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Dartmouth Class Hears From Labor Rights Activist

  • Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labor rights activist and former child worker, asks students of Dartmouth College professor Janice McCabe's "Sociology of Gender" class to check their clothing tags for their country of origin on Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Hanover, N.H. Students found their clothes were made in countries like Bangladesh, China, Philippines, Malaysia and India. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labor rights activist and former child worker, at Dartmouth College's Moore Building on Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labor rights activist and former child worker, speaks at Dartmouth College professor Janice McCabe's "Sociology of Gender" class on Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Friday, May 26, 2017

Hanover — There’s a fair chance the shirt you’re wearing, one you may have bought at a big-box store, was made by poor women a world apart from the Upper Valley in a Bangladesh sweat shop.

One of those women, Kalpona Akter, who started stitching at age 12 for $6 a month is now, at 40, a global activist for reform in her nation’s garment industry. She related her life trajectory in a series of sometimes emotional talks on Thursday and Friday to Dartmouth College students, faculty and the public.

Before a hushed audience of almost 100 on Thursday in Filene Auditorium, Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, fought back tears recalling an incident in 2012 of a 24-year-old man trapped during a fire in a garment factory called Tazreen Fashions near Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital and largest city.

The factory owner, denying the fire’s significance, had padlocked the doors. An estimated 117 people died in the fire and 200 were injured.

“The boy’s mother, from a rural village, told me afterward about the many telephone calls for help from her son,” Akter said. “ ‘Mom, I’m trying my best, there is no way to get out.’ ”

In the last call, she recounted, he cried out, “ ‘I cannot breathe ... I’m dying for sure.’ ”

He then told his mother he was removing his shirt and tying it around his waist so that she could find him. “She found him in the rubble the next day,” Akter said.

Four months later, Akter said, the eight-story Rana Plaza, which housed five garment factories supplying name-brand clothing for firms in the United States and Europe, collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people in what has been called the worst lethal incident in the history of the garment industry.

Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated nations with 160 million people crammed into a land area just slightly larger than northern New England, came into being in 1971 when Pakistan split after a war. Most of the people are Muslim.

Among developing countries it is a striking paradox, no longer dismissed derisively as the “armpit of India.” Its economy has been growing by an average of about 7 percent a year largely due to a booming garment industry that ranks second only to China in its exports, which total about $20 billion a year. The industry also is the country’s largest employer, with almost 4 million workers, mostly women. Yet the country remains very poor.

“The minimum wage (in the garment factories) now averages about $68 a month ... a month,” Akter said in an interview. “That is for an 11- to 14-hour shift, six days a week.”

Akter is the eldest of five children. She and her 10-year-old brother were forced to be breadwinners after their father became paralyzed from a stroke; she was 12 at the time.

At age 16, she and several co-workers started organizing to improve conditions in the factories after discovering the Solidarity Center, a global workers rights organization affiliation with the AFL-CIO. She travels regularly to the United States and Europe, speaking at universities and conferences (including a Wal-Mart stockholders’ meeting in 2013) seeking support to help reform the Bangladesh garment industry.

She participated in a Congressional informational panel discussion on Wednesday this week in Washington, D.C. And she is collaborating with Dartmouth graduate Scott Nova, founder of the Worker Rights Consortium, a nonprofit that investigates working conditions in factories around the world that produce products for the United States market.

Asked by an audience member at her Dartmouth speech on Thursday whether Americans should stop buying garments from Bangladesh, Akter quickly responded, “Oh, please don’t. That will just hurt the women workers. You need to become a responsible buyer, support us to make change happen.”

Akter’s visit was sponsored by the Dartmouth Centers Forum, history department and other college entities.

Tom Blinkhorn can be reached at tblinkhorn@gmail.com.