In this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast, Nazma Akter of the Awaj Foundation shares her first-hand accounts of what it’s like to work in the garment sector in Bangladesh and her perspectives on what needs to change to create a fairer, safer future for fashion.
In this episode, you’ll also hear Nazma talk about:
- What brands need to do to step up and protect the people making their clothes.
- How the pandemic — and the subsequent order cancellations from brands — affected garment workers in Bangladesh
- What sorts of shifts we need for a better industry
- How Awaj Foundation is building solidarity and worker power for garment makers in Bangladesh
- and more.
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app.
The transcript of this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast is below.
ELIZABETH JOY: Hey there, and welcome or welcome back to another episode of the Conscious Style Podcast.
This is a very special episode today, because we will be hearing directly from someone who has been leading efforts for worker rights on the frontlines of the garment sector in Bangladesh for decades.
I will be interviewing Nazma Akter, who began her journey working in a garment factory at just 11 years old.
After witnessing ongoing issues and abuses in the garment industry, Nazma founded a trade union, the Sommilito Garments Srakmik Federation, which now has over 600,000 members.
Nazma also founded and currently directs the Awaj Foundation, a worker rights organization in Bangladesh.
So in this conversation with Nazma, you are going to hear a first-hand perspective of what it’s like to work in the garment industry in Bangladesh today.
And Nazma is also going to be talking about:
- What brands need to do to step up and protect the people making their clothes,
- How the pandemic affected garment workers in Bangladesh,
- and what sorts of shifts we need for a fairer and safer industry.
Nazma will also talk about the work that Awaj Foundation is doing in Bangladesh and how we can support that work.
Before we get into this conversation though, I just wanted to quickly remind you to make sure that you are subscribed or are following the Conscious Style Podcast so that you do not miss any future episodes like this one.
And if you are liking the podcast so far, taking a moment to write a short review or give a rating on Apple Podcasts really does go a long way in helping the show reach more people. Thank you for your support!
Okay, now to the show…
Now you are going to hear Nazma starting us off with an introduction of herself, her work, and why she is so passionate about fighting for worker rights.
NAZMA AKTER: I’m Nazma Akter. I started working in the garment sector when I was 11 years old with my mother in Bangladesh.
And from that day until now, I am fighting in Bangladesh for ready-made garment workers in the global supply chain and fast fashion.
We have a lot of challenges and difficulties we are facing in the fast fashion industry because most of the brands come from the USA, Europe, America, UK, Australia, and Canada for the cheap labor. Bangladesh is one of the lowest wages in the supply chain, where garment workers’ salary is less than $100.
Mostly women workers are working and they are coming from the countryside. So the long working hour 10 to 12 hours work, seven days a week. In many cases, gender based violence, harassment, abuse. Also they have no job security and no job protection.
ELIZABETH: Mhm. Certainly a lot of big issues to address in fashion.
As we know, most of the people who buy fashion, particularly fast fashion, in the world — in the US, in countries in Europe and elsewhere — are very detached from who makes our clothes.
And so I think that this conversation we’re going to have is so important to get your first-hand account of what it’s like to work in the garment industry in a place like Bangladesh with your own personal experience, as well as what you know from leading union efforts and running a nonprofit that works with thousands and thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh.
So, you touched on this a little bit, but could you paint a picture for us what it’s like to work in the garment industry today in Bangladesh?
NAZMA: Mostly young and teenage people are working in this sector.
They are coming from the countryside when they are 15 or 16 [years old] or sometimes [younger] to urban areas to work for fast fashion.
They are coming maybe with some relatives or neighbors or maybe a sister or cousin and they start work as a sewing helper or a different assistant type of job.
It is not the happiest job. But you know in Bangladesh we don’t have alternate job opportunities for the poor and less educated people.
So garment jobs are important, but this job does not give any value, any respect, or and dignity.
This job is always exploiting and exploiting.
It’s the eight year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, and we know how this catastrophe and this kind of corporate murder killed 1,137 workers and severely injured thousands of workers.
But fast fashion was not taking any responsibility because in Bangladesh there are a lot of fire incidences and people get severely injured and die but nobody is bothered.
So what is going on? The workers sacrifice their life, [the brands] kill them, and then they concentrate.
So when the people are coming for the lower market, and people are too greedy across the world, including Bangladesh suppliers, they are not thinking about the workers’ life and livelihood, their children, or their family.
They are not thinking about their hunger, because in Bangladesh, most of the garment workers have a malnutrition problem. They don’t have sufficient food.
They don’t have proper housing and shelter or sanitation and drinking.
Many of the garment workers are single mothers because their husbands are cheating, have a fake address and fake marriage and then after they found the man has another wife or children or man is loving with other girls and left them. A woman then has to take all of that responsibility.
