For a woman, defending the rights of garment workers is the fight of her life

Sirens hover above Kalpona Akter’s voice as she begins to tell me about her teenage years. She talks fast – there’s a lot to take in – and only pauses momentarily to explain that behind her, the day in Bangladesh is in full swing. When the ambulances passing by the window near her fourth-floor office, decorated with stacks of important papers, get louder, she doesn’t stop but raises her voice. “The longest working time that I can remember was 23 days and 23 nights, without a break,” she says. “I would have two hours to sleep on the production floor. That’s it.”

It’s a heartbreaking start to Akter’s story, but one that echoes that of millions of women working in garment factories producing more than $30 billion in fast fashion for Western retailers each year. In 2019, there were more than 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh alone, where 4.4 million workers, mostly women, work every day. The industry contributes 11 percent of the country’s GDP – yet they remain chronically underpaid and subjected to dangerous working conditions.

Akter, now 46, was first exposed to this world when he was 12 years old. “You know, she said, it was definitely not my choice to go to the factory. I had to go because my father was the main breadwinner and he got sick. In all, with my brothers and sisters, there were seven of us, so there was no food at home.

Aside from the basic culture shock of leaving school and spending 16-18 hours a day in a crowded factory (“I had never seen so many people in one place, or heard such a loud noise before”, adds Akter), the world Akter found herself in was reprehensible. Verbal and physical abuse were common, she explains, as was sexual abuse. “In a typical month, I would work over 400 hours and earn $6,” she says. One day, the factory she worked in caught fire, but management only opened the door after three hours of “crying and screaming”.

Garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh earlier this year.

Michael O. Stutler