Sweat, Tears and Blood - By Zarin Nabar
A speech given at a One Struggle event, July 28, 2013, Florida Atlantic
I was invited here to speak for few minutes on Imperialism and its effect
on Bangladesh, which is where I am from. I was hesitant, because
truthfully I know nothing about imperialism or politics, besides the
basics politics which we all know of. Then I realized I do understand
however little about what is going on In Bangladesh or in any other third
world country that has got labor to offer to the rich countries. I
realized I do understand when human lives are being exploited; I do
understand when female worker is being used abused in every way possible.
I do understand right from wrong, and that when there are dead bodies
piled up in front of a burnt or collapsed factory, that somewhere someone
is responsible. I do understand the expensive, showy, brand name clothing
on that girl or boy has got blood on them. Some people do not see the
blood, some people ignore the blood, but today’s discussion I hope can
open few eyes to the murder and bloodshed that is happening overseas for
one piece of clothing that has got so much to tell.
Bangladesh garment industry is the second largest exporter of clothing
after China, having 3 and half million garment worker. Majority of them
are women. The percentages of girls aging from 10 to 17 are unknown to me.
Those children become a woman at the age of 10, 11 12…as soon as they
enter into a garment factory. They become a number and statistics amongst
3 and half million workers.
No more numbers. Now I am going to share with you what I have seen, read,
heard, observed, realized while growing up in Bangladesh. Our family had
moved to Chittagong from another district when I was in the middle of 4th
grade. Chittagong is the district in Bangladesh where the first garment
factory was built. Chittagong has a large number of garment factories.
Therefore being in Chittagong it was common for anyone to be familiar with
My father was an accountant by profession. He worked in many companies
including garment factory where he was in charge of handing out the
monthly salary to the workers. Many times he would come home and tell us
how sad he felt when he had to inform the workers they will not be paid
for the month, because his boss just called and informed him, the workers
do not get paid this month. He would describe the look on the workers face
with such sad details.
The help or servant as they are called in Bangladesh we had was 17 years
old. Her name was Aqlima, she had worked in a garment factory for 3 years,
and then decided she would rather work at someone home than take the
torture from the factory. Things I am going to say is based on my father’s
experience, Aqlima’s experience and common answer from every common public
In our family all of us were to wake up early in the morning to pray.
After our prayer we would go on the roof of the building to enjoy a
beautiful morning. The quiet street would not be filled with cars, noises
yet. We would only see group of garment workers walking. Sometimes a group
contained as many as 15 female walking together followed by another group
behind them. Being in the 4th grade only I would have many questions.
Where are they going? Why before sunrise? If they are out on the street so
early, how dark was the morning when they left home?
Gradually I was getting all the answers through family, friends,
newspapers and very rarely television.
It is interesting one sees a garment worker all day long. Before sunrise,
after sunrise, on the way to school, after school, late at night when we
are coming back from a family or friends. They are regarded as the lower
class people of the society.
Why do we see them? Why not any other working people? Is it because there
are so many workers around? Then I realized it is because they walk. While
we are in a rickshaw, an auto rickshaw, in a taxi or a bus, we see groups
of garment worker walking. They walk miles after miles after miles to
reach to their factory because they are not paid enough to pay for their
transportation every day. They are not paid enough to eat or live well,
transportation is a luxury. They have got their two legs for that. So
they walk every day. Does not matter how long a shift they have finished,
does not matter how exhausted they are. Does not matter if they have
reached home 3 in the morning, and will have to go back 7 in the morning
What does this walking do? It makes any 15 year to any 30 year old garment
worker a target and a victim of rape, assault, harassment on the street.
Every other day there was news of a garment worker being raped and left on
the street. It would hardly be front page news, or even when it was we all
had gotten so used to it that, we would think it was a common story. They
are so called lower class; therefore they do not have any higher
connection for their rape case to reach higher media, or the money to pay
a good lawyer to fight their case. It only gets placed inside a local
newspaper. Here is a common rape story of a garment worker. I remember
reading so many similar stories as this, in the newspaper. Late at night,
perhaps 2am, a garment worker no more than 15 years old, was on her way
home from work, alone. She was beaten and raped by 3 men and left on the
street to be found by the group of garment workers making their way to the
factory for the morning shift. Suddenly, I thought I understood the
garment workers reason to be in a group, or always to be with someone.
Their own safety! Does this cleverness always work out? No, not everyone
lives in the same direction, not everyone has same working shift. When a
rape victim gathers courage to go the police, the police merely yawn and
say “who will get raped if not you? You garments girls are always on the
street.” A common conversation with friends at school, or with a cousin,
or with a neighbor used to be like “have you heard about the garments girl
rape again”? “Oh yes, so sad, even the police is just sitting there”. “Yes
so sad their life is. Anyway, when is your daughter getting married?”