And the [lack of] maternity protection is also one of the bad things happening in Bangladesh. Some factory care about the workers maternity protection and try to give them benefits, but in many cases, they do not.
But the big challenge we face is with the daycare center. Garment workers, when they have a baby, after two months they need to come back to work and they send their children to the countryside and then have no breastfeeding rights and the children are staying with their family — grandma or aunt, whoever.
It is also not good for the workers; it’s not good for the children’s mental and physical growth because at least six months you have to breast-feed.
On the other hand, the girls who are coming back to work in the fast fashion industry, she is also mentally very disturbed and mentally upset because her children [aren’t with her] and it also badly affects children’s life.
When they’re working in the factory too much or the workload production pressure they give target that they need to fulfill if they cannot fulfill, the boss is yelling, screaming and shouting, sometimes also physically assaulting.
In many cases, also they cut their overtime or financial deduction.
Gender-based violence is also very easy to do in the factory because the women are earning very low wages. Also, the women are the labor force and the men are the boss.
So you know when people are hungry, when people do not have sufficient food and sufficient things, it is easy to exploit.
That is why boss are asking, I will give you this, I will give you this, and come with me and mutual sexual relation also happen because the women do not have an alternate choice.
In many cases, the girl doesn’t want that. Then the boss creates problems. [They say] she’s not good worker, she’s not a good performer, she’s not well-behaved, and give many excuses then [the worker] needs to leave the factory. And also the brand do not look after them at all.
ELIZABETH: Wow yeah there is a lot to unpack there and really sit with.
But something that I think is important to dive deeper into is that you called the 2013 Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh a corporate murder, rather than an accident.
And that language that you used really points to how brands are so complicit in these unsafe, unjust and really exploitive conditions happening in garment factories today.
So what do you think that brands, with their power and their financial capabilities, need to be doing to protect the people making their clothes?
NAZMA: The brands should be taking their responsibility, and they have to implement the international standard and their code of conduct and the UN guidelines, whatever we have.
And brands should ensure living wages, freedom of association, and collective bargaining, and there should be no harassment, no abuse, and there also should be safety.
Now we have the Bangladesh Accord, but we want to continue Accord and also have an international legally-binding accord for safety measures.
Brands should give the fair price [to suppliers] and then workers should get their fair wages.
There should be commitments, because a brands are taking so much profit, and suppliers also, but our workers are hungry, our workers are beggars. And when Rana Plaza, and all of the accident or murder happen, and [the workers] need to sacrifice their lives.
So peaceful industrial relation and how the workers get a better standard, their livelihood and their living condition.
And that is why they need to plan and properly design the action plan for how the workers should not be hungry and not be cheated by anyone.
So there needs to be responsible business practices, and transparency and accountability is also very important.
Adequate daycare center is very important because our women are leaving this sector due to lack of daycare center and worker-friendly workplace.
So you mentioned the Bangladesh Accord. Could you give us a bit more background on what that is for any listeners that might be unfamiliar with that?
The Accord is very important because the Accord is a legally binding agreement with the global unions and the fashion brands and retailers.
And it’s a agreement ensuring that safety remediation is established at the workplace. It is very important because when you have a legal binding, if you are violating any rules from any part, there is a system for arbitration, there is a system for a court case.
So that is why it is important, but when it is going to voluntarily anything to do, it is like a charity, someone might do, someone may not do, so that is why the brand should sign the international Accord for all over the world where the garments are being produced, as in Bangladesh.
I think that’s a really good analogy of brands’ voluntary commitments being kind of like charity.
Some brands might do it, others (most) will not do it, and so we really need that legally binding aspect there to actually protect workers.
And in addition to the legally binding agreements like the Bangladesh Accord, what other sorts of shifts do you think need to happen for us to actually reach a fairer safer fashion industry?
NAZMA: The powerful changes first need to be equal power distribution system and the previous system needs to be changed.
And systemic change is very important and also power distribution from the brand side and supplier side as well.
The worker should get the equal power and price margins should be fairly calculated where worker will get the decent wages and living wages.
Also in Bangladesh, we don’t have the social protection system like the USA. And in the COVID pandemic, thousands of thousands of workers lost their jobs.
They had no social protection. So the workers were not just scared of the Coronavirus; they are also scared about going hungry.
So, the social protection, the unemployment benefit and insurance policy are very important things that need to be addressed.
And also women empowerment [is important]. Women should be able to raise their voice and women should have no fear and not be scared and have the right to organize and the right to bargain.
And union rights and collective bargaining rights are very important because if the workers have a good negotiation environment and culture enabling creating, they can also increase their betterment.
