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Exclusive Interview: Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of Bangladesh Center For Worker Solidarity

The tragedies and strife that befell Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) sector over the past year have both marred the industry’s image and prompted international pressure to make changes to factory workplace standards. But while that pressure has forced some stakeholders to act, little has actually changed in the country.

Speaking exclusively to Sourcing Journal, Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) who has been continuously fighting for garment worker rights in her country, said Bangladesh faces two problems at the same time: corruption and business groups within politics.

According to Akter, 10 percent of parliament members are factory owners and, as a result, labor laws aren’t being implemented unless they favor the owners.

Six months post-Rana plaza, not much has changed, Akter said. Victims from both the Tazreen factory fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse still haven’t been compensated, factory owners don’t even know whether they fall under the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety or the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to determine who pays for what, and the recent 77 percent wage increase to 5,300 taka ($68) means garment workers will still be earning a poverty wage.

In reference to the panel discussion last Thursday, titled “The Rana Plaza Disaster in Bangladesh–Taking Stock Half a Year On,” where Bangladeshi government officials said the minimum wage was just a starting point and in reality, workers take home much more after overtime pay, Akter said that is no kind of justification for the still-low wage.

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With the normal work shift around eight hours, when garment workers take overtime–which should be voluntary but is always forced–their workdays are 12-14 hours, leaving no time for any semblance of a social life, Akter said.

The Bangladeshi government should be working with the labor rights organizations on bettering the sector, Akter said, “Instead they think of how they can pay less, repress union workers and leaders who raise their voice, and play the power game.”

Akter has publically voiced this and other concerns, earning the support of some and scorn from others, and saying the government has been slower to act in making improvements to the country’s garment sector than other stakeholders.

Shafiqul Islam, commercial counselor for the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, D.C., firmly opposes Akter’s position and says the government has in fact made strides in revamping the industry.

According to Islam, the government adopted a National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity for factory owner and government agencies to adhere to. To date, under that plan, there is a hotline in place for workers to report fire incidents, several task forces have been set up to focus on designated safety upgrades and a committee has been established to adjust laws and regulations affecting the garment sector.

During a separate interview with Sourcing Journal, Islam said, “The truth is the opposite of the picture Kalpona paints. We have done very much since Rana Plaza and many of the government reforms began even before that,” he said. Islam added that, “Her interpretation is very unfair and self-serving. She wants to exploit the tragedy of Rana Plaza for her own interests and the interests of her organization. This is a kind of blackmail of the country.”

“Blackmail?” Akter responded when made aware of Islam’s comments. “What capacity do I have to blackmail the country? Does he think I’m a terrorist?” she asked. “He should learn how to use the word.”

Islam made those comments, Akter said, “Because he’s protecting factory owners and their profit, because the factory owners are the leaders. What can you expect from them?” she said. “They’re upset because I’m asking them to give more money to workers. They’re not doing correct and when I tell them to do correct, that makes them angry because then they have to share their money,” she added. “It’s a very lame excuse he has given.”

The differing perspectives between governmental agencies and worker rights advocates in Bangladesh have caused division in the country, as has the ongoing debate between supporters of the Accord versus those who back the Alliance.

Akter stands behind the legally-binding Accord and said the Alliance and its supporters are making the world a fool. The Alliance claims it will work with local unions to improve industry conditions, but “the progressive and active unions are with the Accord, so I’m not sure which unions are with [the Alliance]” she said. “That scares me.”

Because the Accord is legally binding–whereas the Alliance is not–in Bangladesh, global brands can be held accountable in court for their operations abroad. “Signing anything not-binding doesn’t mean anything to us,” Akter said.

Akter has taken a lot of flack for her outspoken ways from government officials and organizations like the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) who, some say, prefer to keep her quiet so she can’t stir trouble.

BGMEA is the major trade body representing garment manufacturers and exporters in Bangladesh, but Akter said the organization is more like “another country within a country,” adding that, “They can apply any kind of power.”

When Akter was jailed in 2010 allegedly for trying to improve conditions for garment workers, BGMEA had to give the “OK” before officials would release her once the charges were dropped, Akter said. When the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity had its registration temporarily revoked for doing “anti-state” work, employees at the Social Welfare Department told Akter she had “issues” to sort out with BGMEA before they could help her get her organization legally reinstated.

But, “Who are they?” Akter asked referring to the BGMEA. “They are not any administrative power, not any intelligence group,” she said. “They cannot be above the court.”

BGMEA has been accused of paying groups to pose as unions that show “support” for the trade body and pretending to deal with workers when they, in fact, don’t at all. But many of these organizations posing as unions aren’t registered with the department of labor and have been created solely to give the BGMEA the air of having more support within the country.

Akter wouldn’t confirm or deny knowledge of the BGMEA paying unions to pose as legitimate organizations, however, she said, “I would love to know why they need to pay the unions rather than pay their workers. They have something to hide,” she said.