

It is not as if Meem’s parents don’t care for her — they simply had no choice. Meem said her father did not want her to work at just any factory but chose Hamid’s because her aunt works as a sewing operator and would keep an eye out for her.

Meem’s wages go directly to her father. She is allowed to buy hair clips — she loves glitter — once a month, and an occasional ice cream.

“I have 11 hair clips,” she said one day, holding up both her hands and spreading her fingers. “So many.”

Meem’s friend at the sweatshop was Taaniya, a 13-year-old with long, dark hair and a shy smile. The older girl, always wearing the traditional salwar kameez, a long shirt with pants and a long scarf, taught Meem little tricks: for instance, how to hold the cutter close to the edge to get the best results but not nip the cloth. Or how to fold a shirt and then iron it, saving time.

Taaniya, who has been working for a few years, also told Meem which sewing operators complain the most and should be avoided.

Lootfah, 15, a pretty, fair-skinned operator, was their favourite. She was kind, happy and didn’t tell Ali if threads still dangled. She would quietly trim them.

Moni, in her late 20s, was a mother of three, often late for work and one of the first to leave. She would complain to Ali if the girls chatted too much or too loudly. Meem and Taaniya stayed away from her. If Moni asked for thread, they would go to the storage closet and give it to her in silence.

They got along with other sewing helpers, even Sheema and Sheekha, two girls in their early teens who had joined a few weeks before I had and were too terrified to ever talk.

“We try to be nice to everyone,” said Meem.

She was more than that.

If Meem noticed someone was trimming slowly, she would quickly do her share and then help out. When she returned from lunch, she would always bring back something for Taaniya, even if it was a bruised apple. When Sheekha admired her hair clips, Meem took them from her hair and pressed them into her hands.

Once she saw Lootfah burst into tears while talking on her cellphone and she slipped out and bought a shiny hair clip for her.

Meem was particularly good to me.

She told me to give her everything I trimmed and not put it in the done pile. I didn’t understand until it dawned on me that I wasn’t any good at my job. I was clumsy and I nipped at least twice. She “checked” so that I didn’t get into any trouble with Ali. She knew I was on trial at the sweatshop and if I didn’t trim the threads well, I would not last long.

I wasn’t as good to her. On my third day at work, I was sitting next to her during lunch, watching her quietly when she pulled my hair back from one side, pointed to my little gold hoop earrings and said they were pretty. I didn’t know what to do, I wish I had just given them to her.

Meem never complained but you could tell when all wasn’t well in Meem’s world: she would still smile — always — but not chat too much and sometimes, she would rub her back or massage the tips of her little fingers.

In the clothing factories of Bangladesh, the workforce is uncommonly – perhaps unethically – young. Rick Westhead reports.

‘The kids don’t know better’

Factory managers prefer younger sewing helpers.

Their eyesight is better, their little fingers nimbly trim threads and they don’t fuss about backaches and neck pain.

“It works for everyone,” says Smitha Zaheed, who volunteers with the Dhaka-based Independent Garment Workers’ Union Federation.

“Factory owners get workers who are not demanding . . . while the parents get to keep what the kids earn because the kids don’t know any better,” she says.

But even at 9 years old, Meem knows money helps buy things and improve the quality of life. She knows it’s a tough world. Is she tough enough?

 “I want to work in a bigger factory one day … there is more money,” she said one morning. But she is also intimidated by the idea. “But what if I get lost there? I have heard there are hundreds of operators. And I will never be able to know their names. Maybe I should stay here always. This is so close to home.”
Meem and Taaniya don’t think it is wrong that they are not in school. Everyone they know works in the garment factory industry or as domestic help.

The two girls would share what they had learned over lunch of curries or lentil soup and rice. Taaniya, ever the wise older girl, spoke of things her family could now afford: a new bed, a new goat and many more salwar kameezes.

Taaniya told Meem that if she earned enough, she wouldn’t have to get married and move away to live with some strange man who might like her, or might not.

She could also buy a colour TV set one day, Taaniya said.

Taaniya is the third of four siblings and she regularly buys gifts for her oldest sister’s daughter.

