Garment workers call for Yalies’ support

While the case against sweatshop labor is often couched in terms of numbers — 84 hours of work weekly, seven cents daily pay, zero days paid maternity leave and 110 years of work to afford a year’s tuition at Yale, according to National Labor Committee Executive Director Charles Kernaghan — it took on a human face when two teenage garment workers spoke on campus Tuesday as part of the Bangladeshi Workers’s Tour.

More than 90 students attended the second talk in an annual series of Pierson Master’s Teas on the condition of garment factory workers around the world. The speakers — Kernaghan, Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity President Sk Nazma, translator and labor rights activist Rafiq Alam and two sweatshop workers from Bangladesh, Robina Akther and Maksuda — called on students to campaign aggressively for Yale to join the Worker’s Rights Consortium. The consortium is a group of colleges committed to enforcing humane treatment for workers manufacturing campus clothing.

“Yale students have a lot of power; it would be fantastic if you used it for something good,” Kernaghan said.

The talk focused on Maksuda and Akther’s personal experiences. In an hour, Maksuda sews pockets onto 120 Wal-Mart pants, each of which retails for close to $11, she said through her translator Alam. She said she is paid less than $15.18 per month, subsists on $0.18 of food per day and has worked under a manager who once kicked her stomach when she was seven months pregnant.

“When I said I needed a short break, he said that he didn’t want to hear it,” Maksuda said.

The NLC’s high-profile campaign strategies, focusing public attention on companies who use sweatshop labor, have resulted in a number of successes, including agreements from J.C. Penney and Sean Combs’ Sean John clothing line to pay their workers a living wage, Kernaghan said.

By contrast, Nazma said, protests organized within Bangladesh have been largely unsuccessful. An effort to demand overtime compensation culminated in a protest last November that ended in eight deaths and 150 injuries when factory owners called in the police, she said.

“We are doing our job in Bangladesh,” she said. “We need the support of Americans to have a voice.”

In April 2000, Students Against Sweatshops sponsored overnight vigils and administered a student referendum to convince Yale’s administration to add the University to the list of WRC affiliates, which currently include Harvard University and 128 other colleges. In September 2000, University President Richard Levin said he was not convinced of WRC’s effectiveness but was continuing to investigate the issue. Yale is currently not a member of WRC.

Sarah Stillman ’06, who was at the talk, said SAS has largely disbanded since 2000, but she hopes to resurrect the movement.

“What’s needed is a roundtable on the WRC,” Stillman said.

Akther and Maksuda said they hope their talk will mobilize support for their demands, which include three months of paid maternity leave and accurate assessment of overtime wages. If implemented globally, the demands would cost each American consumer an average of $14 per year, Karnaghan said.

The Bangladeshi Workers’ Tour has visited 35 colleges and 12 high schools since September.

Maksuda and Robina Akther, two Bangladeshi sweatshop workers, speak at a Pierson College Master’s Tea as part of an effort to get Yale to join the Worker’s Rights Consortium.
Leland Milstein
Maksuda and Robina Akther, two Bangladeshi sweatshop workers, speak at a Pierson College Master’s Tea as part of an effort to get Yale to join the Worker’s Rights Consortium.

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