The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Sweatshop labor on tour

By Erik Davis

Next March 25, 2011, will be the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on the East Side of New York City. 146 workers died in that fire, locked in to prevent them from sneaking cigarettes or fresh air on the balcony. As the fire blazed, workers threw themselves from windows to survive. None did. The factory owners were acquitted of any wrongdoing, and one was locking his workers into a new factory two years later. These owners were organizing mass murder; they did not want their employees to die, perhaps, but they certainly knew full well that many would, under such conditions. They did not, and do not, care. On February 25, 2010, 21 workers died in another factory fire, this time in Bangladesh. The Garib & Garib factory produces for H&M, Wal-Mart, JC Penney, and others. Workers were again locked inside, killing some and requiring the hospitalization of many others. Such factory fires and deaths are common around the world today.

Kalpona began work in sweatshops when she was twelve. Coming from already-desperate poverty, she spent a few years thinking of her exploitation in positive terms: “I thought I had a good job! I worked for them, and they paid me money!” But she was working non-stop, 23 days at a stretch, and sleeping and eating on the factory floors. At the age of twelve, she lived with her family about five days a month between ‘shifts.’ It wasn’t until Kalpona heard about Bangladesh’s formal – and unenforced – labor laws that she realized her job was a horrendous violation of what 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 (HBWW) union in Pakistan, she kicked off a national speaking tour on Friday at Macalester. The tour was organized locally by Macalester College Religious Studies, and the Twin Cities Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Kalpona now works with garment workers in Bangladesh’s still-booming garment industry; Zehra Bano, of the Pakistani Home Based Women Workers’ Union, represents women who sew soccer balls in their homes. Kalpona’s experience 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 these workers are on addresses precisely the disconnect between nice words and good laws, and their lack of associated action and enforcement.

In many of the factories around the world, over fifty percent of the products they make are purchased by one large end-consumer. This happens through institutional purchasing by city, state, and federal governments, or by educational institutions. Workers in these sweatshops sew uniforms for police, sheriffs, prisoners, janitors, and others. Bano works with Pakistani women and their daughters who stitch together the 32 panels of soccer balls that are then purchased by public school districts and sports teams.

While consumers are often encouraged to take personal moral responsibility for their own purchases, it is intimidating and often overwhelming to imagine how such individual purchases can make a difference. By focusing on procurement policies and enforcement, however, citizens, representatives, activists, unionists, and people of basic human compassion and decency can make effective changes through collective action.

Erik Davis is a Professor of Religious Studies and can be reached at [email protected].

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