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Sweatshop 'til You Drop

Local Matters


Published October 27, 2004 at 2:27 p.m.

Robina Akther says she is "about 18 years old" but can't be sure, since she doesn't know the exact date she was born. But this tiny Bangladeshi woman, who can neither read nor write, can spout plenty of other relevant numbers in her life. Like seven -- the number of cents per hour she earned as a junior sewing operator in a garment factory in Dhaka, stitching pants that are sold by Wal-Mart. Fifteen is how many hours Akther sat at a sewing machine each day; 120 is how many pants she had to sew in an hour to meet her production quota. And four is the number of times she was beaten by her boss in her first six months of employment for not making that target.

Akther's friend Charles Kernaghan is director of the National Labor Committee, an international worker and human rights group. Kernaghan and three former garment workers from Bangladesh are visiting high schools and colleges across the United States in an effort to raise awareness about the deplorable working conditions employed by U.S. apparel companies. "These are some of the hardest-working women in the world," Kernaghan told a crowd of some 200 students and faculty at St. Michael's College last week. "They're also some of the most abused,"

During their visit, Kernaghan spouted plenty of other startling figures. For example, there are 1.8 million garment workers in Bangladesh, most of them teenaged women like Akther, who work under similar or worse conditions. Wal-Mart, the world's largest company, spends $1.4 million per day in advertising, but pays just 26 cents for each garment sewn by Akther. Kernaghan points out that if Wal-Mart, which earned $9 billion in profits last year, paid its Bangladeshi workers just 37 cents per hour -- a 25-cent raise -- it would be enough to lift those workers out of poverty.

Wal-Mart is by no means the only American company accused of using sweatshop labor in developing nations, though it's by far the largest. Wal-Mart has consistently denied those allegations, and a spokesperson at its global headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, insists that the company's overseas operations conform to all labor and human-rights standards in the countries in which they operate.

But Kernaghan isn't buying it. He's the activist who uncovered the sweatshop labor that was producing goods for Kathie Lee Gifford and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. During their U.S. tour, Kerna-ghan brought the former garment workers into a Wal-Mart store, where one of the women identified the pants that were made in the factory where she worked.

Sk Nazma is a former child worker who began toiling in garment factories at age 11. She is now president of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a group that's fighting for better wages and working conditions. Speaking in her native Bengali, she told the audience at St. Mike's that they're not asking Americans to boycott these companies -- the Bangladeshis desperately need the work, she says -- but to put pressure on the companies to do the right thing.

The last number Kernaghan shared with the audience is $268 billion -- the total purchasing power of the nation's 15.3 million college students. He urged the students to become more conscientious consumers and ask questions about what they buy and how it's made, and to use that power wisely. "These workers are not coming here to say how pathetic they are," Kernaghan says. "If they don't have the pressure in the marketplace, these workers will never get their rights."