Inferno victim recounts horrors, requests assistance
THE SANTA CLARA
April 10, 2014
Over 150 students filled the Shapell Lounge last Thursday evening to hear the moving stories of two Bangladeshi garment workers, one of whom survived the infamous Rana Plaza factory fire that killed over 1,000 people last April.
Aleya Akter, 20, who began working in sweatshops at age 14, and 29-year-old Aklima Khanam, who started working when she was nine years old, bravely recounted the hardships they endured and continue to face in the oppressive environments of Bangladeshi sweatshops.
Akter, who suffers from a physical handicap as a result of the April 24, 2013 fire, spoke calmly and quietly, looking to her feet and rarely to the audience throughout the talk as she described some of the horrors she witnessed firsthand that day.
“I worked from eight in the morning until midnight. Sometimes until two or three in the morning. I made only $31 per week,” said Akter. “I had to support my family with that poor wage.”
Many of the sweatshops in Bangladesh are structurally unsound. On April 23, the workers of the Rana Plaza factory found that the building was severely damaged.
“When (we) came to know that the building was unsafe, we did not want to enter into the building,” said Akter. “But company management beat us and forced us to enter.”
The next day, the building suffered from a power outage and an issue with the emergency generator sparked a fire, causing the building to collapse.
The roof fell, trapping Akter under her machine for 12 hours. As she lay waiting for rescue, Akter saw coworkers around her injured and dead.
“I am not able to work anymore and did not receive any compensation from the brands,” said Akter.
She ended her presentation with a passionate plea for university students to pressure American clothing manufacturers to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
The Accord is a legally binding contract that corporations enter into voluntarily. Signatories, however, are then required to perform safety inspections of 1,200 factories and pay for safety renovations that are deemed necessary by inspectors.
A representative from United Students Against Sweatshops, the organization that brought the two speakers to the university, spoke at the beginning of the presentation about the important role universities play in this issue. Because so many clothing brands have large contracts with university bookstores, college students can make a big impact.
The Labor Action Committee at Santa Clara, an affiliate member of USAS, has encouraged university administrators to cut any contracts with clothing manufacturers that refuse to sign the Accord.
“We are running this campaign on our campus to get the bookstore to agree to only sign contracts with companies that are members of the Accord,” said Claudia Fernandez, director of the LAC. “Because of our Jesuit values, this should be a condition for any contracts we have with companies.”
LAC urged university officials to cancel a contract with Adidas last year.
They have managed to make progress this year in efforts to cut ties with Jansport and its parent corporation, VF.
The university went so far as to give them 60 days to sign the Accord, threatening to cut the contract if this condition was not met.
The university ultimately did not cut ties with VF after the corporation explained that it was a member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Many involved in the anti-sweatshop movement see this pact as worthless, as the document is not legally binding.
“It’s not as far reaching as it presents itself,” said Fernandez. “It’s empty.”
LAC will continue its efforts to end university ties with corporations that utilize sweatshops. Fernandez is hopeful for the future of the movement.
“We’re paying to go to school here,” said Fernandez. “We have a say in how the school runs things. I don’t think that people realize how seriously the administration will take it if we bring things together and voice our opinions.”
The LAC holds meetings every Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. in the Santa Clara Community Action Program office.
Contact Nicolas Sonnenburg at firstname.lastname@example.org .or call (408) 554-4852.