Vision and Motivation
“The building has minor damage, there is nothing serious,” Mohamed Rana insisted. “It will stand for 100 years!”  The assembled textile workers exchanged anxious glances, but when the factory owner threatened wage sanctions, they filed reluctantly back into Dhaka’s Rana Plaza Complex. Hours before, a gaping crack stretching across five floors had appeared, sending frightened employees running into the streets.  Just 45 minutes later, another of Bangladesh’s power blackouts plunged the factory into darkness, and the heavy generators on the roof roared to life.  As their vibrations destabilized the flimsy walls, the entire building came crashing down. Over a thousand workers were killed on April 24, 2013, with many more left injured and unable to work again, sparking worldwide outrage and a demand for meaningful change. 
Dhaka’s winding streets are dotted with nondescript concrete towers like Rana Plaza, rising from muddy markets and makeshift homes, and built with little concern for building codes or quality of materials.  Most are textile factories packed with the country’s four million garment industry employees. These workers remain the world’s poorest, performing what Pope Francis has described as “slave labor.”  Even the inmates of Bangladesh’s infamous prisons are better nourished. 
Reformers have criticized poor safety standards, arguing that workers did not simply “die” in the frequent factory fires – they were “killed.”  As one worker rights activist puts it, “It really is an extraordinary achievement, in an ironic sense, that the U.S. apparel industry has managed to replicate early 20th century conditions that were so brutal and cruel to workers.”  Nonetheless, the government has remained unresponsive. Commenting on the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, Bangladesh’s finance minister remarked, “…the present difficulties…well, I don’t think it is really serious – it is an accident. And the steps we have taken in order to make sure it doesn’t happen [again] are quite elaborate and will be appreciated by all.”  Nonetheless, in the year following the disaster, fires continued to ravage factories at a rate of one to four per month, leaving hundreds of workers injured.  As 10% of Bangladeshi parliamentarians are also factory owners  , and many other media tycoons,  reform is painfully slow as safety agreements are proposed and quickly forgotten. 
In November 2013, six months after the Rana Plaza collapse, 200,000 strikers arranged blockades, undeterred by rubber bullets and tear gas.  Eventually, terrified of damaging an industry which contributes to over 17% of the country’s GDP,  the monthly minimum wage was increased by 79%, to $68.  However, it was the international response to the Rana Plaza disaster itself, amplified by the tireless efforts of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), which truly “changed everything.”  Under unrelenting pressure and media coverage, over 175 international retailers – including Adidas, Puma, Zara, and Fruit of the Loom – pledged support to improve worker conditions and avert another tragedy.
Goals and Objectives
In the ruins of the Tazreen factory, BCWS’s Kalpona Akter searched for charred labels that would identify the Western brands using the factories.  For years, she had campaigned to persuade manufacturers to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord (BFSA), a legally binding five-year plan to rectify safety breaches and empower unions; however, manufacturers had remained unwilling to support the initiative. But after the disaster, 31 brands and retailers signed the BFSA within days  and the pact now has over 175 signatories.  “We noticed a level of resolve by all stakeholders to avoid a repeat” of the backsliding that had previously been the norm, Akter explained. “Those brands that have signed up can’t spin their way out of this one.”  Proponents believe the Accord represents a significant advance for shifting the balance of power towards workers.  Otherwise, they ask, “why would the brands fight it?” 
Ultimately BCWS is committed to guaranteeing safe working conditions and fair wages. Akter believes empowering unions is critical. “If you are serious about preventing future deaths,” she argues, “you must involve workers in the monitoring.”  The Accord provides unions with a role as counterparties to the signatory brands, in order to ensure its provisions are truly enforced. 
From the age of 12, Akter herself worked 14-to-15-hour days as a sewing machine assistant to support her sick parents, often snatching a few hours of sleep on the factory floor. For years she genuinely believed the “owners were kind people who gave us jobs,”  but after attending a labor law class she was “born a second time.”  “Oh my gosh, there is a law – and how they’ve been cheating us!”  “I became an organizer,” she recalls, “and never stopped.”  At fifteen she became president of the union, but was fired for her advocacy. In 2001 she co-founded BCWS, an organization dedicated to creating a “congenial atmosphere for increasing productivity and contributing to the national economy.”  Undeterred by being blacklisted from numerous factories, she delighted in “becoming a problem maker for the whole industry.” 
In 2005, former denim factory worker and respected community leader Aminul Islam joined Akter and became well known for his bold advocacy and commitment to nonviolence.  Taking on his fellow workers’ problems “as his own case, as if it were his own pain,” Islam was also steadfast in his determination to keep fighting for worker rights, insisting, “I want to work, it is my passion.”  Unsurprisingly, “many workers would go to the office wanting [Islam] to represent them in disputes with management. The office [was] always full of workers.”  Despite – or perhaps because of – their popularity, Akter and Islam were regularly threatened and detained. Attempting to reform Bangladesh’s lucrative but murky garment industry was dangerous due to a toxic cocktail of politics and corruption. “Everyone” would join unions, one worker noted, “if they did not fear retaliation.” 
