Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy

Editor's Note: The following has been excerpted with permission from the opening essay of Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, published this month by Voice of Witness, a non-profit organization founded by author Dave Eggers and physician Lola Vollen with a goal of "illuminating human rights crises through oral history," in association with McSweeney's Publishing. In addition, Voice of Witness offers free lesson plans for educators to be utilized with their books, which can be downloaded from the organization's website at voiceofwitness.org. - Nick Curley

 

 

Kalpona Akter

Age: 36

Occupation: Garment worker activist

Hometown: Dhaka, Bangladesh

Interviewed in: Los Angeles, California

 

We first interview Kalpona in Los Angeles after she speaks to the local branch of the AFL-CIO.[1] At the panel discussion, workers from different points along the supply chain for a major U.S. apparel retailer—from the tailors who sew the clothes abroad to the warehouse workers who supply them to stores—compare stories of forced overtime, uncompensated injuries, and retaliation for bringing grievances to management. When it’s Kalpona’s turn to speak, she describes her evolution from twelve-year-old seamstress to activist to prisoner. She explains that in Bangladesh, garment workers often enter the factories as children, facing superhuman quotas for piecework, harassment and physical abuse from supervisors, and a minimum wage that comes out to about 20 cents per hour, by far the lowest of any significant garment producing nation.[2] Workers who try to organize face intimidation by not only their employers but also from politicians who opine that they should be grateful to have work at all no matter what the toll on their bodies and spirits. When Kalpona finishes, the crowd is stunned for a moment and then claps loudly. Kalpona hands the microphone to the worker seated next to her, the next voice on the panel.

 

Bangladesh has nearly half the population of the United States, yet geographically, it’s smaller than the state of Florida. As densely populated as it is, the country still has a largely agricultural economy and, with a per capita income of under US$2,000 per year, is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Starting in the 1990s, however, garment production boomed as international clothing retailers began to take advantage of the country’s inexpensive labor supply and the Bangladeshi government encouraged investment with tax incentives. Today, Bangladesh is second to China as a leading exporter of apparel. Around four million garment workers produce US$20 billion worth of clothing for export a year; this figure represents the vast majority of the country’s total export earnings. Meanwhile, the garment workers themselves—mostly women—struggle to survive as wages decline compared to the cost of living, and abysmal working conditions lead to workplace disasters such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013.For Kalpona and fellow labor activists, speaking out is not just a matter of achieving more favorable working conditions—it’s a matter of life and death.

 

AS A CHILD, I WAS SO NAUGHTY

 

When I was around six and in my second year of school, my family moved from Chandpur to Dhaka, which is the capital of Bangladesh.[3] My first memory of Dhaka was waiting with my four-year-old brother for my dad to come home from work in the evening. He worked as a construction contractor in the area around our home in Mohammadpur,[4] and he used to bring home treats.  He might bring us sugar cane, or it could be cookies, chocolates, or some fruit. He would bring home something for us every night. Aside from my brother, I had a sister as well at the time, but she was still nursing.

 

As a child, I was so naughty. I used to talk back to my mom all the time, and I irritated her with a lot of questions. “Hey Mom—why is Dad late?” “Hey Mom—why is the sky blue?” “Hey mom—why isn’t it sunny? Why is it raining?” When she was cooking, I’d say, “I want to see.”

 

My mother used to cook all the kinds of traditional food we have in Bangladesh: dahl, fish, she could do everything. I remember that we had an oven but we didn’t have gas—it was a wood oven. We’d collect wood outside our house or buy it at market.

 

During that time our family had our own tin-roofed house, which is a common kind of house in Bangladesh. We had three bedrooms, two balconies. At the tin-roofed house, we had a backyard and front garden. We had guava trees, mango trees, and my mom also used to grow vegetables in the garden.

 

But we were forced to sell our house at a low price to a local politician. It was in a nice area of the city, and the politician put a lot of pressure on my dad to sell it. I don’t know too many of the details. Later I tried to speak to my dad many times about the nice house, but he didn’t want to talk about it. We bought a smaller house without as much outdoor space. My father changed parties and political views after that, though. He was really hurt and felt he had been cheated.