(Garments girl is a very common phrase used by Bangladeshi. In many cases
those two words suffices a lot when describing something regarding their
job, accidents or lifestyle).
Even though Bangladesh is predominantly a Muslim country, majority of the
garment worker does not wear a burkha or a hijab. Most female will have on
something similar to what I have on today (salwar kameez or 3 piece). And
yet, they try and cover more and more while walking to their work, they
try to corner their body in every way. Not because they are from a certain
faith, but because they want to be less noticeable, less accessible on the
street or at work to their co worker, to their supervisor.
After miles of walking, being verbally harassed and abused on the street,
fighting all the odds they reach to work. One would think relief! It is
depressing to know they reach work only to be beaten, sexually harassed,
to be verbally abused. Female workers are forced to be sexually engaged
with the supervisor, manager or any other higher authority. A confession
of a female worker about 30 years of age shown in a video (of Four Corners
investigative journalism) said, “what can we do? Yes, the supervisor comes
and slaps in the face, on the back, use profanity, what do we do? It is so
degrading. We just wipe tears and continue to work.” What courage could
she have to wake up every day and go to that job, where she is being
slapped countless times? They walk to the factory to endure all this so
they can have a 12-14 hour shift, where they will endure much more
harassment and not receive what they absolutely deserve through their hard
The minimum wage for a garment worker is less than $38.00 a month. A room
very close to a studio or efficiency is about $15.00. It is beyond
imagination how one manages to live on the remaining $23.00 for the rest
of the month with a family, for a family. Every day they wake up thinking
where do I get the expense for tomorrow? After a long day of work, when a
worker is ready to go home, they soon discover the gates are locked, their
pass card for work is taken away by a supervisor if the factory gets more
orders with a deadline. Everyone is forced back to work. When one refuses,
they are threatened to be fired, and to be non hirable at any other
garments factory. The garment owner keeps the fear alive, the workers are
kept oppressed so they are less likely to complain, less likely to
organize, less likely to demand higher wage. There is no such thing as
overtime pay. Their salary is cut in every turn of excuse. When one works
12-15 hour shift, they are bound to make mistakes, and no mistakes are
acceptable. Each piece of garment must be flawless.
There is no sufficient air at the workplace. It is common for a worker to
faint due to long hours and heat. Every month someone loses their arm,
legs, or life in a machine when fatigue causes them to fall on it, or
handle the machine wrongfully. It is obvious that there are no sick days,
no insurance, and no medical coverage. If or when a worker dies due to
accident at the factory one or more of their family member is compensated
by being employed by the same factory. That is the compensation for a
human’s life. There is no cafeteria at all. Of course lunch or dinner
must be brought from home, but there is no such place for a worker to sit
and eat. They either go to the roof of the factory to eat lunch in the
burning sun, or come out of the building and eat on the street.
Most factory issues limits of how many times a worker can use the toilet.
Sometimes it is only once in a 12 hour shifts. Because if every worker
spends more time in the restroom, who is going to put the label of
Benntton, Mango, Zara on the shirt? Who is going to supply clothing to
Walmart in time for it to have millions of dollars in profit?
Out of 365 days in a year in average Bangladesh has transportation strike
for 100 days. Thanks to every political party, the number of strike is
increasing every year, when the entire country is muted. No transportation
what so ever. Even during a strike every garment factory is open. Workers
must go to work, because the goods must be produced, so it is ready to be
shipped when the strike is lifted. They don’t need rickshaw, bus, taxi
to reach there anyway. On their way again, they are the victim of
picketing. Buses will be burned, cars will be broken into pieces, any one
visible on the street would be stopped and asked question to figure out
what political party they support. And who do we have on the street on
their way to work? The pain enduring garment workers.
Tazreen Fashion is a nine story plant, located in Dhaka the capital of
Bangladesh. November 25th, 2012 it caught on fire. Leaving 112 dead
bodies burnt to ashes. 112 burnt body were lined up in a local field. The
fire is one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of country.
When the fire alarm rang, the workers came down the stairs only to be
ordered back upstairs to work again, because there is an order to fulfill,
and there is no fire, it was a false alarm. The gates were locked. 112
people got burnt alive.
Bangladesh garment industry is the second largest exporter of clothing,
having the most notoriously poor fire safety record. Since 2006, more than
500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires. There have been 43
factory fires in the last 18 months. Workers are burnt to ashes because
there are no fire escapes. Over the last decade the garment industry in
Bangladesh has mushroomed itself. No rules are needed; all one need is any
kind of building for it to transform into a working factory. No engineer,
no rules, no safety, just death traps.
I was watching a documentary from Four Corners, on the topic of Bangladesh
and its cheap labour. In the video the journalist was pointing to the
barred windows, and suggesting rightfully that those bars must go. The
windows must be available to escape in case of fire. I had always wondered
why the bars? Why are factory buildings so desolated? Apparently the
answer is very simple. The buildings are high walled, windows are high and
barred because nothing from the factory should go outside. No bundles of
thread, no single piece of clothing, and no single button should be
stolen; nothing should be given to a relative or a friend standing outside
the window. Everything must stay inside; even when the workers are being
April 25th, 2013, eight story commercial building Rana plaza collapsed.
