A version of this piece can be found at http://www.newagebd.com/supliment.php?sid=344&id=2316.
On Feb 18, 2013, Kalpona Akter, Bangladesh labor organizer, and Reba Sikder, a garment worker and Rana Plaza collapse survivor, gave a talk here at Penn State University, in State College, USA. I heard about the talk through the local Bangladeshi Students Association, and went eagerly to hear a first hand account of the tragedy, and to see how was received by the American student audience.
It went well – as well as a story of such shocking tragedy could go. I had gotten there late and so had to squeeze myself at the back of standing-room only classroom. But from my vantage-point I could still spy the faces of the students listening to the talk. Reba Sikder’s powerful testimonial (translated by Kalpona apa) visibly affixed these “mostly-middle-class” American students; I think I even saw a few faces shake as they heard what Reba had gone though, trying to survive in the hell that was the rubble-filled crater of the collapsed building.
This was not the first time garment workers’ rights have taken center stage at Penn State. On Oct 21, 2013, a candle-light vigil commemorating the Rana Plaza tragedy was held at Penn State. The vigil, organized by the Penn State chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), drew an impressively large crowd considering the tragedy was half-a-year old and State College is ensconced in the middle of the parochial Pennsylvania landscape – it is over two hundred miles to the urbanity of Philadelphia and the cosmopolitanism of New York City.
The Feb 18 talk was also put together by USAS as a part of the national Garment Workers Solidarity (GWS) campaign, which aims to force apparel manufactures in the US to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The campaign works on a strategy of pushing US universities (institutions highly sensitive to human rights and social justice issues because of the liberal tradition of higher education in the US) to pledge to only do business with apparel-manufacturers who have signed the Accord. Thus far Duke University, University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and New York University have signed the pledge (Penn State has promised to sign it by March 31). These universities represent extremely lucrative clients for the clothing manufacturers and such developments, along with the combined force of student pressure and worker mobilization on the streets of Dhaka have been key to getting Adidas, Top of the World, Fruit of the Loom, Knights Apparel, and Zephyr Headwear to sign (or promise to sign) onto the Accord.
Courageous activism and hard work by the likes of Kalpona Akter and Reba Sikder is critically important to the success of these campaigns. Their testimonies put faces to the numbers, without their stories it is just statistics. It is also their stories that lie at the heart of the recent legislative deliberations by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on workers rights in Bangladesh. Such actions abroad doubtlessly are a key part of protecting the internal demands and movements by our garment workers, and without Kalpona Akter and Reda Sikder doing the leg-work of going through several US cities in two weeks (through the heaviest snow season in recent memory) it would be impossible.
But there are many at home who look at these trips abroad as a betrayal. “They are lowering our national reputation in the international community,” many say. When they go back I am sure both Kalpona Akter and Reba Sikder will be criticized for lowering our country’s image abroad and playing a part in the US’s imperial game of dictating local policy. This really makes no sense to me. If one loves ones country truly, one expects better of it, always. It is disingenuous to criticize them for giving talks at US universities and at the Senate deliberations. The nature of the garment works issue is truly a transnational one (NPR’s Planet Money’s T-Shirt Project provides a powerful explication of the topic – google it). Constructive criticisms of Bangladeshi-failings on the issue to ourselves and to people who can help us are not just justified, but a requirement. It is not shameful to ask for help from others when one’s house is on fire.
In the verse that became our national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore presents the source of our love of country in its forests, air, fields, etc. Perhaps we also need to recognize that while old Robi-Thakur might not have explicitly mentioned the people of Bangladesh as a source of love, he would agree it also resides in the spirit of our people. It is in the spirit of the likes of Kalpona Akter and Reba Sikder, who bear harassments at home, patiently wait out the bureaucratic harangues of airport immigration, and then bear through 3000 miles of driving to give talks in schools and the US Capital in the space of weeks. It is in the spirit of thousands of workers at home fighting to work with dignity even in the face of jail or worse.
I went up to speak with Kalpona Akter and Reba Sikder after the talk. Out of politeness I thanked Reba for showing the courage to tell her story. “There are thousands more like it just on Rana alone,” explained Dr. Jakir Hossain, a Bangladeshi scholar of Global Workers Rights at Penn State and one of the faculty-advisors for the talk. He is right. The facts on Rana Plaza are humbling: 1129 dead, 2515 injured, and many more injured in subsequent fights over compensation and back-pay.
Tagore ends his verse with the point that our mother’s sadness breaks out heart, that countenancing her sorrow we cannot help by swell up in tears. We cry out we love her. “I still think about one image from the Rana Plaze site. It has stuck with me,” says Kalpona apa. “It was the image of a man, standing amidst the rubble and the reek of rotting bodies underneath, holding up a sign: “Need instruments to cut arms and legs!””
That is the sadness of our country, and what Kalpona Akter, Reba Sikder, and the hundreds of thousands of workers at home are doing now as they fight to work with dignity is our love for it.