 

I don’t remember exactly when we lost our house, but I was still in primary school. I loved school. There we learned Bangla, basic English, and math. Bangla is our native language. There was a small playground at this school where I would go and run around with my friends. Near the school playground, there was a bazaar, so sometimes my mom or dad used to give me some money to have a snack or something cool to drink. I used to buy fruits, ice cream, or some sour pickles—I was eating everything.

 

In Bangladesh we go to primary school until grade five, and then we go to high school. I passed the primary school, and was put into grade six, at the high school. In high school up to the ninth grade, we studied Bangla, English, math, social science, and then science and religion. Religion was the last subject I studied. Every religion had its own class. So if you were Hindu, you’d study Hindu. Muslims, they had Islam.[5] All the students had other classes together, but we would split up for religion classes. We didn’t pray much at home, and at the time, girls and women were not allowed in the mosque. So religion class was where I’d learn about the life of the prophets and how to pray. We didn’t have any choice of which subjects we wanted to study, but I can remember that my favorite subject was science during that time. I believe that I was one of the best students in my high school.

 

WHATEVER MY MOM HAD, IT JUST RAN OUT WITHIN A MONTH

 

Many people were building houses in Dhaka in the late 1980s, and my dad was a successful general contractor, or middle-man—people would hire him to build the house, and then he would subcontract or hire others to complete the smaller jobs on the project. So he would often have a lot of money on him, because people would pay him the whole sum for the whole project and he would use that fund to pay other workers.

 

I have a cousin who was living with us and was also working with my dad. My dad started to entrust my cousin with the finances for the business. My dad would put the money in a bank account, and then my cousin could draw on it when he needed to pay subcontractors or other workers.

 

One day in 1988, just after I had turned twelve, my cousin took all the money my dad had entrusted him with and just disappeared. My family didn’t hear anything from him for a couple of months—he was just gone. And then, one day, he showed up again. He didn’t say he took the money, but he didn’t deny it either. He just didn’t take responsibility.

 

After the theft, my dad suffered. He had two strokes within two months of each other, starting about a week or two after my parents learned that the money had been stolen. One stroke after the other. The whole right side of my father’s body was disabled after the strokes, and he couldn’t speak for many years. He had to be admitted into the hospital, and my mom really had a very difficult time during his illness. She had to pay all the hospital bills, because, as far as I remember, we really didn’t have health-care insurance or a health-care system in Dhaka back then. In any case, my mother had to find a way to pay all the medical bills herself. My father was back and forth to the hospital for maybe six months.

Whatever money my mom had, it just ran out within a month after my father’s strokes. So then she had to sell our house. We moved to a rental house. The rental house had about six rooms occupied by three families. We had two rooms to ourselves, but we had a shared kitchen and a shared toilet and shower. It was a disaster. There were maybe eighteen people total living in this small house. The house had a small balcony off of our rooms, and that is where father stayed mostly while he was recovering. He’d sleep on a bed out on the balcony. It was too hot inside, and we didn’t even have a fan.

 

There was a lot of tension in our family at that time. My dad couldn’t talk. He had lost use of one side of his body. He couldn’t leave the bed, or even move. Within six months, we ran out of all the money we received from selling the house and all the other savings my parents had. We didn’t have anything.

 

My mom decided to go to my father’s other siblings to seek justice, or to have my cousin come and give us back the money he stole. But my cousin never came to our home at all. He denied everything and refused to take responsibility. And it turned out that none of the other siblings wanted to help us. No one was helping us. There were six of us at home, or seven, after my littlest sister was born. We almost did not have enough food at home for my younger sisters and brother. And my dad needed to have his medicine.

 

My mom had never worked before—she had always been a housewife and we’d had a happy family. But because of everything that was happening, my mom decided she had to get a job. At the same time, mom asked me whether I thought I should also work. I was twelve years old. And, because I saw what was going on in the family, I said, “Yeah, I want to work. But how I can get a job, Mom?” I didn’t want to quit school since I was doing well. I was even class captain for many months, but I felt I had to help my mother and father if I could.

 

There were some garment workers who used to live next to our house who we’d known for a long time. Mom spoke to some of them, and they said that they would speak to the mid-level management at their factory to see if I could get a job. So about seven days later, our neighbors came and told me that they could get me a job. So one day I went to school and the next day I went to factory.