Also, it can also affect their productivity.
Seems like a charity, but real benefit, real rights, and real recognition is still not in the garment sector or supply chain.
So there should be this kind of system and this kind of power should be everywhere.
And everyone should be respectful and have freedom of expression.
The climate change environmental issue is also a key issue in that whole supply chain and fast fashion because there are also a lot of chemicals and a lot of things that also effect our nature and our life.
There are a lot of changes that need to happen in fashion for sure.
Something that you mentioned was the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on garment makers in Bangladesh.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the effects of the pandemic and the subsequent order cancellations from brands on the garment industry in Bangladesh?
NAZMA: Oh my god, I was so disappointed.
I was so depressed and I was almost going to die.
Because the European, American, Canadian, all the brands when they suspended, held, and discounted the goods.
And the company also were giving 35% discounts last year and also worker gave their salary because when [the brands] don’t pay this and also the workers couldn’t get their salary on time.
Every day, every moment there were illegal dismissals. A lot of women were pregnant, and they lost their job and those workers fighting every day.
And when the workers’ job is gone, the single mother is under pressure because many factories also closed down due to order cancellations.
Also there was so called bankruptcy when the bankruptcy happened in Europe or America, then our companies [in Bangladesh] did not get paid, so that also threatened our workers life.
And normally, the brands are paying the bill 45 to 80 days [later] but last time they paid the bill 80 days to 245 days after.
So it’s also when they don’t get the bill they didn’t want to pay the salary, and not a single brand are giving any support — anything at all. Even until now.
From 26th of March last year, Bangladesh started the lockdown then gradually is open and close and not a single brand representative visited a factory and saw how the working conditions were, the social distance, safety conditions, because everything was being monitored online.
But the workers life is threatened; workers life is dangerous and without workers work, the European and American supply chain fashion industry will collapse but [the brands] are not in the factory.
When the workers are working, there should be the CEO of Walmart present in his supply chain. The supplier who is producing for Walmart or other company should be in the factory, but nobody’s doing that. Nobody’s going to do that. But they are going to do that online.
And now Bangladesh is locked down and everything is closed except the garment factories.
And everything is closed so there is no transportation, there are no vehicles, and workers life is so threatened.
They are taking very terrible, dangerous transportation with too many people together and it is too crowded; there is no social distance, no safety.
So this is the way the supply chain is going on.
This is the pandemic; the triple pandemic are facing our workers.
And day by day their job is difficult; their life is getting threatened and many factories have reduced the number of workers and they still need to fulfill their production.
For example, before they had maybe 100 workers. Now maybe they have 85 workers. So the 85 workers have to cover the [missing] 15 workers.
So this is the way that it is happening and this is the way they are working and nobody cares about the worker safety, social distance.
The whole country is on lockdown, but workers life is very threatened and they are working 100% in the factory; 100% production is running.
So where is the social distancing? Where is this worker safety? What is the isolation? Where is the commitment? What will be the compensation? What is the weeks’ benefit? What is that weeks’ allowance? Where is the protection, social protection?
So this is the issue, the fast fashion industry is killing and killing over profiting and they are greedy.
It needs to stop because you know, it’s a pandemic for everyone.
People are not thinking because ‘it is not happening to me.’
And also the business and politics are together. Like in Bangladesh, 80% of the parliament members are business people; some garment owner are the ministers.
Even you can see with the American government with Donald Trump… everywhere the businesses are so powerful.
This capitalism, globalization, neo-liberalization, and also artificial intelligence and robots is killing all the human things.
Even the automation also reduced women’s job in the garment factories because the women are in lower positions, and their jobs are declining due to artificial intelligence.
Nobody’s thinking about the workers. And nobody’s thinking about it because everyone is selfish, but without [the garment workers], the work is not running but nobody is caring about them.
ELIZABETH: Yeah I think that summed it up so well.
Garment makers are fashion’s essential workers, and yet they are so consistently undervalued, underpaid, and really left unprotected.
But as you mentioned, many governments are really in the hands of the businesses — whether that’s the factories in Bangladesh or the fashion brands in the US in Europe — so where can we go from there?
How do we actually drive change and hold the fashion brands and factories accountable when the people who are supposed to be holding them accountable — i.e. the officials that we elected into office — are not doing their job and maybe even don’t have the motivation to do so, given those connections. Like what can we do?
NAZMA: You know, in business, you need to be investing and you need to make profit.
If you’re not investing and you are not caring about your workers, it will not last in the long term or sustain after a lot of time.
So, that is why you need to do that.
Also the governments are committed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. So, if we want to achieve those goals, no one can be behind. If someone is behind and someone in front, it will not work.
