Kalpona Akter and Maritza Vargas both make clothes, and both work in factories, but the similarities end there. Vargas works at a unionized factory in the Dominican Republic, where she earns a living wage, while Akter struggles to unionize factories in Bangladesh. The garment workers spoke about their different experiences on Tuesday at a panel discussion on “Worker Justice in the Global Apparel Industry.” “The factory owners are more powerful than the government,” said Akter, who started working when she was just 12. She described how difficult it is to simply enforce the existing labor laws, let alone implement new ones that would require a living wage and proper safety measures. Akter is part of a coalition of labor groups working to require that companies producing in the country sign onto the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which requires that a certain proportion of a companies’ profits be allocated towards safety, and that they maintain union neutrality. Unlike workers in most of the garment industry, Vargas’ job at the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic, where she is the general secretary of her union, pays her three times the wages of the average Dominican garment worker. “It makes a huge difference, because workers at the factory can work and attend university, and can even send their kids to university,” she said. Together the women demonstrated just how hard workers around the world have been fighting, and how far they are able to go.
- report/photo by Sivan Rosenthal