 

MY FRIENDS ARE AT SCHOOL, BUT I’M STUCK WORKING HERE

 

I didn’t tell anyone that I’d left school. They began to worry after about two weeks, though. My teachers showed up at my house. They said that they wanted to give me some sort of scholarship to keep my studies going. But my mom said, “How can you go to school? There are still four other kids. They don’t have any food. Kalpona has decided to work.” My teachers kept insisting then that I should stay in school, that I should not work, but, you know, my mother had no other choice.

 

So I didn’t go back to school. I went into the factory, and my mom did too. She got a job in a factory far from our house. It was about ten kilometers away from our home. But I got a job in a factory close to home, maybe one kilometer away. I could walk there.

 

The very first day I went to work in the factory—oh my gosh—it was a crazy experience. There was so much noise, more noise than I had ever heard before, and people were shouting all over the place. Midlevel supervisors were yelling at the workers all the time. We had two buildings in the factory and around 1,500 workers all together, and everything just seemed like chaos to me at first.

 

Every day, I’d walk to the factory along with the co-workers who use to live next door to our house where we moved, the ones who helped me get the job. The supervisors at the factory first gave me a job cutting the belt loops in pants. The loops were made of four or more layers of fabric, and I had to scissor the four-layered fabric, and it was tough. When I was cutting the fabric layers, the scissors were making my fingers and hands hurt. I must have cut more than a thousand a day. Except for a couple of breaks to eat, I’d be cutting non-stop for fourteen hours a day, from eight in the morning until ten at night.

 

After my first couple of days, it was like my skin had been rubbed away. When my hands started to bleed, I would bind them with some pieces of fabric from the production floor. It was unhygienic, but I had to protect my hands so I could keep working. You can see these black marks on my hands. The very first day I hurt these fingers. These scars I got from that scissoring. I stayed on the belt loops for four or five weeks, and then moved on to a different job with a different order of clothing.

 

It was also painful for me to go to work because my factory and my old school were so close. We would often go to the rooftop of the factory to have our lunches, and from there I could see the playground in my school, and I could also see my friends playing. I mean, almost every day during the lunch hour I would cry, because I thought, My friends are studying there at school, but I’m stuck working here. But I also had a brother and sisters. And when I would go home and see them, see their faces, it would remind me that I have responsibilities that I need to take care of.

 

IT WAS A VERY SAD PART OF MY LIFE

 

When my mom and I started working at the factories, my mom would wake up early to cook something like rice, dahl, or vegetables for the whole family—that was food for the whole day. While we were at work, my brother, who was ten at the time, would take care of my youngest sister, who was a newborn baby, my other two sisters, and my dad, who was still sick from the stroke. Sometimes my mother and I used to take food with us to the factory; sometimes we would not, because we didn’t have enough food to take with us. Sometimes we would work the whole day without any food. And sometimes when I came home from work, I would see there was no food at home either, so that meant that my mom and I wouldn’t eat for two days.

 

It hurts sometimes, not having food. It makes you weak. But when you see that your younger siblings do not even have food, you don’t have any choice. My brother wouldn’t even eat the food we left for all of them in the morning. He would save this food for the two youngest and for my dad, because the two youngest used to ask for food all the time, so my brother would save his portion for them. So he was like a dad and a mom to them—he was raising them all by himself.

 

After five or six months working at the factory, my mom got sick. She was dehydrated, malnourished, and the doctor said there was something wrong with her kidneys. She was so dehydrated that she couldn’t breastfeed my baby sister. She had a pain in her kidneys and it became impossible for her to work.

 

After she quit the job at the factory, she started feeling better. So we decided that instead of my mom, my brother would go to the factory with me. Around this time I also changed to another factory. The new factory was farther away, but I could make a little more money there. At the old factory, I could get maybe 240 taka in base salary per month, and maybe 400 to 450 taka per month after overtime.[6] At the new factory, I could make a base salary of 300 taka per month and up to 500 taka per month with overtime, because I used to do night shift as well.[7] If I made 500 taka a month, I could pay for much of our rent—which was a little under 500 taka a month—but not for food. That is why we decided my brother should work at the factory as well. So I took my brother into this new factory and convinced my supervisor to give him a job. My brother got a job as a sewing machine helper and started working in the building next to me.

