Public Program: “The Clothes in Your Closet Tell a Story"

Today, when one thinks of employment in the United States, images of airy offices inside glassy skyscrapers tend to come to mind. Of course, there will be complaints: perhaps the bathrooms are too small or the lunch breaks too short. This, however, is a privilege often taken for granted. Indeed, there was a time in living memory in which employment meant laboring for excessive hours for minimal wages in cramped, poorly ventilated workspaces under dangerous — even fatal — conditions. Perhaps no tragedy better demonstrates the appalling conditions many working class Americans were exposed to than the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Because employers at that time frequently locked the doors to their factories to ‘prevent theft,’ 146 workers perished when a fire erupted and they found themselves locked in, unable to escape. Not too long ago, the very same New York City of airy offices and glassy skyscrapers that we know today was littered with sweatshops and workers’ rights violations.

Although there have been marked improvements in workers’ rights and working conditions in the U.S. since then, the fact remains that workers in countries around the globe continue to languish under appalling conditions that threaten their health and even their lives. In as recently as 2012, for example, workers found themselves imperiled after a horrendous fire broke out at the Tazreen factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Again, finding themselves locked in and unable to escape the flames, 112 workers perished. In April 2013, the Savar building at the Rana Plaza garment factory complex collapsed when vibrations from 1,000 sewing machines cracked the walls and foundation of the substandard building. Nearly 1,200 died and another 2,500 were injured, making this the worst disaster in the history of the garment trade. In both cases, the workers were making clothing for such large U.S. companies as Walmart, Sears, Disney, Gap, H&M, and Zara. The demand by such companies for cheap clothing has not waned, and so wages continue to be low and working conditions dangerous. Indeed, such tragedies as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire remain very much grounded in reality and have become all too common for garment workers in Bangladesh.

It is this reality that inspired Kalpona Akter to take up the mantle of workers’ rights and to declare on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that, “In Bangladesh, it’s not 2011 — it’s 1911.” Activism will be key to improving workers’ rights in countries like Bangladesh, and their efforts are deeply important for the welfare and lives of millions of workers around the globe. Yet they are not alone: activists are also working to appeal to foreign governments, such as the U.S. Congress, and to such human rights organizations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to expand awareness of issues - including dangerous working conditions and sexual violence - facing workers and to appeal for support in the crucial task of addressing this plight. With these efforts, activists have been gradually making real and meaningful progress for workers’ rights around the world, and there is still much to be done.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center is proud to welcome workers’ rights activist Kalpona Akter to a deeply engaging and immensely insightful lecture on the poor working conditions, dangers, and rights violations that workers in Bangladesh and other developing countries are exposed to on a daily basis. Come hear Ms. Akter describe her story of her own experience as a child worker in Bangladesh’s garment factories and her journey toward activism and advocacy. Join us as we together have our eyes opened to the real meaning of the human suffering only subtly hinted at by the “Made In Bangladesh” tags that cling to our clothing, learn about the efforts and progress that activists have made and are currently making, and explore how we can help. The clothes in your closet tell a story — and Ms. Akter will tell it.

Kalpona Akter was a former child worker in Bangladesh’s garment factories, starting as a seamstress at age 12. She organized her fellow garment workers to demand fair labor rights despite enduring threats and retribution and, finally, termination from the factory at age 16. She co-founded the Bangladesh Centre fore Worker Solidarity (BCWS) and has done more to unveil the killing conditions under which 21st century clothing is made than perhaps anyone else. As Executive Director of the BCWS, Akter continues to educate workers about their rights and to campaign for fair wages, garment factory safety, and the right to form labor unions and collectively bargain. Her work has been recognized with numerous human rights awards, including the Human Rights Watch’s 2016 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism. She was one of the prime movers in the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, a landmark 2013 agreement now signed by 220 global fashion and retail companies, binding them to accept independent safety inspections of factories in their global supply chains and to make necessary repairs. Akter will speak about the work yet to be done and the lives that have already been saved by the groundbreaking Accord.

Please join us this Thursday, May 25, at 5 p.m. in Filene Auditorium in Moore Hall for a special lecture entitled “The Clothes in Your Closet Tell a Story: Toward a More Just and Humane Global Garment Industry” featuring workers’ rights activist Kalpona Akter.

This event is co-sponsored by the Dartmouth Centers Forum, Montgomery Fellows Program, Office of the Provost, and the Departments of History and Sociology. This lecture is in support of the Dartmouth Centers Forum Theme: Protest and Activism: Insisting on Change.

Submitted by Nicole Simineri ’17, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

The views and opinions expressed and any materials presented during a public program are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.