At 11, Nazma Akhter was a child laborer in one of Bangladesh’s garment factories, following her mother to work for 10 hours a day.
At 14, she joined her first strike, standing next to women seeking overtime pay and maternity leave.
Now a 40-year-old labor organizer, she is a formidable voice for change in the country’s bustling, booming capital, where the government scorns unions and shadows union leaders like her. In a recent video that went viral online, Akhter holds her own against a factory owner, appealing to Islamic values in demanding justice and women’s rights while denying that factory strikes are politically motivated.
“Her comments were blunt and to the point. One doesn’t get this often even from our intelligentsia or business leaders,” said K. Anis Ahmed, the publisher of the English-language Dhaka Tribune, and the scion of a business empire unrelated to garments. “She enjoys tremendous credibility as a voice of working women in this country.”
Akhter and other labor organizers have been labeled provocateurs and enemies of the nation, a potential threat to the $21.5 billion Bangladesh garment industry, which has been rocked by flash strikes, protests and an international movement to improve working conditions ever since the collapse of a factory at Rana Plaza claimed 1,127 lives in late April.
Akhter is under surveillance, her phones tapped, her movements monitored, and her visitors, especially foreigners, questioned by men who refuse to identify themselves. Over the years, she’s been arrested and dragged through the slow-moving courts.
Still, her struggle to help workers organize and negotiate with factory owners received a boost on July 10 from a group of North American retailers that announced a $42 million initiative to improve Bangladeshi conditions. The alliance said it would support the democratic election and successful operation of Worker Participation Committees at each garment factory, among other measures.
The creation of a local movement with teeth and legitimacy is considered a critical step in helping to lift workers out of unsafe daily labor and meet their most basic needs, like sufficient pay to feed themselves and their families. The government and laws make it hard for worker groups to form nationally, and only 32 of the country’s 5,000 garment factories have organized labor, according to a tally by an outside labor rights group.
That number may change after the Bangladesh parliament approved the draft of a law that will give workers more freedom to set up factory-level unions. According to the draft, approved today, employees will no longer require permission from factory owners to unionize and can register their groups directly with the government, removing any questions about their legality.
In other countries, a combination of strong unions and pressure from insurance providers has been the strongest force for improving safety standards, according to decades of research cited by Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at The New School for Social Research in New York. In Bangladesh, workers aren’t insured, leaving unions the only effective agents of change.
“Unions are the most important factor in enforcing and advocating for occupational health and safety standards,” said Ghilarducci. Right now, “in Bangladesh, the lax safety regulations are practically non-enforceable.”
Akhter, who is unsure of her age but pegs it at 40, is the president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, roughly translated as the Independent Garment Workers Federation, and works out of the fourth floor of a building next to a highway overpass in central Dhaka.
“Workers trust me, I think, because they see me as one of them,” she said, sitting under a slowly spinning fan in a stifling hot office where she juggles phone calls from distraught workers and angry factory owners. “I have suffered like them, with them.”
Akhter recounted how she started work in a garment factory for about $10 a month as a young girl in the 1980s and subsequently joined a worker strike. The protest lasted six months as the company cut off their pay, shut down the factory and sent in thugs to break up the protests.
When the factory reopened in 1991, she was ostracized.
“I tried for jobs in other places, but they all knew my name - the industry was so small then,” she said.
She remembers attending a workshop with a U.S.-funded activist group in the mid-90s and being inspired to register her group. She taught herself basic English and speaks it confidently and clearly, albeit ungrammatically.
When computers became affordable, she learned to use them. In June, she asked a visitor to show her how to load a video onto her Facebook page, and she uses several e-mail accounts to stay in touch with her colleagues, workers groups overseas and the news.
Akhter was placed under 24-hour surveillance about two years ago, after a local factory owner complained about her to the Industrial Police, a 3,000-strong force of trained riot control policemen, and to the Ministry of Labor and Employment, according to two senior politicians, one of whom is a cabinet minister. Both asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the matter. No one was available to comment on the issue, said Md. Shahjahan Miah, a deputy secretary at the labor ministry.
About 18 other labor organizers are under some surveillance by the government, the cabinet minister said, with about five, including Akhter, under the greatest scrutiny.
That scrutiny brings danger, said Alonzo Suson, the Bangladesh director of the Solidarity Center, a program funded and run by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
“There have been a lot of disappearances - this is a real possibility,” Suson said. “Because I work for an international NGO, and I have an American passport, the only thing I face is surveillance - for her, as a Bangladeshi, things can become very serious, very quickly.”
He cited the case of Aminul Islam, a labor organizer with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Worker’s Federation who was kidnapped and killed in April of last year. His death followed two years of harassment by the police, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, and his murder remains unsolved.
“As long as nobody is held responsible for the torture and murder of Aminul Islam, workers cannot feel secure in organizing and speaking up for their rights,” said Bjorn Claeson, a policy analyst with the forum.
Akhter says her federation has some 50,000 members, but her job is complicated by a thicket of laws that make it near impossible for labor unions to create national federations. All her members are associates, a designation that means they lack collective bargaining rights.
