At 12-years-old, Kalpona Akter was uncritically fond of her employers at the garment factory near her hometown, Dhaka, Bangladesh. She and her 10-year-old brother worked long, dirty shifts at the factory; the two children were the only source of income for a seven-member family.
"I was grateful to have a job," Akter said. "We put food on the table. My father was sick and my mother had to stay home and care for an infant."
But as she experienced the long shifts, arbitrarily reduced wages and dangerous working conditions that still characterize the industry in her country today, Akter's gratitude morphed into a steely determination that workers like her deserved the protection afforded by a union contract. That pursuit had her blackballed from the industry before reaching her twenties.
Despite Akter's personal fight, not much has changed for Bangladeshi garment workers since her youth: last year, over a thousand garment workers in the country were killed in preventable factory accidents.
In an effort to improve conditions for workers today, Akter, now 36, has become one of the fiercest supporters of a new legally binding factory safety agreement for the big brand retailers who source clothing in her country. Known as the Bangladesh Factory Fire and Safety Accord, it aims to ensure that factories where the signatory retailers purchase garments have been safety inspected and gives workers a voice in the agreement's management.
Akter was in Vancouver this week to speak at a rally outside the downtown Hudson's Bay department store on Nov. 25, calling on the The Bay and other Canadian companies to sign the agreement that will, Akter said, save many lives.
The agreement has garnered the support of over a hundred big retailers around the world, but only one Canadian company, Loblaws, has signed on so far.
Unlike the United States, which has suspended trade regulations that allowed importers to bring Bangladeshi goods into the country at reduced rates, federal Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced this summer that Canada will not impose trade penalties on factories or importers who fail to improve working conditions in the Bangladeshi industry.
'This is personal'
"This is personal for me," said Akter, now the executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), an advocacy organization for workers' rights in her country. Akter has been jailed and harassed for her advocacy work. One of her colleagues, Animul Islam, was kidnapped, tortured and killed last year.
"In 1990, there was a fire on the top floor in the factory where I worked, and when we tried to leave, we discovered that the managers had locked the factory doors," Akter said. "If the fire had come all the way through the factory, we could have all been killed like the workers at the Rana Plaza."
The Rana Plaza fire last April killed more than 1,100 workers in a ramshackle plant that had been illegally expanded without proper safety procedures. Some of the garments at the factory were manufactured for Canadian retailers.
Two of the four most lethal factory disasters in world history have taken place in Bangladesh in the last year, and a third record-setting disaster took place in a garment factory across the border in Pakistan this year, according to Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium.
When Akter started as a child labourer 24 years ago, the garment industry was a dominant sector in the Bangladesh economy, and she was a typical worker -- young, female and savagely exploited. Over four million workers, 85 per cent of them women and girls, labour in the country's factories, which produce cheap clothing for export to the developed world.
Within her first year at the factory, Akter said, she was working on garments slated for export to Canada. Akter, her brother and millions like them have made Canada's cheap fashion shirts and other garments for decades. Last year retailers like Wal-Mart, The Bay, Loblaws and Canadian Tire brought $1.128 billion worth of imports from Bangladesh to Canada, with 97.5 per cent of those imports coming from the garment sector.
Garments enter the Canadian market duty free, and Akter said she would like the Canadian government to make the duty free status contingent on reforms in labour law, safety enforcement and freedom of association for Bangladeshi workers, who face many legal and extra legal obstacles when they try to form unions.
"It is admirable that Canadian workers are standing up for their sisters and brothers in Bangladesh," said Bob Jeffcott, a campaigner with the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity. "But our government should be doing a lot more. We could make retention of duty free status for imports from Bangladesh contingent on companies joining the accord, and on the Bangladeshi government improving labour law and its enforcement."
The U.S. Marines require any company producing licensed garments with the Corps logo to join the Fire and Safety Accord. This decision followed on media reports that Marine Corps-licensed garments were being produced in the Tazreen factory before a fire killed over a hundred workers.
Some firms take action
Canada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment on the call for the country to take a more active role in promoting worker safety in Bangladesh.
Requests to The Bay for comment on Monday's demonstration in Vancouver and the call for the company to join the accord were also unanswered, though a Bay spokesperson told the CBC that while her firm has not signed onto the accord, "it has signed -- along with other North America retailers including Canadian Tire -- the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a separate accord which puts more onus on the Bangladeshi government to play a role in worker safety in [the] future by upgrading national fire and building standards."
Critics like the Labour Rights organization say the industry-sponsored alternative alliance is flawed because it specifies no consequences for firms that fail to live up to its principles, is strictly voluntary and does nothing to ensure that workers are free to organize unions and bargain for better conditions.
As recently as last April, The Bay was sourcing garments from a Bangladeshi factory where 10 workers were killed in a fire this fall.
BC Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair told protesters outside The Bay on Monday that the deaths of garment workers in Bangladeshi factories constituted "industrial murder." Canadian consumers don't want workers' blood on the clothes they buy, Sinclair said, leading the crowd in chanting "Sign the Accord."
Also on Monday, H&M, based in Sweden and the world's second largest apparel firm, announced it was taking steps to ensure that workers producing for it in Bangladesh will be paid at rates above the country's legal minimum wage.
The minimum wage in the country is slated to increase in coming months. If that happens, and it is properly enforced, Bangladeshi garment workers will still be the worst paid in the world.
H&M's living wage commitment will be implemented at two Bangladeshi factories and one in Cambodia next year, the company announced, and will expand to cover all 750 factories where H&M purchases garments by 2018.
Read more: Labour + Industry