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`Already Old` In Bangladesh Coalitions Bring Attention To Alleged Labor Abuses

Washington Post  |  September 25, 2002  |  Share

'Already Old' In Bangladesh Coalitions Bring Attention To Alleged Labor Abuses

Kirstin Downey Grimsley Washington Post Staff Writer
September 25, 2002; Page E1

Mahamuda Akter, a shy 18-year-old who weighs 79 pounds, first went to work five years ago because her parents, tenant rice farmers, needed the income she could earn by taking a job in Bangladesh's burgeoning garment industry. "It was for my family's survival," said Akter, who earns about $36 a month, or 17 cents an hour, sewing garments destined for Wal-Mart stores in the United States, including the Ozark Trail, Faded Glory and Sportrax clothing lines. She said she is required to work from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days and sometimes until 3 a.m. if there is a rush of orders. She's frequently hungry and almost always tired, she said.

"Living and working like this, by the time you are 20, you are already old, and your health is failing," she said. "When you reach 30, they fire you. It is not just. I have no savings. I have nothing."

Akter came to Washington to tell her story yesterday as a coalition of civic, labor and religious organizations launched a public campaign seeking to highlight what it calls labor abuses in Bangladesh and other poor nations.

Spearheading the push is Charles Kernaghan, the labor activist who exposed poor working conditions at Central American factories that made goods for the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokesman Bill Wertz acknowledged there have been "violations of working-hour standards" at the factory where Akter works. He said the retail giant is trying to work with the suppliers to make improvements. If the manufacturer doesn't shape up, Wertz said, Wal-Mart may sever its ties to the factory.

"We can't condone certain kinds of practices and won't do business with companies that fail to improve," he said.

That's what Akter is afraid of. If Wal-Mart terminates its purchasing agreements with the factory, she and her co-workers could find themselves without jobs.

Lisa Rahman, 19, of Dhaka, Bangladesh, said that's what happened at the factory where she used to work after she and other workers began complaining about bad working conditions, including 12-hour workdays, filthy restrooms and unsanitary drinking water. She worked at the Shah Makhdum factory, which manufactured goods for Walt Disney Co., including clothing in its Winnie the Pooh line.

"I was crying all the time," Rahman said.

After workers at the plant complained and took their woes to the media, Disney pulled out of the factory, leaving 200 employees out of work, she said.

Mark Spears, Disney's compliance director, said the company has "experienced poor conditions in Bangladesh." When the company investigated the allegations, it found that conditions were not as serious as workers had alleged. But its subcontractor decided to cease buying goods from the manufacturer.

"Clearly the publicity may not have helped," Spears said.

Kernaghan said the ease with which multinational corporations relocate has a chilling effect on the willingness of workers to speak out about what he said are widespread abuses of workers in many poor countries.

He said he has been urging Disney and other companies to stay and work to improve conditions rather than exit quickly to avoid bad publicity. "All it would take is one word from Michael Eisner," Disney's chairman and CEO, and the jobs could return to the factory where Rahman worked, he said.

Bangladeshi officials said that the country has good labor laws and that it is unlikely any factories would permit such poor working conditions. "Can a person work 18 hours a day?" said Mohammed G. Hussain, commerce counselor for Bangladesh's embassy in Washington. "It's impossible."

The officials questioned why Kernaghan and his associates are raising the sweatshop issue publicly, pointing out that it could affect employment in the deeply impoverished nation, where 40 percent of adults are unemployed.

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