Bangladeshi woman wins rights for garment workers

In the Dhaka slums, trade union leader Nazima Aktar campaigns for wage increases and rice subsidies.

With a rush of rain cooling the steamy night air, Nazima Akter hurried through the muddy, narrow alleyways of one of Dhaka's many slums. Without knocking, Ms. Akter, a trade union activist, strutted straight into the cramped home of a sewing machine operator.

The worker, a young mother of three who went by the name Nazma, had just returned from a long day at the factory, her lunch pail empty and swinging from her arm. She collapsed onto a sagging mattress, telling Akter about the poor sanitary conditions at her garment factory, one of thousands in Bangladesh's biggest industry, and the need for an increase in wages.

Nearby, Nazma's husband, a gaunt rickshaw driver wearing a flowing saronglike loongi and chewed-up flip-flops, paced in front of the women, waiting for his wife to start cooking his supper. But he quickly got reprimanded.

"Cook dinner for your wife," commanded Akter, president of Bangladesh's United Garment Workers Federation. "Your wife is working for the family from sunrise to sunset. It's time to thank her."

Looking defeated and slightly nervous, he boiled water for rice and tea as the women continued their informal meeting.

With stern black eyes, a puff of curly mocha-colored hair, and a self-described "low tolerance for fools," Akter is not afraid of confrontation. And these days, there is plenty of confrontation in Bangladesh.

With prices for food and other basic goods skyrocketing here and around the world, Akter's role as a champion of labor is more important than ever. On behalf of workers, she campaigns for wage increases to make sure that staples such as rice and oil are affordable. In meetings with manufacturers, she presses for rice subsidies so that workers and their families don't go hungry. Her efforts have paid off, with several factory owners agreeing to her demands.

Over the years, she has fought for maternity leave, medical benefits, and water and bathroom breaks for workers. She also led the charge to stop child labor in the factories, often naming and shaming those companies that hired those younger than 18.

"What's amazing is that Nazima Akter made it work. There's far less child labor now," said Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Women's Council, a civil society group. "Nazima's message is that women don't have to have an appeasement policy toward men or their bosses. They can fight."

Akter has had her critics. She recalled being fired from various sewing jobs for being "difficult to work with, cranky, and belligerent about poor conditions." But she was always rehired after staging public protests. Today, she is a full-time union organizer.

"She's a force in Bangladesh. She's respected and also deeply feared, but in an important way," said S.K. Monowar Hossain, director of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association. The group represents 1,500 outlets, which contract with US companies such as Gap, Target, and Wal-Mart.

"We have good contacts with her because she's honest and tells you exactly what she thinks," he said.

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