That is why the brand has to take their own responsibility to ensure protection and safety is there.
The supply chain is their workers, their people, their goods, so they have to be responsible for this and they have to be accountable.
That is why we need solidarity. We need support from the different stakeholders: unions, organizations, students, consumers, women’s activist groups, everyone needs to be raising their voice for this legally binding and accountability system that needs to be created.
Also, we need to be putting pressure on different government and also we need legal penalties and a due diligence system.
When our workers have been in protest or have any demand, they are blacklisted; they lose their jobs and they are arrested and a lot of things happen.
But when the brand makes mistakes, or a supplier makes mistakes — even the Rana Plaza 8 years ago — because if our workers murder anyone, they would be punished, they will be in jail.
But you know, Rana Plaza collapsed, thousands of workers injured and died, but what is the punishment? What is that system? That kind of system needs to be established and brands should be also held accountable and also penalized with legal charges. So, this kind of system needs to be adopted.
And you are doing so much important work in this regard. So, could you tell us about your work and the work of Awaj Foundation and the Sommilto Garment Sramik Federation?
NAZMA: Awaj Foundation is a grassroots worker rights organization.
So, we mainly focus on these areas: leadership, freedom of association, collective bargaining, living wages, and gender based violence.
These are the key issues and we are trying to empower and create women’s empowerment and leadership where they can bargain and they can organize their own union.
We have area legal aid support, health, training, emergency relief and also cultural programs.
So, we mainly educate workers about their rights and responsibilities, labor law, health, nutrition, financial management, and all kinds of areas.
We also educate the factory management, working towards creating grievance handling mechanisms, engaging in conflict dispute and trust building.
So, we are working very much in a responsible way towards how the company and workers are believing in and trusting each other and make it better.
So, we have various trainings and also we organize. Andour policy is that 80% women should be in the union and be union members. So, that is the way we work.
And we have over 60 unions, 14 collective bargaining, and a few are in pending.
So we have established a 10 percent increase in salary, eight percent increase in salary salary, created a anti-harassment committee, and also we educated factory management about gender-based violence and sexual harassment, abuse, and also established anti harassment communities in the workplace.
And we are also focusing on living wages and where the collective bargaining can increase their salary, and create different allowances.
Also we do demonstrations, lobbying, advocacy, and legal aid support. We are also working with international solidarity [movements] and work towards collaboration action… all kinds of things.
Also we put pressure and campaign against the brands.
So these are the different ways, the different systems and we are gradually making success. But we need to do more and that is why we need to be working together and respectfully believe in each other.
ELIZABETH: Wow. That is truly incredible to hear about the depth and the breadth of all the work that you are doing in Bangladesh. So how can we as listeners get involved and support and amplify your work?
NAZMA: First of all, we need solidarity and we need support.
The issue and we are raising, those are the important issues.
Also we need to get to know each other better because production counties and the receiving countries have a gap into how things are going right or wrong.
Also, we need to network and really create good things.
And also we have to share our struggle, but also we have to share our success because if we are saying everything is bad, bad, bad, bad, it’s also not going to work.
If you are saying everything is good, good good, it does not work.
We need to be balanced.
And also Awaj Foundation is receiving foreign donations.
If people are interested in helping provide legal aid support, awareness training, or emergency relief in pandemic, we need help. Many lost their jobs and many children are also affected when they do not have sufficient food.
Also, people can write a nice article, and people can do so many good things about Bangladeshi garment worker history.
So, there are many ways we can work together and many ways you can support.
And also we have a GoFundMe account for the direct support for the garment workers.
So if you are interested, also you can see and you can visit our website and you can get more interesting thing.
Any kind of support, we are more than happy and welcome however anyone can support with their limitation.
Yeah there really is something for anyone who wants to get involved. And I will link everything, the Awaj Foundation website, social media pages, the GoFundMe, and all of that in the episode description and the show notes for listeners to check out and learn more, and maybe donate.
But for now, I would love to close out this really powerful conversation with one final question and that is what does a better future for fashion look like to you?
NAZMA: The next generation of workers, like their children, should have a good education.
And living wages is very important. [They should be able to afford] food, clothes, housing, health, education, recreation and savings.
And that should be addressed and that should be ensuring in the future.
You know our workers are mal-nutritioned, their children also mal-nutritioned, and future of work and future of automation also is killing people’s jobs.
So, [we need] skill building, education, to compete with the artificial intelligence. With the women’s voice, women’s empowerment and the next generation of children’s empowerment, with betterment of education and good jobs, they can create a good environment and love.
ELIZABETH: And that’s a wrap for this episode. Be sure to take a look at the episode description in your podcast app for the links referenced in this episode, as well as the various links to learn more about today’s guest.
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