Fourteen students, all from Coxsackie-Athens High School in Greene County, visited Albany in April to meet with legislators and discuss the issue of labor rights in Bangladesh, in the news since November’s fire in a garment factory in Dhaka. The students also met two women from Bangladesh, including 24-year-old Sumi Abedin, who jumped from the fourth floor of the factory during the fire — not to escape death, but so her family would have a body to bury.
“She inspired us to help out and spread the word” about the working conditions of people who make our clothing, said 16-year-old Katrina Josberger. “As young people, we are always buying clothes, so we are a huge part of the population of consumers. We don’t realize that we have a lot of power.”
Donna Bryan, an Olive resident who teaches at the school, organized the trip for members of her “World of Difference” human rights awareness club. They met with three Procurement Committee leaders to urge passage of an initiative to stop the state government from buying sweatshop goods. “The senators and the assemblyman were condescending,” reported Bryan. “It radicalized the kids.”
Lawmakers, despite posters of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on their walls, responded inadequately, said Bryan, to students’ questions about how they could help. “One of them said, ‘The thing to do is to talk to your mom and dad, tell your friends and discuss it.’ Another one said, ‘Why are you interested? It’s half a world away. Shouldn’t you be interested in your studies?’ They were treated like four-year-olds.”
Students also met with Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. She is now famous for running into the factory fire, which killed 112 people, so she could grab evidence that Wal-Mart goods were being produced there. The day after the students met her, another sweatshop building collapsed in Bangladesh, and Akter was interviewed on NPR and BBC.
Akter and Abedin are touring the country to publicize the abuse of workers’ rights in their country. They visited Albany under the auspices of the Labor-Religion Coalition (LRC) of New York State, which is campaigning vigorously on behalf of sweatshop workers. One of their targets is the state government, which spends $43 million a year on apparel purchases.
“The majority of apparel comes from Bangladesh and China,” said LRC executive director Sara Niccoli. “We would put in place a procurement policy and code of conduct saying all responsible bidders for government contracts would have to show how they procure their garments. There should be no sweatshops in the supply chain.”
But the supply chain is difficult to untangle, as it is threaded through numerous middlemen. The goal is not so much to stop the state from buying from specific suppliers as to put pressure on the suppliers to change conditions in Bangladesh.
“We know that if we can convince governments they need to use taxpayer dollars to purchase responsibly, that’s a significant edge, but it’s a small share of the entire global market,” said Niccoli. “We also need to target private companies and general folks who go out and purchase apparel.”