Janu Akter started making shirts at a garment factory at age 17, and after four years she earned the equivalent of 13 cents an hour. Ms. Akter hoped that by working hard she and her family of seven could eventually move out of the their one-room shack in Dhaka, the capital.
But those hopes were defeated one day last year.
Akter says her factory's managers frequently violated Bangladesh's labor laws, failing to pay proper overtime and sometimes delaying wage payments for weeks. So she and other workers organized a union at the K-Mart Group, a Dhaka company with no ties to the US retailer.
In response, she says, company managers beat two union leaders inside the factory, and she witnessed thugs attack another activist with a razor outside the factory gates. In October last year, Akter and nine union activists were fired without explanation.
Nevertheless, the factory is certified by Wal-Mart Stores as meeting its "code of conduct" for fair labor practices, according to the Dhaka K-Mart Group's vice president. Akter says she "doesn't understand" how US corporations can do business with such companies.
"We just wanted justice," says Akter.
As the World Trade Organization (WTO) prepares to meet in Seattle beginning Nov. 30, conditions in third-world factories will be getting increased attention. The Clinton administration, under pressure from American unions, wants the WTO to consider making labor standards an issue in international trade. Some US companies argue that their codes of conduct are sufficient to improve working conditions.
The debate is already being played out in Bangladesh.
In less than 20 years, the garment industry has grown to employ 1.5 million workers and make up three-fourths of the country's export revenue. Hundreds of thousands of women have left a stultifying life in the countryside to become independent wage earners in the cities, says Naved Husain, chief executive of Beximco, one of the country's largest textile and garment manufacturers.
US trade policy "has helped Bangladesh get into the garment business," says Mr. Husain. Through a system of quotas, the US gives preference to garments made in Bangladesh and certain other developing countries.
Companies such as the Dhaka-based K-Mart Group benefited greatly from US policy because the quotas guarantee a market for their garments.
Chaturvedi Murari, company vice president, proudly shows off the four floors of his factory that employ a total of 2,000 workers. He has given each floor a different company name so that each can get a US garment quota.
The mostly women workers sit six feet apart sewing shirts for Wal-Mart, among other American companies. Some of the women are 15 years old, the minimum legal age under Bangladeshi law.
Later Mr. Murari is asked about union charges of maltreatment. He denies that anyone was ever physically attacked or fired, and denies that workers even sought to unionize.
"The workers are happy," he says. "Why would the union come to the factory?"
Contacted at company headquarters in Arkansas, Wal-Mart Stores spokeswoman Betsy Reithemeyer says she has no knowledge of the anti-union activity and is investigating the allegations. Fawzia Karim Firoze, attorney for the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation, has a copy of the government's certification of the union at the K-Mart Group. She also has medical reports detailing the injuries suffered by union activists.
Conditions at K-Mart Group are typical of many garment factories, says Ms. Firoze. Workers wages are often delayed. If they protest, she says, "they can be brutally beaten."
The government of Bangladesh has good labor laws on the books, says Firoze, but they are rarely enforced. Similarly, codes of conduct set up by Wal-Mart and other US companies exist mostly for public relations purposes, she charges.
A group of young women workers at the Dada Ltd. factory near the Dhaka airport beg to differ. Dada, a Korean owned company, makes caps for Nike and Tommy Hilfiger, among others.
Interviewed outside the factory and away from management, a group of workers picked at random say conditions improved markedly when those foreign companies started buying caps. One woman, who asks for anonymity, says workers regularly receive well above the minimum wage.
"When Nike came, the working conditions became better," she says. "Before that there were some labor law violations."
Greg Schulze, who heads the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center in Dhaka, says international pressure has forced some improvements in local factories. But he argues that codes of conduct have limitations.
Few American companies have the capability to monitor both the contractors and their subcontractors, which often have the worst conditions and regularly violate labor laws, he says. He would like to see the WTO adopt tougher labor standards and see them strictly enforced.
Fired worker Akter agrees. "Since US trade policy helped promote the garment industry in Bangladesh," she says. "Why shouldn't US policy also help improve the lives of garment workers?"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society