Of the 32 unions at the factory level in Bangladesh, 27 have been registered in the last year, according to data collected by Suson, the country director of the Solidarity Center. That is down from about 150 in the late 1990s. The previous military government ran an effective campaign of busting unions, and the garment industry, which was tiny before 2003, boomed just as unions were in decline.
While some garment factories are scattered through the city -- they poke out next to cinemas, modern office complexes and restaurants along the main thoroughfare, Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue -- most are located in the suburbs of Ashulia and Savar. Workers tend to live in slums around the factories, picking their way through rutted mud roads and past makeshift markets where vegetables cost more each month and the fish rot in large vats. Huts are packed tight together and public toilets filthy with excreta buzz with flies.
Electricity is intermittent, forcing every factory owner to invest in generators, and pushing slum dwellers out of their stifling, crowded homes into common areas. In May and June, the months after Rana Plaza, conversation often turned to protests. Flash strikes flared throughout the capital, with workers rallying against low pay, rude and violent supervisors along with unsafe working conditions.
The country’s feisty newspapers and television news channels covered the unrest 24/7. Rumors spread by text messages, factories were abandoned and production suspended after reporters pointed out cracks in buildings and blocked stairwells.
Anger spilled onto the streets. An audience of about 40, mostly women who worked at garment factories, gathered to listen one day to Mujibur Rehman, a 35-year-old man with a wiry body, walnut-strong muscles, speaking in colorful, unprintable language. He told how he and co-workers had begun a walkout at a factory where anger had brewed for months.
Rehman said he had consulted Akhter for advice after a colleague provided her number. Akhter declined to discuss the conversation; Rehman gave sketchy details, saying mostly that she had told him to exhaust all options, including reaching out the factory owner directly and taking a small group of female workers to press his case.
“Those factory owners, I never see them - they are all living in their air-conditioned palaces,” said Rehman, who asked that his factory not be identified to avoid retaliation by the owner. He agreed to have his name used because it is common in Bangladesh. “How am I supposed to find them if I have a complaint? But when we shut the factory down, I know they are paying attention.”
More than 200 factories were shut down at some point in May because of walkouts and worker protests, according to data collected by the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Shipments had to be air-freighted to western buyers, late delivery discounts approached $20 million and nearly $3 million in orders were lost at 30 of these factories, according to the association. Another estimate for the same month said losses exceeded $150 million amid work stoppages and vandalized factories.
In response, the government set up a panel to discuss increasing the minimum wage, currently $37 a month, and to relax a labor law that allowed companies to see a list of employees who had agreed to unionize.
Along with those changes to the law, though, were two buried amendments - one abolished a profit-sharing agreement reached after unrest in 2010 and the other eliminated lump-sum payments to workers who left a factory after five years. The names of those wanting to unionize were also being leaked to factory owners by government officials.
By June, worker protests prompted the government to place the Industrial Police on constant deployment in Ashulia. Roads were lined with police in riot gear to prevent workers from blocking the main highway connecting the city to the suburb.
Factory owners and government officials blamed Akhter and other labor organizers, including Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter -- no relation to each other, or Nazma -- who work at the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Kalpona Akter has gained international attention for knocking on the doors of the members of the board of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s biggest retailer, and asking them to support measures that would improve worker rights.
Locally, though, she has faced the same sort of harassment that Akhter deals with - in 2010, she and Babul Akhter were arrested, Babul was physically assaulted and both were charged with various crimes involving inciting workers to riot. Both have fought the allegations, reporting to court for as long as a week each month as the cases work their way through the system.
Then, on July 10, the same day that Wal-Mart joined Gap Inc. and other companies in the Bangladeshi alliance, the home ministry dropped the criminal charges. Bangladeshi newspaper Prothom Alo, or First Light, quoted home minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir saying that the decision was made to win back duty-free access to U.S. markets, which was suspended last month.
In an interview, Nazma Akhter said she had no interest in leading workers to strike. She said she was more interested in teaching them how to form effective unions and how to negotiate successfully.
“I know the industry had brought a lot of freedom to women, giving them jobs, giving them respect,” she said. “We want the industry to grow more and more and for Bangladesh to grow. But we also want some dignity, safe factories, some basic rights.”
Government officials aren’t buying her position. The cabinet minister who identified her as a surveillance target said she was placed on the list because strikes hurt the economy.
That position is shared by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In 2010, as strikes crippled the industry and workers sought an increase in the minimum wage, Hasina promised factory owners that labor organizers would be brought to justice for inciting unrest and described them as enemies of the nation.
“We will not spare anyone who is behind this,” she said in a statement released by her office at the time. “We will find out the provocateurs and try them.”
Akhter has a dark humor about the way the government treats labor leaders in Bangladesh. Having long ago determined that she is under surveillance, she waves at the plainclothes government agents who follow her.
She does have one request, though.
“I just wish they would stop listening to me when I am fighting with my husband,” she said. “I can’t even scold him properly.”