SALVADOR, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Former child laborer Nazma Akter knew she would dedicate her life to improving workers’ rights when she joined her first protest outside a garment factory in Bangladesh when still a teenager several decades ago.
From the age of 11, Akter worked 14-hour days alongside her mother on the factory floor where she says unpaid wages and verbal and physical abuse were common.
After taking part in the protest in the capital Dhaka, she was beaten by police, fired from her job and blacklisted.
But now Akter, 43, campaigns to defend workers’ rights as head of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), a 100,000-strong trade union.
“It’s important to raise your voice and I help and encourage other women to do the same,” Akter, 43, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Bangladesh’s apparel industry has come under pressure to improve factory conditions and workers’ rights, particularly after the collapse of Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh more than three years ago, when 1,136 garment workers were killed.
Akter said the disaster has led to more factory inspections, the closing down of dozens of factories deemed unsafe, and government labor reforms.
But low wages, a lack of women in senior management positions in factories, few female union leaders, and getting more women to join trade unions remain key challenges.
“If you don’t know your rights, you can’t stand up for them,” Akter said, speaking at an event in Brazil hosted by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).
“Being in a union means workers can know about their rights and can change their working conditions.”
Bangladesh’s 5,000 garment factories employ 4 million workers, of whom around 80 percent are women, producing garments for high fashion brands sold in the United States and Europe.
Increasing union representation, especially among women, is key to improving working conditions and safety measures in an industry worth almost $25 billion a year, Akter said.
“For women in a union it allows them to talk about the problems they face, like verbal abuse, issues that men don’t really care about or understand,” she said.
Akter says women are passed over because of the way women are viewed in Bangladesh’s patriarchal society.
“Women are not promoted in factories because they are seen as weak and more easily exploited. They are seen as cheap labor,” she said.
As a female union leader, Akter says some men have treated her with disdain.
“I would go out alone at night to campaign. At first people called me a prostitute,” she said. “My father doesn’t like what I do .. my husband has come around.”
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest garment producer after China. The garment industry accounts for more than 80 percent of the South Asian nation’s export earnings and provides a crucial source of income to women in particular.
“A boycott is not a solution. There are no alternative jobs for women,” Akter said. “We want a better wage and to solve problems through collective bargaining.”
Factory wages have risen in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 but are still low when compared to other garment producing countries in Southeast Asia, Akter said.
A garment factory worker in Bangladesh earns around $68 a month, while in Cambodia $140, she said.
Bangladesh’s garment industry is undergoing a safety overhaul. Since the Rana Plaza collapse, more than 2,000 of the country’s 3,500 exporting garment factories have been inspected by the government or as a result of retailer-led initiatives.
While the labor law was amended to make it easier to form unions, still only about 10 percent of Bangladesh’s garment factories have registered unions, according to a report by Human Rights Watch this year.
“When I speak to factory owners they say: ‘why do we need another Nazma Akter? One Nazma is quite enough.’,” Akter said. “I tell them we need many more Nazmas.”