Cheap fashion has fuelled a social revolution in Bangladesh. It has given women more economic freedom, and to an extent, the power to make some decisions. By all accounts, working women are changing their lives, their families’ lives. There is more food in homes, and cleaner clothes. There is electricity, even if it’s one bulb, and there are toilets.

But it has come at a price.

Meem liked playing in the rain. She liked sleeping in on Sundays and holidays. She liked playing with her three baby sisters.

The factory has become her life, the life she will likely know for a long time, maybe all her days.

Quiet acceptance

At the end of my first day of work, I returned to my Dhaka hotel a little after 6 because I didn’t stay back for overtime. My back hurt, I had a nosebleed from sitting in the wicked heat, and my head ached. I was hungry but couldn’t eat. I smoked half a pack of cigarettes and watched the minutes tick by until 9 o’clock and I knew Meem would have finally left for home.

My backache was worse the second day. So was the despair.

The third day, I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to see Meem. I didn’t want to see her ever again.

It was mostly because Meem did not look unhappy. She was okay with working 12 hours every day, she didn’t see anything wrong with sitting on the floor, she quietly accepted the backache.

I could only think of another 9-year-old girl: Arshiya.

Arshiya, like Meem, is bony with short cropped hair, an elfin smile. They are both smart and clever. They are witty and fun to be around. They are partial to hugs.

Arshiya is my best friend’s daughter, lives in an affluent neighbourhood in South Delhi, attends a private school, is fluent in two languages and learning German, is good at taekwondo and plays piano.

Last year, she wanted to be a jumbo aircraft pilot; this year a NASA scientist.

I remember nuzzling her head under my chin and teasing her: “As long as you don’t flunk math.”

A week later, I met Meem.

The little girl who did not attend school anymore, never had any time to play and dreamed of being a sewing operator one day.

As Meem would say: Sab bhalo, it is all okay.

It isn’t.

Toronto Star reporter Raveena Aulakh travelled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to interview survivors of the Rana Plaza Collapse.



Goodwill Pays Disabled Workers as Little as .22 an Hour and It’s Legal

A patron receives change back after purchasing clothing at a Goodwill store (© Dan Gill/AP)

A patron receives change back after purchasing clothing at a Goodwill store (© Dan Gill/AP)

By Anna Schecter, Producer, NBC News

One of the nation’s best-known charities is paying disabled workers as little as 22 cents an hour, thanks to a 75-year-old legal loophole that critics say needs to be closed.

Goodwill Industries, a multibillion-dollar company whose executives make six-figure salaries, is among the nonprofit groups permitted to pay thousands of disabled workers far less than minimum wage because of a federal law known as Section 14 (c). Labor Department records show that some Goodwill workers in Pennsylvania earned wages as low as 22, 38 and 41 cents per hour in 2009.

“If they really do pay the CEO of Goodwill three-quarters of a million dollars, they certainly can pay me more than they’re paying,” said Harold Leigland, who is legally blind and hangs clothes at a Goodwill in Great Falls, Montana for less than minimum wage.

“It’s a question of civil rights,” added his wife, Sheila, blind from birth, who quit her job at the same Goodwill store when her already low wage was cut further. “I feel like a second-class citizen. And I hate it.”

Section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was passed in 1938, allows employers to obtain special minimum wage certificates from the Department of Labor. The certificates give employers the right to pay disabled workers according to their abilities, with no bottom limit to the wage.

Most, but not all, special wage certificates are held by nonprofit organizations like Goodwill that then set up their own so-called “sheltered workshops” for disabled employees, where employees typically perform manual tasks like hanging clothes.

The non-profit certificate holders can also place employees in outside, for-profit workplaces including restaurants, retail stores, hospitals and even Internal Revenue Service centers. Between the sheltered workshops and the outside businesses, more than 216,000 workers are eligible to earn less than minimum wage because of Section 14 (c), though many end up earning the full federal minimum wage of $7.25.

NBC News
Harold Leigland, who is blind, with his guide dog on the bus during his morning commute to the Goodwill facility in Great Falls, Montana, where he works hanging clothing.