The search for the dead ended on may 12, with death toll of more than
1100. The building was unsafe, everyone were evacuated. But the owner of
Rana Plaza factory Sohail Rana, went to the media to explain the danger is
exaggerated and it is perfectly safe to work in the same building. The
workers were threatened to go back to work and finish their job. The same
day it had collapsed. The images I had seen are forever etched in my
brain. I felt like I was hearing the scream of those trapped under the
rubble, under a pillar, under a beam. One could go and on about Rana
Plaza tragedy. The air was filled with the smell from the dead, and the
tears from the alive buried underneath. Most workers had to be rescued
after their arms or legs were amputated. Who will restore their lost
limbs; family members or the thousands work mates? So many children have
lost their mothers in that tragedy. So many young lives are gone. The
reality that was created by the rich, to them, those are not lives that
were lost, those are simply laborers or hands that are gone which could be
replaced or bought in any other factory. There are other garment factory
where the orders could be taken for Walmart, Zara, Gap, Benetton, Mango
and so many other international greedy companies. Why waste time, find the
hands that are alive to keep on making $2.00 shirt to be sold at $80.00.
The fire at Tazreen fashion and the Rana Plaza tragedy shook the nation.
It has given birth to a different suffering where the witnesses, rescuers,
survivors will always be haunted with the images, the screams, the blood.
Rana Plaza workers family is yet to be compensated. No one wants to claim
responsibility. Walmart is not involved in helping victims despite
documentary evidence its products were made in the building just a year
ago. International clothing line Mango refusing to pay any compensation.
International clothing line Benetton’s email orders were found in the
rubble of collapsed Rana Plaza. Another email from the rubble from
Benetton asked whether the clothing had passed the strength test. Not
Benetton or any other company bothered to ask if the place where there
clothing is being made is safe for workers who are making it.
All those international retailers are now singing the same song: they were
not aware of what was going on. Yes, they ran for cheap labour overseas
because those workers are robot, and they are earning less than $40 a
month, cheaper than one Benetton or Zara shirt sold at the retail price.
They did not know the person sewing every single button, and sleeves and
collars are deprived, demoralized, dehumanized and paid next to nothing.
These international retailers are making millions of dollars in profit
with the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of workers overseas.
Bangladesh garment worker do not know that one jacket made or completed
by her is sold at close to $80.00, not even her monthly salary.
Greed, profit, money, market, capitalism, global marketing has taken its
priority over human lives. What could be more dangerous than that?
Australia is increasingly using Bangladesh to source their cheap fashion.
From what I have read and understood Australian retailers seem to win in
avoiding, ignoring, not commenting, not taking responsibility, and not
paying the workers just like American and European companies.
A recent Australian survey released that Australians would be ready to pay
more for their clothes if they knew overseas workers were paid a decent
wage and their workplace is safe. It is time we start making people aware
everywhere about what they are buying, where they are buying it from, and
how much should they pay.
It takes thousands of burnt dead bodies, thousands of injured interviews
and sufferings for us to wake and ask for what is right. It takes us this
long to ask from those retailers a better pay from their million dollar
As horrifying, disturbing, and heart breaking the images are of the dead
workers, I say lets post those pictures everywhere. Let us protest in
front of those big companies holding a large image of burnt dead body,
large image of father holding on to his daughter’s picture hoping to find
her underneath the collapsed building, dead or alive; images of a man
holding on to a woman lovingly. Their bodies buried under cement,
rubbles, pillars. Their bodies’ completely blooded a rod erect few inches
away from the throat of the woman. No one will ever know what their
relationship was. Were they friends, co workers, siblings, lovers or just
a man trying to protect a woman from a building being collapsed on her?
Large image of just a hand coming out from huge pillars and rubbles of 8
story building with a note saying “mom, I will never see you again.”
The fire at Tazreen Fashion and the collapse of Rana Plaza have affected
me and so many others deeply. Tazreen fashion fire was on November 25,
2012, and Rana plaza collapsed April 25th, 2013. My sister and I were
discussing how sad it was. She said, “I don’t know why God is punishing
just the garment workers like this over and over.” I looked at her in
amazement and said, is it really God? Is he the one paying them $2.00 a
day? Is God the one making them work 12-15 hours a day? Have God given
license to Walmart, Beneton, Zara, Gap to murder workers? Is God the one
making the rich richer and the poor poorer? Or is it the greedy,
capitalist nation trying to gain power over anything and everything? It is
the international retailers trying to be God or gain control. We must
refuse to have Gods that are murdering, blood sucking, greedy, and
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