SALVADOR, Brazil, Sept 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
F ormer child labourer Nazma Akter knew she would dedicate her
life to improving workers' rights when she joined her first
protest outside a garment factory in Bangladesh when still a
teenager several decades ago.
From the age of 11, Akter worked 14-hour days alongside her
mother on the factory floor where she says unpaid wages and
verbal and physical abuse were common.
After taking part in the protest in the capital Dhaka, she
was beaten by police, fired from her job and blacklisted.
But now Akter, 43, campaigns to defend workers' rights as
head of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), a
100,000-strong trade union.
"It's important to raise your voice and I help and encourage
other women to do the same," Akter, 43, told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation in an interview.
Bangladesh's apparel industry has come under pressure to
improve factory conditions and workers' rights, particularly
after the collapse of Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh more than
three years ago, when 1,136 garment workers were killed.
Akter said the disaster has led to more factory inspections,
the closing down of dozens of factories deemed unsafe, and
government labour reforms.
But low wages, a lack of women in senior management
positions in factories, few female union leaders, and getting
more women to join trade unions remain key challenges.
"If you don't know your rights, you can't stand up for
them," Akter said, speaking at an event in Brazil hosted by the
Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID).
"Being in a union means workers can know about their rights
and can change their working conditions."
Bangladesh's 5,000 garment factories employ 4 million
workers, of whom around 80 percent are women, producing garments
for high fashion brands sold in the United States and Europe.
Increasing union representation, especially among women, is
key to improving working conditions and safety measures in an
industry worth almost $25 billion a year, Akter said.
"For women in a union it allows them to talk about the
problems they face, like verbal abuse, issues that men don't
really care about or understand," she said.
Akter says women are passed over because of the way women
are viewed in Bangladesh's patriarchal society.
"Women are not promoted in factories because they are seen
as weak and more easily exploited. They are seen as cheap
labour," she said.
As a female union leader, Akter says some men have treated
her with disdain.
"I would go out alone at night to campaign. At first people
called me a prostitute," she said. "My father doesn't like what
I do .. my husband has come around."
Bangladesh is the world's second largest garment producer
after China. The garment industry accounts for more than 80
percent of the South Asian nation's export earnings and provides
a crucial source of income to women in particular.
"A boycott is not a solution. There are no alternative jobs
for women," Akter said. "We want a better wage and to solve
problems through collective bargaining."
Factory wages have risen in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza
disaster in 2013 but are still low when compared to other
garment producing countries in Southeast Asia, Akter said.
A garment factory worker in Bangladesh earns around $68 a
month, while in Cambodia $140, she said.
Bangladesh's garment industry is undergoing a safety
overhaul. Since the Rana Plaza collapse, more than 2,000 of the
country's 3,500 exporting garment factories have been inspected
by the government or as a result of retailer-led initiatives.
While the labour law was amended to make it easier to form
unions, still only about 10 percent of Bangladesh's garment
factories have registered unions, according to a report by Human
Rights Watch this year.
"When I speak to factory owners they say: 'why do we need
another Nazma Akter? One Nazma is quite enough.'," Akter said.
"I tell them we need many more Nazmas."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell.;
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