Testimony of Sk Nazma

October 27, 2004

Ms. Sk Nazma, President of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS)

Herself a child worker, Sk Nazma started out as a helper in the garment factories when she was 10 years old. Eventually she attempted to organize one of the first unions in the garment sector-an effort that was met with mass firings, a lock-out and violent repression by factory management. BCWS's offices are a beehive of activity, overflowing with workers who come seeking help and training.

Right now, the BCWS, the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) and our other partners in Bangladesh are working around the clock to help the over-500,000 garment workers in the Dhaka area alone, who have lost their homes in this year's tragic floods. Many of the workers' homes are still under two to six feet of water (really more of a thick, sickening muck of sewage, garbage and mud.) Clean drinking water and food are rare, and disease is spreading rapidly. The emergency work of the NGWF and BCWS-distributing desperately needed food, water purification tablets and other necessities-is literally saving scores of lives. (Thanks to NLC member support in response to the request for flood relief donations, and a generous contribution from Anita Roddick, the NLC has been able to forward $22,000 in emergency aid to Bangladesh.)

Recently, the BCWS and NGWF won a major victory for the more than 1.8 million garment workers in Bangladesh, 85 percent of them women, when the government in Bangladesh along with 18 of the largest apparel companies in the world, finally agreed to respect women workers' right to three months maternity leave with full pay. The government is now saying they will extend the legal paid leave to four months.

Click here to read the testimonies of Robina and Maksuda, two other Bangladeshi workers.

Click here to read more about the 2004 NLC Bangladesh worker tour.

My name is Sk Nazma. I am President of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Our mission is to accompany the over 1.8 million mostly-women garment workers in their struggle for social and economic justice.

I know that what these two young workers told you just now is the truth. I too was a child worker. I started in the garment factories when I was 11 years old.

It is common for our women workers to be forced to work from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week, while being cheated of their overtime pay, and even beaten.

But as you have heard already, we are not asking for a boycott. We need these jobs. In fact, we desperately need these jobs, since we are a very poor country. But we also demand that the workers be treated as human beings, with their rights respected, and paid a fair wage. And we want the right to organize more than anything else.

Right now there are well over 1.3 million garment workers in the Dhaka area, but there is not one single union with a contract-not one in any of these plants. The companies don't allow it. In our export processing zones, by law, we still have no right to organize.

But do not misunderstand. We are not just sitting around waiting for the companies to give us justice. We are fighting back. But we need your help and solidarity.

At the Pantex factory just outside Dhaka, the workers were being forced to work five hours overtime a day with no overtime pay. Instead of the legal 48-hour week, the company said the regular workweek would be 66 hours. They worked seven days a week, and they faced physical abuse. On November 3, 2003, the workers went on strike. They blocked a shipment of garments from leaving the factory. The factory owner called in the police, who opened fire killing six or seven workers. A 13-year-old girl was shot in the stomach. The police beat the workers with clubs. Scores were injured. You could hear the cries of the women from the factory. The police tied them together with rope like cattle. In the end, some small improvements were won. But it cost the blood of those brave workers.

Bangladesh has pretty good labor laws on paper. For example, garment workers have the legal right to three months maternity leave with full pay. Yet, 95 percent of the factories violate this right. They get away with this in broad daylight. The factory owners say, "We are the law" or "that law does not apply in my factory."

In Bangladesh, we started a campaign jointly with our sister organizations, the National Garment Workers Federation and others. Working together, we wrote to all 3,700 garment factories demanding that they respect the maternity leave laws. We organized demonstrations. We marched. We distributed popular education brochures to the workers. We put posters up all over the factory areas. We talked to the media, and we held a conference which even government officials felt they had to attend.

In the United States, with the help of the National Labor Committee, a simultaneous campaign was launched, and today 19 of the largest apparel companies in the world have signed a pledge that anyone sewing their garments in Bangladesh will be guaranteed her legal maternity leave with full pay.

In fact, at our conference, the government Labor Minister even pledged to extend the paid maternity leave to four months. But we will believe the government and the companies only after we see some action.

You know, a few months ago, in July and August, Bangladesh was devastated with the worst floods in 30 years. In Dhaka, tens of thousands of garment workers' homes were under two to three feet of water. Maksuda's house was like that. They tried to live on the roof, but couldn't and had to flee. There were big outbreaks of dysentery malaria and dengue fever. There was no clean drinking water. Much of the city was under filthy water mixed with sewage, garbage and mud. The workers had no food.

I want to thank you. Because of your great solidarity, we were able to rescue thousands of workers and their families. With your contributions, we and our sister organizations were able to distribute water purification tablets, oral re-hydration saline solution, food, blankets and medicines. Your solidarity saved lives.

I want to say that we are very worried about 2005, when the World Trade Organization will lift the textile and apparel quotas, because we hear that so much work will go to China. If Bangladesh loses tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs, it will be a disaster. Seventy-five percent of Bangladesh's export earnings are from garments.

In this global economy, international solidarity is more critical than ever. It seems that all of us must struggle together to defend women's and workers rights, fair wages and the right to organize. This is our only hope. It might seem like nothing to you, but if our garment workers could earn 4,500 taka as a base wage-which is about 37 cents an hour in American dollars-it would make a huge, positive difference in our lives. Also, the workers need one day off a week. These are some of our struggles.

Thank you for your solidarity!