Voices of Protest Mark Fashion Week

A worker leaves the site where a garment factory building collapsed near Dhaka, Bangladesh Monday, April 29, 2013.  The collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka that killed 1,129 people. (AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous, File)

A worker leaves the site where a garment factory building collapsed near Dhaka, Bangladesh Monday, April 29, 2013. The collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka that killed 1,129 people. (Ismail Ferdous/AP)

As New York’s fashionistas strutted and flaunted their latest creations last week, the women of Bangladesh spent yet another week sewing sequins to the dresses that eventually will end up in American closets.

In an effort to illuminate the poor working conditions of these laborers, about 40 protestors gathered on Thursday Feb. 6  outside Lincoln Center, against the backdrop of the city’s most glamorous event, to urge big retail companies like Wal-Mart and Gap to sign the Bangladesh Accord, an agreement by 150 countries to keep conditions in Bangladeshi factories safe.  Their objective: to prevent cheap Bangladeshi labor from falling prey to poor and dangerous working conditions leading to incidents like the Rana Plaza disaster in Savar last April that killed 1,129 people.

“The issue is too often ignored and should arise during Fashion Week,” said Eric Dirnbach of the International Labor Rights Foundation. The aim, he added, is to improve conditions for the workers, not drive away investment from Bangladesh.

Organized by photojournalist Ismail Ferdous, the protest kicked off with projections of portraits of Bangladeshi factory workers against buildings. The slideshow consisted of images that he had taken while reporting on labor issues in Savar. “I want to show what it’s going on,” he said.

The protest organizers underscored that the demonstration intended to highlight the policies of the entire industry not just companies that manufacture clothing in Bangladesh, like the Gap and Wal-Mart. The two retailers, who have not signed the accord, were not present at Fashion week and did not return phone calls requesting comment.

The accord, which reached 150 signatories on Feb 12 is a legally binding agreement by western clothing companies to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe.  However, not everyone is convinced that the agreement will make a difference.

“Such accords fly in the face of the fact, known to safety experts, that responsibility for maintaining standards lies with factory management and owners alone,” said Jagdish Bhagwati, an economics professor at Columbia University. Many of the factory owners are Bangladeshi and are used as intermediaries between workers and multinationals.

After the Rana Plaza disaster, many U.S. companies, such as Wal-Mart, said that safety is paramount for overseas factories. There is no direct proof of these regulations being implemented, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.

Such retailers are attracted to Bangladesh for its extremely cheap and plentiful labor. The industry mainly employs women and accounts for 45 percent of the country’s industrial jobs, but contributes only 5 percent to its total national income. Workers are paid 3,000 Taka, approximately $40 a month.

The unions based in Bangladesh have made strong arguments after the Rana Plaza collapse to increase that amount. But Bangladesh suffers from corruption problems and middlemen are often the sole beneficiaries of foreign investment.

Sharmin Hossain, 21, a protestor and member of the United Students Against Sweatshops travelled to Bangladesh a month after the Rana Plaza factory collapse and saw the problems first hand.  “The families were unable to identify some of their own,” she said. “The whole city [Savar] had shut down.”

It’s been tough for her, she said, to balance her concern for workers back home and her love of good and affordable clothing. “I shop at retailers like Target because the low prices for consumers is easier,” she said. “It’s a life of contradictions.”