When a non-profit provides Section 14 (c) workers to an outside business, it sets the salary and pays the wages. For example, the Helen Keller National Center, a New York school for the blind and deaf, has a special wage certificate and has placed students in a Westbury, N.Y., Applebee’s franchise. The employees’ pay ranged from $3.97 per hour to $5.96 per hour in 2010. The franchise told NBC News it has also hired workers at minimum wage from Helen Keller. A spokesperson for Applebee’s declined to comment on Section 14 (c).

Helen Keller also placed several students at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Manhasset, N.Y., in 2010, where they earned $3.80 and $4.85 an hour. A Barnes & Noble spokeswoman defended the Section 14 (c) program as providing jobs to “people who would otherwise not have [the opportunity to work].”

Most Section 14 (c) workers are employed directly by nonprofits. In 2001, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the GAO estimated that more than 90 percent of Section 14 (c) workers were employed at nonprofit work centers.

Critics of Section 14 (c) have focused much of their ire on the nonprofits, where wages can be just pennies an hour even as some of the groups receive funding from the government. At one workplace in Florida run by a nonprofit, some employees earned one cent per hour in 2011.

“People are profiting from exploiting disabled workers,” said Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “It is clearly and unquestionably exploitation.”

Defenders of Section 14 (c) say that without it, disabled workers would have few options. A Department of Labor spokesperson said in a statement to NBC News that Section 14 (c) “provides workers with disabilities the opportunity to be given meaningful work and receive an income.”

Terry Farmer, CEO of ACCSES, a trade group that calls itself the “voice of disability service providers,” said scrapping the provision could “force [disabled workers] to stay at home,” enter rehabilitation, “or otherwise engage in unproductive and unsatisfactory activities.”

Harold Leigland, however, said he feels that Goodwill can pay him a low wage because the company knows he has few other places to go. “We are trapped,” he said. “Everybody who works at Goodwill is trapped.”

Leigland, a 66-year-old former massage therapist with a college degree, currently earns $5.46 per hour in Great Falls.

His wages have risen and fallen based on “time studies,” the method nonprofits use to calculate the salaries of Section 14 (c) workers. Staff members use a stopwatch to determine how long it takes a disabled worker to complete a task. That time is compared with how long it would take a person without a disability to do the same task. The nonprofit then uses a formula to calculate a salary, which may be equal to or less than minimum wage. The tests are repeated every six months.

Harold Leigland works at the Goodwill facility in Great Falls, Montana, where he earns $5.46 an hour.

Leigland’s pay has been higher than $5.46, but it has also dropped down to $4.37 per hour, based on the time-study results.

He said he believes Goodwill makes the time studies harder when they want his wage to be lower.

“Sometimes the test is easier than others. It depends on if, as near as I can figure, they want your wage to go up or down. It’s that simple,” he said.

His wife, Sheila, 58, spent four years hanging clothes at the Great Falls Goodwill for about $3.50 an hour. She said the time study was one of the most degrading and stressful parts about her job. “You never know how it’s going to come out. It stressed me out a lot,” she said.

She quit last summer when she returned to work after knee surgery and found that her wage had been lowered to $2.75 per hour, a training rate.

“At $2.75 it would barely cover my cost of getting to work. I wouldn’t make any money,” she said.

Harold said he believes Goodwill can afford to pay him minimum wage, based on the salaries paid to Goodwill executives. While according to the company’s own figures about 4,000 of the 30,000 disabled workers Goodwill employs at 69 franchises are currently paid below minimum wage, salaries for the CEOs of those franchises that hold special minimum wage certificates totaled almost $20 million in 2011.

In 2011 the CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southern California took home $1.1 million in salary and deferred compensation. His counterpart in Portland, Oregon, made more than $500,000. Salaries for CEOs of the roughly 150 Goodwill franchises across America total more than $30 million.

Goodwill International CEO Jim Gibbons, who was awarded $729,000 in salary and deferred compensation in 2011, defended the executive pay.

“These leaders are having a great impact in terms of new solutions, in terms of innovation, and in terms of job creation,” he said.

Gibbons also defended time studies, and the whole Section 14 (c) approach. He said that for many people who make less than minimum wage, the experience of work is more important than the pay.

“It’s typically not about their livelihood. It’s about their fulfillment. It’s about being a part of something. And it’s probably a small part of their overall program,” he said.