Bangladesh’s national police force, particularly the ominously titled Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), “has a well-deserved reputation for brutality, corruption, and incompetence,”  with factory owners routinely bribing them to “force workers protesting late wages to [go back to] work.”  Custody deaths have “assumed endemic proportions”; police openly admit to using torture to extract information, and phone taps have become so routine that a government center exists to monitor them.  Even the apparently innocuous Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association (BGMEA) has been described as a “country within a country,” “capable of applying any kind of power.”  Workers attempting to form unions have been beaten, robbed and held at gunpoint. 
Aminul Islam himself was plagued with nightmares of torture after police detention, and on April 2012, as the authorities struggled to “vanish [the center] forever,” he disappeared.  Two days later his body was discovered, hastily buried in a pauper’s grave, bearing marks of torture “definitely [inflicted] by a professional goon squad.” 
Determined to continue with her advocacy, Akter mounted an international campaign to reinstate the Centre and demand justice for Islam’s killers. International labor rights groups and Western apparel manufacturer groups wrote to President Hasina requesting an investigation into Islam’s death.  Bowing to commercial and political pressure, the government reluctantly formed a high-level committee to attempt to solve the murder. 
Message and Audience
Although some Twitter users urged others to “#BoycottBangladesh,” Akter’s message to international consumers was different. Instead of shutting down factories, which would be “suicide” for millions of workers with no other employment options,  Akter emphasized the importance of pressuring apparel companies “to make the workplaces safe, to raise wages, so we can have these jobs in a dignified way.” “If people overseas start to boycott our clothes,” one worker added, “our lives will become even worse.” According to Akter, “We want to remind [the public] that it is the greedy corporations who made [the industry] dirty, and they should stay in Bangladesh and clean it up.” 
Reba Sikder broke down in tears as she recalled the Rana Plaza collapse. “It’s true I survived,” she told a packed hall of University of Minnesota students, “but I saw a large number of my coworkers die.”  Together with Kalpona Akter, she was invited to address students throughout the US as part of a United Students Against Sweatshops “End Deathtraps” tour to “take direction from grassroots unions to hold brands accountable for labor abuses.” 
On the first anniversary of the collapse, students across the US demanded that university-endorsed apparel licensees sign the Accord,  organized vigils and rallies, and even occupied one university president’s office to push for severing ties with Jansport.  Over 150 campuses are involved in the USAS Campaign with impressive results. 23 universities now insist their brands sign the Accord, and 17 high-profile college logo brands including Adidas and Fruit of the Loom adhere to its requirements.  Fashion and ethics-savvy students are enthusiastic about the campaign; as USAS student coordinator Garrett Strain notes, “I don’t think any Minnesota student wants to see a U of M T-shirt pulled from the wreckage at the next factory disaster.” 
In addition to student advocacy, Akter also lobbies the US government to “put genuine pressure on U.S. corporations and on overseas suppliers in places like Bangladesh in the context of U.S. trade relationships, to compel greater respect for the rights of workers.”  In February 2014, she urged the US government to ensure collective bargaining powers, uphold workplace safety, and urge Bangladesh to conform with International Labor Organization standards.  In June 2013, the American government suspended Bangladesh’s export privileges to the US after a review uncovered “serious shortcomings” in safety standards.  Akter believes that this suspension “sent a clear message to the garment industry that compliance with human rights, labor rights, and workplace safety must be improved.”  Bangladesh’s progress was again assessed in July 2014, and although conditions had improved, the American government’s insisted that “there is much more work still be done” before privileges could be reinstated. 
Although she regularly addresses international audiences through interviews and magazine articles, as a former worker herself, Akter advocates primarily from the factory floors. Through open stage discussions, International Women’s Day events and training sessions, she tirelessly educates workers and insists that all safety reports are translated into Bengali.  Workers, such as Nomita Nath, a union president in Chittagong, are equally passionate about improving conditions: “I am a woman and I want female workers to have rights. The only way to hear a woman’s voice is through the union…that’s my struggle…union and unity.” 
At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, India officially gained its independence; yet within hours, bloody riots rocked the nation. Just over two decades later, the region was wrenched apart once more as East Pakistan secured independence from Islamabad and Bangladesh was born. As political groups vied for supremacy, martial law was imposed briefly and trade unions temporarily banned. Within five years, two presidents were assassinated, a third imprisoned on charges of corruption, and power seized in two military coups. It was not until 2001 that Sheikh Hasina became the first prime minister in the country’s history to complete a five-year term. 
President Hasina has branded union leaders as “enemies of the nation” who must be dealt with “using an iron hand”, with the help of new “industrial police.” She has warned, “we will not spare anyone who is behind [attempts to organize for a higher minimum wage]. We will find out the provocateurs and try them.” She has also accused the opposition party of “provoking the garment workers to create chaos with an evil design to gain political benefit.” 
