National Sweatshop Workers Tour Kicks Off at Macalester College, IWW Headquarters
April 21, 2010
Kalpona Akter, of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), paying her respects at the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 workers, overwhelmingly women, died because their factory was locked from the outside. In February 2010, 21 workers died in a similar fire in a Bangladeshi Factory Fire.
Kalpona has been working in sweatshops since she was twelve. Coming from already-desperate poverty, she spent a few years thinking of her exploitation in relatively benign terms: “I thought I had a good job! I worked for them, and they paid me money!” Even though, as she described moments later, she was working non-stop, for 23 days at a stretch, and living on the factory floors. At the age of twelve, she live with her family about 5 days a month between ‘shifts.’ It wasn’t until Kalpona heard about Bangladesh’s formal – and rarely enforced – labor laws that she realized her job was actually a horrendous violation of what other people thought her rights should, and could, be. Today, Kalpona is a union activist working at Bangladesh Center for Worker Soldarity (BCWS).
Along with Zehra Bano from the Home Based Women Workers union in Pakistan, Akter kicked off a national speaking tour on Friday at Macalester College. The “Sweat Shop Workers Speak Out!” tour is organized nationally by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and Sweat Free Communities (SFC), and was organized locally by the Twin Cities Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, ‘the wobblies’) and Macalester College Religious Studies. At many of the stops, other associated events will also be held. In the Twin Cities, an evening benefit concert was held for the workers by the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union with its local headquarters in Minneapolis’ historic Grain Belt Brewery Bottling Building in Northeast Minneapolis. Local bands Cloves and Big Strong Men performed, along with performances from the Hype Dance Troupe, and DJ sets from DJ Colin of Spinner’s Suite.
Zehra Bano, of the Pakistani Home Based Women Workers’ Union, represents women who sew soccer balls in their homes,
according to piece-work rates.
Kalpona’s experience – moving from a situation of such desperate exploitation and poverty that she herself didn’t even realize it – is emblematic of the situation of workers in Sweatshops and Export Processing Zones (EPZ) around the world: it was not until Kalpona discovered that laws existed protecting her as a worker that she felt emboldened to question the conditions of her labor, and to struggle to have those conditions improved. The tour she and Zehra are now on addresses precisely the disconnect between nice words and good laws, and their lack of associated action and enforcement. Continue reading