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What would you do if you were forced to make a choice about the best way to die?

Imagine you are an 18 year old woman; you have been working in a garment factory in Bangladesh since you were 13 years old and you have worked in several different factories, the latest one for three years. You produce clothing for global fashion labels.

If you fail to meet quotas – which determine how many garments you must make per day and set by management – you are verbally and physically abused, yelled at, slapped or sometimes pulled away from your machine. Doors on each floor are locked, windows are often barred and exits frequently blocked by boxes of merchandise. Your working conditions are poor.

You earn $68.00 per month, which even in Bangladesh is not enough to afford a reasonable standard of living, you pay $30.00 per month for a room 10ft x 12ft (or 3.6 x 3.5 metres), another $5.00 for utilities, the bathroom is shared among many people. This is already almost 50% of your salary spent, with the remainder you need to buy food, clothes, medicines and other essentials. Your protein intake is inadequate and it is likely you are malnourished.

This is the story of Sumi Abedin a young Bangladeshi worker who until 24 November 2012 worked at the Tazreen garment factory.

Sumi and Kalpona Akter are in Australia on a speaking tour sponsored by Oxfam Australia – an International Aid and Development agency who aims to tackle poverty and injustice globally. Kalpona and now Sumi both work at the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity Centre.  Just before Easter I had the privilege of hearing them speak about their life, experiences and campaign to fight for a better life and to improve the rights and conditions for the four million, mostly young and female garment workers in Bangladesh.

When Sumi set off for work at the Tazreen garment factory on the 24th November 2012, it was like any normal working day, she had no idea of the horror that would unfold that evening or the unimaginable, selfless choice she would make. Sumi explains she started work at 8.30am, had her lunch, then around 6.30 in the evening workers alerted management to a fire in the factory. Middle management said “there is no fire, go back to work”. Five minutes later the smell of smoke worsened and spread through the factory, the 1500 factory workers panicked and rushed to escape, they found the doors to the stairwell exits of the nine story building locked, workers were crushed in the stampede.

The electricity went off during the fire and Sumi tells of following one of her co-workers using the light from his cell phone to try to find an exit. They were on the 3rd floor and the exit was locked. Sumi had to choose between burning alive or jumping to certain death, she chose to jump. Imagine having to make this choice.

“I decided to jump, so my parents would be able to identify my body, I didn’t think I would live, as I became conscious I heard a lot of screaming, when I stood up, I could hardly walk. I saw one of the former workers from the factory and asked him to take me to my parents’ house.” She went onto explain that her parents borrowed money from the neighbours and took her to the hospital where she learnt she had broken her arm and leg and and had a blood clot in her head. Sumi spent the six weeks in hospital. She along with the other injured workers were given 100,000 Bangladeshi Taka (about 1,160 AUD) from Bangladeshi authorities, which immediately went to cover medical bills, leaving nothing over.

Of the 112 workers who died, the majority were burnt alive, some jumped to their death. Kalpona explains that the incinerated bodies of 69 workers were found on the third floor, behind a locked door.  The majority escaped using the bamboo scaffolding that was on the outside of the building. Many workers who survived have injuries like Sumi does that mean they will not be able to work in a factory again.

Kalpona went inside the factory the next day, while the fire was still burning, to find the labels that were being produced. She found labels from C&A, KIK, Walmart, Disney, Dickies and ENYCE. She did this is so that her organisation and other globally could try to hold the brands accountable for conditions under which their clothes are made and to fight for compensation for the families who lost loved ones in the fire and for injured workers. Without this evidence, many brands simply deny their clothes were being made in the factory where the tragedy occurred.

Sumi says: “I came to [Australia] to tell companies who source from Bangladesh to make the workplaces safer”.
You can support Bangladeshi garment factory workers by:

Calling on The Just Group (Just Jeans, Jay Jays) and Best and Less (two popular companies groups in Australia) to:

• Immediately sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord;
• Publish the names and addresses of all supplier factories (K-mart, Nike, adidas, Puma, Timberland, Levis and H&M are already doing this);
• Ensure that all workers making your products receive a living wage;
• Ensure all workers making your products are free to join a union and collectively bargain in the workplace

Eight Australia companies have already signed the Accord they are: Cotton on Group. Forever New, K-Mart Australia, Pacific Brands includes Bonds, Berlei, Jockey, Hush Puppies and King Gee) , Pretty Girl Fashion Group Pty, Specialty Fashions Australia (includes millers, Katies, Crossroads, Autograph, Rivers, City Chic), Target and Woolworths Australia.

You can also sign Oxfam’s petition which can be found at:

https://www.oxfam.org.au/my/act/bangladesh-fire-and-safety-accord/?utm_source=Bangladesh-speaking-blog

The 3 things website suggests you:

Log onto facebook or twitter + ask them:
Hey, I really love your clothes but I care about worker’s rights as well. I just want to know if you publish the location of your factories? How do you ensure that the people who make your clothes are treated fairly?
http://3things.org.au/events/hidden-fashion

About The Author

Kelly Dent works for Oxfam Australia, prior to working with Oxfam she lived and worked in Sri Lanka and frequently spent time in Asia, in particular in Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia working with garment workers through unions and NGOs to campaign for a decent wage, safe jobs with dignity and the right to join and union and organise to obtain their rights.
Imagine you are an 18 year old woman; you have been working in a garment factory in Bangladesh since you were 13 years old and you have worked in several different factories, the latest one for three years. You produce clothing for global fashion labels. If you fail to meet quotas - which determine how many garments you must make per day and set by management - you are verbally and physically abused, yelled at, slapped or sometimes pulled away from your machine. Doors on each floor are locked, windows are often barred and exits frequently blocked by boxes of…

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