Bangladeshi garment workers speak on campus in favor of safety accord

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The Student Action with workers invited two Bangladeshi workers to speak in the Union. These two have traveled across the country to at least 18 different schools in order to advocate the end of harmful environments for workers in factories. Aleya Akter (left) and Aklima Khanam (right) along with their translator.

One of many Bangladeshi workers on April 24, 2013 who stood outside the factory building that was falling apart, Aklima Khanam refused to go in to her workplace. But management physically abused and threatened to withhold the workers’ wages.

The roof of the Bangladeshi factory building collapsed that day, crushing machines and killing hundreds of Khanam’s coworkers.

Even though Khanam survived the Rana Plaza collapse, she was crushed by a machine and suffered severe head and chest injuries, which still prevent her from working.

Khanam, along with Aleya Akter , general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment & Industrial Workers Federation, sat in the Student Union Tuesday night, sharing their stories through a translator. The speak-out, held by Student Action with Workers , focused on the fight for safe workplaces and living wages in Bangladesh.

Students used Tuesday’s event to bolster their campaign to get Chancellor Carol Folt to require brands that do business with UNC to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. SAW plans to gather on the steps of South Building on April 24 to garner support for their cause.

After describing the dire working conditions she experienced, Khanam concluded with a call to action.

“We’re making the clothing for students at universities. Does that mean that students want us to die in building collapses and fires?” she said.

Akter spoke about about the causes and consequences of deadly factory disasters in Bangladesh and her struggle to force brands to accept responsibility for the safety conditions in their factories by signing the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

“When I would go home from work, hired thugs from management would harass me on the street and make threats to me,” Akter said.

Akter said she and other workers struggled to obtain union status, but problems still pervade factory working conditions.

“Conditions now are worse than ever,” she said. “Now people are dying in factory fires and building collapses. There might still be factory fires and building collapses, but if there were unions in those factories so many people wouldn’t have died.”

Freshman Richard Lindayen , a member of SAW, was befuddled by how long Folt has taken to issue a decision on the Accord.

“She wants to take time to deliver (a decision). We believe she’s gotten enough time and input, and it’s time for a decision,” he said.

As of April, 16 universities — including Duke University and Pennsylvania State University — have required brands to sign the Accord, successfully pressuring eight college logo brands to sign the Accord.

Sophomore Hannah Vuncannon said she hopes UNC continues this trend.

“I hope Chancellor Folt will sign and that we can support Aklima and Aleya,” she said. “I hope April 24 will show her how much her students care about this issue and that she makes the decision of the workers and hears students’ voices and not corporations’.”

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