 

There were other children working in the factories, too. The youngest child I saw in the new factory was a boy about eight years old. I think during that time I had been promoted to sewing machine operator, and the eight-year-old was my helper. That eight-year-old boy used to cut the threads and pile up the clothes that I sewed. And I can remember he used to come in the morning and say, “Oh sister, I’m so sleepy.” He was a young kid, so you can imagine.

 

Our factory work used to start at eight, so my brother and I needed to get out from the house at something like six-thirty or a quarter to seven. Then we’d walk about one kilometer to get the bus to the factory area, and then we’d walk about a half-kilometer to get into the factory. And that is what we would do for three or four years, the same routine every week.

 

The factory is not far from where I live today. The building still exists and the different sections are still there. So, I can see the factory every day, twice a day sometimes. When I see it now, sometimes I laugh. Sometimes it gives me pain. Sometimes it gives me lots of things to remember. It was in this second factory, too, where I met my future husband.[8]

 

It must have been around 1991 or ’92. He was in the embroidery section and he was a relative of the factory owner—I think a cousin or second cousin—so he’d got the job in a very easy way. I don’t remember how I met him, maybe when I was on the bus to the factory. Or while going into the factory or coming out, I saw him. I was seventeen years old when we got married in 1993 and moved in with him and his family. I was so young.

 

If I want to, I can remember that part of my life, but it’s really painful for me. It was a very sad part of my life when I met him. The marriage was troubled from the start, and the factory workers were just beginning our fight at the same time.

 

WE REALLY GOT ANGRY

 

I remember how the trouble started at the factory. Basically we were working sixteen days in a row during Ramadan in 1993, right before Eid ul-Fitr, the breaking of the fast of Ramadan.[9] We were working day and night, and the Muslims in the factory were fasting for Ramadan. We would fast over the day and break the fast in the factory with little snacks, and we’d eat our dinner after sundown with the little money that factory provided. And then working the whole night and getting food at around 3 a.m., before fasting again after sunrise.

 

When we worked overnight, we might work ten hours of overtime, and the custom was that the factory would give us an extra five hours of bonus pay. In 1993, after we’d already done sixteen days of overnight work, management announced they weren’t giving out any bonus pay for overtime that year. They said they could not afford it.

 

And as I mentioned, it was before Eid, so when we were working those extra hours, we were planning to have the bonus money for the feast at the end of Ramadan. We really got angry. We didn’t have much of an idea about labor law or our rights as workers, but some of the senior workers said to us, “We will not work ten hours overtime without the bonus. We will strike until they pay us the amount they owe us.” I agreed with them. I was one of the initiators of the strike. We had 1,500 workers in two units at the factory, so among the 1,500, it was 93 of us who called for a strike until the factory agreed to pay the bonus.

 

When I returned home the day we decided to strike, my husband had heard that I was involved, and he beat me. He was related to the factory owners, so he didn’t support the idea of a strike. At the time, I was feeling very helpless. Very helpless. But the next day, the day of the strike, I told some of the other ninety-three who were protesting, and they said that they understood and would always support me, that they wanted me to always stand with them, and that that I was one of the courageous ones. We continued with the strike, and after a single day the management agreed to give us the bonus money. But they made it clear that they would not pay the same bonus in the future, and we agreed. At the time, we didn’t have any idea about the law.

 

After the strike, we factory workers went on holiday for Eid. After holiday finished, when we came back, we learned that twenty of my co-workers who had demanded the bonus money had been fired. The twenty fired workers were the ones the factory considered the main instigators of the strike.

 

The organizers decided they would not give up, and they started to look for an organization that could help them. And they found Solidarity Center. Solidarity Center is an international wing of AFL-CIO, the big U.S. union. The full name is American Center for International Labor Solidarity, but during those days, the branch we worked with was known after AAFLI, Asian American Free Labor Institute. [10]

 

The Solidarity Center had already begun helping a group of workers to form an independent union for garment workers, the BIGUF, or Bangladesh Independent Garment workers Union Federation. The new garment workers reps met with some of our leaders and said they would help us to sue the factory owner for retaliation. And at the same time, they said they had awareness classes where my co-workers could go and learn about labor law, and then they could better take on their management. So some of my senior colleagues, they went to the law classes and they found it is really interesting. They came to work and encouraged some of us interested in fighting back to go to the classes.

