Bangladeshi garment worker leaders call for student support

Activists want the U to stop buying garments made in unsafe factories.

A tear rolls down the face of Reba Sikder, a survivor of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, as Kalpona Akter translates her story on Friday at Blegen Hall.  Over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers died in the factory collapse.

Holly Peterson

A tear rolls down the face of Reba Sikder, a survivor of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, as Kalpona Akter translates her story on Friday at Blegen Hall. Over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers died in the factory collapse.

Fernando Nunez

Bangladeshi garment worker leaders visited the University of Minnesota on Friday to speak out against unsafe working conditions in Bangladeshi factories, some of which produce official University clothing.

United Students Against Sweatshops organized the event as part of its national “End Deathtraps” tour, which aims to have students and Bangladeshi workers collaborate to demand better factory working conditions and ask colleges to sever ties with companies that don’t provide safe working conditions.

Individualized studies senior Shandy Potes Mangra collaborated with the group to bring the Bangladeshi workers to the University campus. Collaboration is effective in fighting sweatshops, she said.

“We are connected through the apparel that we choose to buy, the apparel that our campus provides us,” Potes Mangra said. “It kind of just makes it real.”

Potes Mangra will organize a letter-writing campaign asking University administrators to end contracts with companies with unsafe working conditions.

Two former Bangladeshi factory workers spoke to about 50 people in Blegen Hall on Friday afternoon.

Reba Sikder, one of the speakers, survived the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in April. Sikder recounted that experience to the crowd through an interpreter.

Before the collapse, she said, a small portion of the factory’s ceiling fell on top of a co-worker, prompting an evacuation. But after a short time, Sikder’s general manager told employees an engineer had inspected the site and declared it safe for work.

Most workers were reluctant to re-enter in the building, she said, but the manager threatened them and used force to get the employees working again so they could meet the day’s production quota.

After getting back to work, Sikder said, the power went out, necessitating the use of a generator. As soon as it started working, the building began to collapse.

Sikder was trapped under the rubble and fell unconscious, although she doesn’t remember for how long. When she regained her senses, she said saw one of her co-workers trapped, bleeding and asking for help. But Sikder was also pinned beneath the wreckage and said she couldn’t help her coworker, who later died.

Sikder said she was in and out of consciousness for several hours and drank urine to avoid dehydration. She was eventually rescued and made a full recovery.

“It is true that I survived, but I saw many of my co-workers die in that factory collapse,” she said through the interpreter.

One other speaker who worked in the factory before it collapsed in April, Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said she wants student support in the current campaigns to improve conditions for Bangladeshi workers.

“The message for [University] students is that I think it is high time for them to act, and they really can contribute to make a safe workplace for workers like Reba and others,” she said.

United Students Against Sweatshops international campaigns coordinator Garrett Strain helped organize the “End Deathtraps” tour. He said he, Sikder and Akter met with a University official to demand that the institution cut its ties with the VF Corporation, which supplies some of the University’s official apparel.

“They are one the worst abusers in the Bangladeshi garment industry of workplace safety,” he said.

Pushes from students have previously resulted in policy change at the University. For example, a 2001 resolution by the Minnesota Student Association requested that University Dining Services provide free-trade coffee options. Soon after the resolution passed, UDS officials made the switch.

Now, Strain is hopeful students can again find success in advocating for better working conditions at factories that supply University apparel.

“I don’t think any Minnesota student wants to see a U of M T-shirt pulled from the wreckage at the next factory disaster,” he said.