Read Goodwill’s full statement

And Goodwill and the organizations that run the sheltered workshops are not alone in their support for Section 14 (c). In many cases, the families of the workers who have severe disabilities say their loved ones enjoy the work experience, enjoy getting a paycheck, and the amount is of no consequence.

Sheila Leigland, who is blind, with her guide dog. She quit her job at Goodwill in Great Falls, Montana, after her hourly wage was lowered to $2.75.

“I feel really good about it. I don’t have to worry so much about him,” said Fran Davidson, whose son Jeremy has worked at Goodwill in Great Falls, Montana, for more than a decade. “I know he’s not getting picked on, and he’s in a safe place. He enjoys what he’s doing, and he’s happy, and that’s what we like for our kids.” Jeremy started out working for a sub-minimum wage but did well on his last time study and is currently earning $7.80 an hour, Montana’s minimum wage.

But foes of Section 14 (c) have hopes for a new bill that’s now before Congress that would repeal Section 14 (c) and make sub-minimum wages illegal across the board.

“Meaningful work deserves fair pay,” the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Gregg Harper, R.-Miss., told NBC News. “This dated provision unjustly prohibits workers with disabilities from reaching their full potential.”

The bill is opposed by trade associations for the employers of the disabled, and past attempts to change the law have failed. But Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind and a foe of the sheltered workshop system, is cautiously optimistic that this time the bill will pass, and end what he called a “two-tiered system.”

That system, explained Maurer, says “‘Americans who have disabilities aren’t as valuable as other people,’ and that’s wrong. These folks have value. We should recognize that value.”

Monica Alba contributed to this report.

From L.A. Sweatshop to Anti-Slave Labor Activist

mmigration activist Flor Molina looks out from the offices of the nonprofit Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST). (Photo: Christopher Meeks/YES! Magazine)

by Christa Hillstrom

Flor Molina thought it was her lucky break. At 28, she had just lost her youngest child and was working two jobs in Puebla, Mexico, but not making enough money to feed and clothe her surviving children. At night, she took sewing classes, hoping to one day earn enough money to properly care for them . “I was so afraid that what happened to my baby would happen to my other three children,” she remembers.

So when her sewing teacher told her about a job in the United States that would pay enough money to support her family and maybe even start her own business, she accepted. She had never been out of the country and the job meant leaving her children with her mother indefinitely.

Molina and her sewing teacher were flown to Tijuana, where a powerful woman known in Puebla as “la Senora” met them at the border. She confiscated Molina’s documents and clothing for “safekeeping.” “I thought it was strange,” Molina says, “but she had been living in the U.S. for so long so I thought, she knows how things are run.” A coyote took the two women to Los Angeles, where they were immediately put to work in a sewing factory.

Molina’s workday started at 4 a.m., sewing by the dim light on the machine. During the regular workday, she ironed, unloaded and reloaded delivery trucks and stitched labels into dresses — some for major American stores. When the other workers went home, Molina cleaned the entire factory. She was subjected to physical abuse, and wasn’t allowed to leave the building unattended. She was, for all practical purposes, a slave.

“I thought slavery was only in the books,” she says. “I was surprised to find myself living in it.”

According to the International Labor Organization, nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor — often called modern-day slavery — across the world. Many of them are exploited in agriculture, construction, domestic servitude and manufacturing. An estimated 15,000-17,500 people are trafficked into the United States alone every year.

Molina’s experience is typical. What’s remarkable is what she did with it.

Just 40 days into her internment, Molina broke free. She got permission to go to church alone and figured out how to contact a concerned fellow worker who had noticed Molina’s abuse in the shop. With her help Molina connected with the nonprofit Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST).

CAST has worked with victims of forced labor since 1998 helping them re-enter society and training them as advocates. Survivors are well-positioned to lobby for policies that help victims, curb abuse and prosecute offenders, says Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition. “We’re learning directly from the survivors we’re serving, and that’s informing all of these policy measures to have an impact on future lives.”

One such law is California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010. Molina testified before the California legislature to help urge the bill’s passage. The law requires companies doing business in California with more than $100 million in annual global profits to report their efforts to eliminate slavery from their supply chains. Buck says the law poses a question to both consumers and companies: What are we doing about slavery?