 

A SECOND BIRTH

 

It was around the end of 1993, and I was seventeen. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without my husband, or I had to at least tell him where I was going. He was a very controlling man. So I didn’t tell him the truth when I went to the labor classes at the Solidarity Center.

 

When I learned about law and rights, it was like a second birth for me. I thought, Wow, we are working in hell. So then I decided to commit to organizing. When I came home in the evening, my husband asked me where I had been. I told him the truth then, and he asked me, “Why you have been there? Did you get my permission?” I said “No, I didn’t,” and so he beat me. But I was determined that I would not take a step backward.

 

So the next day, after realizing that there were all of these laws that were covering worker’s rights in the factory, at the factory during the lunch break, I started to talk to my co-workers, that I had gone to the Solidarity Center and had learned a lot. And I brought some of their booklets with me to the factory. It was risky, but I had to do it.

 

Some of us started to meet in a small room in one of my co-worker’s houses, which was close to my house. And we were also going to meetings sponsored by Solidarity Center for BIGUF. I had back and forth communication between BIGUF and the workers at my factory. The center was giving me guidelines for how I should organize. So I was really doing the organizing part and persuading our workers to sign the union application.

 

My husband was an anti-union guy. I didn’t listen to him. But once he discovered the signed union forms that I had gathered from my colleagues, he tried to take them and give them to the factory owner. So then I went to some of the other union members working at the factory that day, some of the local people who were very close to my husband. I explained to them what happened. And they ran up behind him as he was taking the forms to the factory owner and got the documents from him and told him not to do that.

 

I was beaten by him because of my involvement with the union, because I was helping to organize workers in his cousin’s factory. Also, when I tried to give some of my wages to my family, he beat me because he wanted me to give all my money to him, whatever I earned. So he kept me from helping my family, even though my family was so needy during that time. They needed my support, but I couldn’t help.

 

My husband had control of my life. But I felt like I couldn’t leave him because of cultural expectations. If I got divorced or left him, it’d be bad for my younger sisters. I mean socially, it would look bad. The culture expects that if the eldest sister got divorced, then she must not be from a good family, and no one would want to marry any other sisters. So, I had to tolerate my husband.

 

We were together for about nine months and then we had something like a settlement: a partial separation. We were staying in the same house, but in two separate bedrooms. I started sharing a room with his sister. And I was with him for over a year like that. 



[1] The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is the largest federation of unions in the U.S., made up of over fifty-six national and international unions from dozens of industries. In all, the AFL-CIO represents over 11 million workers both in the U.S. and abroad.

[2] Based on the Bangladeshi minimum wage rate of 3,000 taka per month of November 2010 to October 2013.

[3] Chandpur is a city of 2.4 million located sixty miles southeast of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The Dhaka metropolitan area has a population of over fifteen million.

[4] Mohammadpur is a neighborhood in Dhaka that was first developed in the 1950s and experienced a construction boom in the eighties and nineties.

[5] The population of Bangladesh is nearly 90 percent Muslim and 9 percent Hindu. Despite being predominantly Muslim, principles of secular government were written into the original constitution in 1972.

[6] In 1994, 240 taka = approximately  US$3.80. 400 to 450 taka = approximately US$7.

[7] In 1994, 300 taka = approximately US$4.75. 500 taka = approximately US$7.90.

[8] Kalpona has asked not to name her husband or use a pseudonym.

[9] For the month of Ramadan, observant Muslims fast from dawn until sunset every day. Eid ul-Fitr is a major feast marking the end of Ramadan and traditionally includes lavish meals and charitable giving. Depending on local tradition, the holiday may last for one to three days. In 1993, Ramadan began in February.

[10] The Solidarity Center, or American Center for International Labor Solidarity, was launched by the AFL-CIO in 1997. Its purpose was to help develop union representation for workers in developing economies, and it replaced earlier, regional AFL-CIO union development organizations such as the Asian American Free Labor Institute (founded in 1968).

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