This International Women’s Day, Traid is celebrating the work of Kalpona Akter, one of the most important campaigners amplifying the voice of women garment workers. She is the Founder and Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) and one of the most prominent activists for garment workers’ rights.
A former child garment worker herself, Kalpona gained an understanding of labour law when she was 14-years old, which completely changed the direction of her life.
“I learned that I am supposed to work eight hours. My lunchbreak should be one hour. The toilet should be clean and there should not be verbal, physical, or sexual abuses in the factory. Something beautiful I learned was that I have the right to organise.”
This pivotal moment has seen Kalpona dedicate her life to campaigning for jobs with dignity in the garment industry, advocating with many stakeholders from government to brands to demand respect for the rights of workers, especially women and girls, and does crucial work to ensure worker inclusion in international compacts to improve safety and labour standards in Bangladesh.
On International Women’s Day, Kalpona talked to TRAID about the urgent need to create a garment industry that benefits workers, rather than exploiting them, and what role we must all play to support and secure this.
It’s 10 years since the tragedy of Rana Plaza, where has the most progress has been made, and where is there still work to do?
Over the past 10 years since the Rana Plaza tragedy, there has been a significant improvement in factory safety for workers, with over 2 million individuals currently employed in 1600 safe factories. This positive development can be attributed to the Accord on Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety, which has brought about a remarkable change, whereas the government’s efforts have been insufficient. However, there are still many areas that require attention, including wages, freedom of association, gender-based violence, and social protection.
Gender-based violence, as well as other rights violations are endemic in garment supply chains. How can garment workers address exploitation and a fair income, as well as safe and dignified working conditions?
As someone who has spent years advocating for the rights of garment workers in Bangladesh, I firmly believe that addressing exploitation and ensuring fair income and safe working conditions requires a multi-faceted approach. This includes organising and mobilising workers to demand their rights, advocating for stronger labor laws and enforcement mechanisms, engaging with global brands to hold them accountable for their supply chains, and building partnerships between workers, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders to create lasting change. At the heart of this effort is the recognition that garment workers are not passive victims but active agents of change, and empowering them to take action is critical to building a more just and equitable industry for all.
As a former child garment worker, and now, a trade union and human rights activist, what change should people buying clothes make, to support the people making our clothes?
As someone who has lived and worked in the garment industry, I know first-hand the toll that exploitative working conditions can take on workers and their families. If you want to support the workers making your clothes, you need to start by demanding greater transparency and accountability from the brands and retailers who profit from their labor most. This means asking questions about where your clothes come from, how they are made, and under what conditions, and do these workers have a dignified job? It also means supporting efforts to strengthen labour laws and empower workers to organise and advocate for their rights. Ultimately, we all have a role to play in building a more just and equitable fashion industry, and it starts with recognising the humanity and dignity of the people who make your clothes.