Portraits of survivors that CAST has helped, from a project by photographer Mette Lampcov. (Photo: Christopher Meeks/YES! Magazine)

Molina is now a pioneering member of CAST’s Survivors Caucus, a group of women from 13 countries who escaped forced labor in the United States. They are directly involved in crafting policies that meet the needs of trafficking victims — like what kinds of health care and visa protections they receive.

They also serve as a support group. Although she spent just 40 days in the sewing shop, it took years for Molina to recover emotionally — and eight years to reunite with the children left in Mexico. “I knew I could cry and share these feelings with the other survivors,” Molina says. “I don’t have sisters of my own, but if I had sisters, they would be like them.”

Molina looks ahead to lobbying for a federal counterpart to the California transparency act and a new California law addressing the growing problem of exploitative labor recruitment.

“Now that I’m a grandmother, I want a world free of slavery,” Molina says. “Now that I survived, I want to change something.”

Wal-Mart, Other Fashion Retailers No-Show Summit on Sweatshops

No Deal On Bangladesh Garment Factory Compensation Fund

A Bangladeshi woman holds a photograph of a relative missing in the Rana Plaza building collapse, as she participates in a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Friday. Protesters demanded a minimum monthly salary of $103 and compensation for the victims and injured in the building collapse in April that killed more than 1,000 people.

A Bangladeshi woman holds a photograph of a relative missing in the Rana Plaza building collapse, as she participates in a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Friday. Protesters demanded a minimum monthly salary of $103 and compensation for the victims and injured in the building collapse in April that killed more than 1,000 people.


Families and survivors of the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster in Bangladesh in April who are waiting for compensation from Western companies will have to wait a little longer.

A meeting Thursday of retailers and brands in Geneva, Switzerland, facilitated by the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, ended with only one company announcing measures for the victims: Primark said it would give the families of victims three months’ salary.

More than 1,000 people died in the collapse of the building that housed garment factories, which made clothes for some of the world’s biggest retailers. It was the worst disaster in the history of the global garment industry.

IndustriALL, the international trade union federation that coordinated the talks, said in a statement that only 9 of the 20 invited companies turned up for the meeting. Among those notable by their absence, Spain’s Inditex, the company that owns Zara; Benetton, Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney. Those who attended included Bon Marché and Primark.

“Consumers will be shocked that almost a half-year has passed since the Rana Plaza disaster with only one brand so far providing any compensation to the disaster’s victims,” Monika Kemperle, IndustriALL Global Union assistant general secretary, said in the statement. “I respect those brands that came to these meetings. But I cannot understand brands that are not around the table.”

IndustriALL wanted to set up compensation funds for victims of the Rana Plaza disaster as well as the Tazreen factory fire in November 2012 that killed 112 workers. Under its plan, brands and retailers would pay $33.56 million out of a total fund of $74.58 million for victims of the Rana Plaza collapse; they would pay $2.9 million out of $6.44 million for the Tazreen fire fund.

But in a statement, Benetton’s CEO said the Geneva meeting lacked “clarity around the objectives,” adding, “As a result, we decided to focus our efforts and resources in working directly with those affected by the Rana Plaza disaster and their families so that we can provide them with concrete help while they need it the most.”

Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, is about the size of Iowa, but it is home to more than 150 million people — approximately half the U.S. population. In recent years, it has become a garment-exporting power — second only to China. Its low wages and light regulation make it an attractive destination for Western brands.

International retailers have been under pressure since the Rana Plaza disaster to improve working conditions and wages. Two plans have been agreed to since the disaster: One, announced by mostly European retailers, would improve fire and building safety in Bangladeshi factories. Critics say it gives labor unions too much power over workplace safety. The other, announced by U.S. companies, including Wal-Mart and Gap, excludes unions. But some groups who monitor the industry have been highly critical.

NPR’s Julie McCarthy visited some of the victims of the tragedy, and reported on how they were coping with the loss of their loved ones and their livelihoods.

Our Planet Money team is looking at the garment industry in Bangladesh and other countries as its creates own T-shirt. You can click here to listen to some of the team’s podcasts.