Although Bangladesh is an electoral democracy, vocal opposition is not tolerated, and corruption is endemic. Political activities, rallies and demonstrations are tightly regulated, and several high-profile opposition leaders have disappeared under suspicious circumstances.  Even the country’s High Court expressed concern about the wellbeing of labor leader Montu Ghosh, specifying that the police were prohibited from “torturing or humiliating him.”  Unsurprisingly, in this claustrophobic political climate, BCWS was harassed by both the government and the factory owners while international apparel manufacturers remained unconcerned.
The Bangladeshi government claims that the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions 87 and 98, signed a year after Bangladeshi independence, prohibit dismissing, threatening or injuring trade union members, while a flurry of recent legislation, including the Bangladesh Labor Act (2006), EPZ Workers Association and Industrial Relations Act (2004), were drafted to enhance these protections.  Yet agile legal maneuvering ensured that freedom of association and collective bargaining powers remain elusive; in many regions, workers’ associations exist only on paper.  In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, workers continued to face intimidation; one factory owner was witnessed throwing a union registration application in the dustbin, while another accused a union member of “polluting the factory” and told her “to work in a brothel.”  Even the NGO Bureau can be invoked to disrupt civil society and the protections offered by NGOs. In August 2010 alone, over 300 NGOs registrations were cancelled, for alleged “corruption and misuse of foreign funds.” Two months before, the BCWS registration had also been canceled, bank accounts frozen and property seized. 
Despite intimidation, BCWS continued to document and publicize cases of union intimidation to demonstrate the inefficacy of existing legal protections. Following international campaigning, the organization’s registration was reinstated in August 2013. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International wrote letters to President Hasina urging her to cease business with the factories involved in the BCWS detention; 19 members of Congress repeated the same demand, and the ambassador for Bangladesh was contacted. 
Together with US senators, thousands of university students and millions of Bangladesh’s poorest workers, Kalpona Akter has helped secure tangible improvements in the nation’s factories; over 1,500 factories have been inspected for unsafe electrical boxes, structural soundness, and sprinkler systems by the Accord’s 110 engineers.  Maternity leave, daycare centers and factory level unions have also been achieved in some factories. 
In the wake of the media frenzy, over 175 brands worldwide signed the Accord, yet the Arcadia Group, owner of popular British stores Topshop and Miss Selfridge, remained a notable exception.  Insisting that Arcadia ensured its factories in Bangladesh were “compliant with our own stringent code of conduct,” billionaire CEO Sir Philip Green initially declined to commit his support.  Within weeks, Topshop became a “battering ram,”  as critics created a Change.org petition attracting nearly ten thousand signatures, lambasted the store in the media, and even donned black veils for a symbolic funeral outside its flagship store.  Finally, in September 2013, Arcadia capitulated and joined as a signatory. While some prominent brands including JanSport remain resistant to the Accord, pressure is mounting as increasing numbers of universities drop contracts with licensees refusing to comply. 
In spite of these accomplishments, problems still remain. The Accord’s inspectors have identified issues at “every factory [they]’ve inspected,” noting that there are lockable gates at 90 percent of the factories.  A 2014 British documentary showed girls as young as thirteen being slapped and kicked in Bangladeshi garment factories. Further footage shows managers in the Vase Apparel Factory coaching employees on answering inspectors’ questions, hastily bringing out safety equipment for the duration of the inspection, and demanding workers attest to their participation in nonexistent training sessions. 
Labor activism in Bangladesh’s tense political climate remains perilous. On May 11, 2014, one union leader was abducted, while two others were beaten and robbed at gunpoint the next day. Just one week later, a union supervisor was abducted and told he would be killed if he continued his campaigning. Although BCWS’s registration has been reinstated, Akter remains uneasy, as “our phone is still tapped, and we are being followed, getting many visits and phone calls from security intelligence.”  Islam’s murder remains unsolved, with the high-level committee charged with its investigation deeming it “mysterious.”  Despite these risks, the labor movement’s drive continues unabated. “We know and we are aware we’ll be threatened,” said one union leader, “but no matter what obstacles come our way, we’ll meet them.” 
Learn More Section
 Siegle, Lucy, and Jason Burke. We Are What We Wear: Unravelling Fast Fashion and the collapse of Rana Plaza. : The Guardian, 2014. Kindle Edition.
 Timmerman, K. (2012). Where am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes [Kindle Edition].
 Fault Lines- Made in Bangladesh. (2013, Al Jazeera English). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dQGl_lswYY
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 “You can safely invest in Bangladesh” – Interviews with Kalpona Akter. (2010, January 1). http://vimeo.com/12425670
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 Over 200 Killed in Bangladesh Factory Collapse After Workers Forced to Ignore Building’s Dangers. (2013, April 25). http://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/25/over_200_killed_in_bangladesh_factory
 Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety. (2013, April 25). http://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/25/survivor_of_bangladeshs_tazreen_factory_fir
News and Analysis
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