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Garment workers' appeal

The factory collapse in Bangladesh wasn't an accident. If the rights of the - mostly women - workers who died had been respected, the terrible scenes we've just witnessed would never have happened. With your support, ActionAid is working alongside brave women factory workers who are fighting back against oppression and abuse.

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The recent collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh sent ripples of shock around the world. The collapse claimed the lives of over 1100 people and is the deadliest structural failure in human history. The majority of those who died were young women and girls, who make up the bulk of the workforce in the world’s garment factories.

Workers at Rana Plaza who survived said that they were forced back into the building the day it collapsed, even though cracks were clearly visible in the walls. Their managers, they said, threatened to withhold a month’s pay if they didn’t go back to work to fulfil the deadlines on international orders. 

“Don’t speak bullshit” one factory manager spat at a female worker. “The factory is safe”.

File 17412Survivor in hospital. Photo: Nicola Bailey.

Sixteen cents an hour

In a country where female garment workers earn just 16 Australian cents an hour - $37 a month – the cost of losing even one day’s pay is unthinkable.

If you’d like to make a donation to help ActionAid’s work with poor and vulnerable women around the world, please click here.

Watch the photofilm

This beautiful two-minute photofilm about our work in Bangladesh was made by emerging Australian photojournalist Nicola Bailey during her recent visit to the country. Please take the time to watch and share it:

“The minimum wage is not enough for a person to live off. When the minimum wage went up, the workers tell us, so too did their home rent and other expenses and so they continue to struggle,” says Mohamed Mosfequr Rahman, Associate Officer on the clothing workers’ rights project at ActionAid Bangladesh. “The minimum wage is calculated on an eight hour day plus two hours overtime, but many workers are forced to work many more to make ends meet.”

To make matters worse, female workers are routinely harassed, exploited and humiliated in their workplaces. The women we work with report being denied their salaries, sick pay or leave entitlements, with the mostly male factory managers assuming that their largely illiterate and uneducated workforce will lack the means to protest.

File 17414Garment workers in a Bangladesh factory. Photo: Nicola Bailey.

Women are fighting back

But all this is changing. ActionAid is supporting nearly 200,000 female workers in garment factories around the country, helping them get together and claim their rights. We’ve set up Rights Cafes next to many factories, which provide a safe space for women workers to go and to learn about their legal rights under the country’s labour laws.

Trainers at the cafes help women learn how to negotiate confidently with their (mostly male) supervisors and managers, and how to calculate their working hours and overtime, wages, annual leave and maternity leave so that they can avoid being cheated out of their entitlements.

ActionAid’s womens groups, based at the cafes, nurture and train young women leaders who pass on their newfound knowledge to their colleagues – transforming thousands of women from exploited, overlooked sweatshop workers into a collective force to be reckoned with. Women can now sit on factory committees alongside their managers and have the confidence to insist on fair pay, fair hours and most importantly, stricter workplace safety measures for everyone.

File 17417Rights Café. Photo: Nicola Bailey.

Meet Shilpy

Shilpy left school at the age of eight and joined her parents in the factory when she was just 12.  Shilpy and her husband Mohammed, a cleaner, share a one-room shack with a single bed with their children Ramjan, 11 and Nur Nahur, 7. 

Before the advent of workers’ rights education, she says, conditions were much worse in her factory. “Garment workers were never respected in our society” she says. “If the factory owners know that their employees are not aware of their rights then they will try to exploit them. We used to work 14 or 15 hour days, we didn’t get any leave, and often the wages we did earn were paid a month late.”

Shilpy’s been attending the ActionAid Rights Café for two years. She’s now the leader of her woman’s group, helping to educate other women about their rights and organizing them to take part in peaceful protests and lobby the government over their working conditions. 

Now that we know about our rights, the factory owners and management don’t try so much to violate the law. 

"It’s not just in the café where we disseminate information but also on the factory floor. Now they don’t delay paying our salary; and they pay us our overtime accurately. They know that now we know how to calculate what they owe us”.

“There is also no abuse on the garment floor anymore. The line manager used to shout at us all the time and we would get beaten. There were also cases of sexual harassment. But now this can’t happen because we know it is wrong,” she adds proudly.

And, she adds, her rights training hasn’t just been a help to her in the workplace: “I only went to year two at school, and so the café has helped to make me articulate; make me smart. I feel confident to negotiate with the owner of my home about the price of my rent and also talk with my husband about family problems, and about our finances.”

File 17416Shilpy, 28, a woman's rights leader. Photo: Nicola Bailey.

Hope around the world

And ActionAid doesn’t just work with garment factory workers like Shilpy in Bangladesh. In India, we support brave, inspirational women like VP Rukmini. She says: “After I became a women’s leader the workers became brave and thought that I would be a help to them. Workers started fighting against the harassment. Now I’m a full-time union organiser and I’m very proud of the work I do." Read Rukmini’s inspiring story here. 

What you can do

  • Donate to ActionAid to help us continue our rights work with women factory workers around the world
  • Click here to sign our open letter to the president of the Australian National Retailers’ Association, asking her to encourage her members to source their garments responsibly.
Thank you!