‘Sweatshop’ Workers Tell of Poverty

Producing Harvard baseball caps can be a terrifying experience, according to Janu Akther, a 22-year-old worker in a Bangladesh factory that produces American collegiate apparel.

Akther said that she worked for 8 cents an hour, under supervisors who threatened to beat her with scissors and sticks.

Akther and two other Bangladeshi women related personal stories to a crowd of 50 yesterday, as representatives from the National Labor Committee for Human Rights (NLC) urged students to fight for better working conditions in foreign factories.

Holding up an $18 Harvard baseball cap that he claimed was produced for 1.6 cents an hour, Charles Kernaghan of the NLC said that this product represents “the greatest exploitation we’ve ever seen.”

He urged students to refuse to allow American universities to perpetuate the “starvation wages and miserable living conditions” of the sweatshop laborers.

“I can’t afford my life,” said Nasrin Akther, 21, who operates a sewing machine for a Disney contractor and is not related to Janu.

Although Kernaghan and the workers criticized universities’ tolerance for sweatshop working conditions, they also urged students to fight to keep the collegiate apparel business in Bangladesh. Workers need jobs, they said. But they also need solid labor laws to protect them.

“We want to work in Bangladesh, but we want to work with respect, dignity, and justice,” Janu Akther said.

Kernaghan invoked the recent terrorist attacks to support his position, claiming “that it is more important than ever to fight for workers’ rights after September 11.”

The world will never see peace, he said, unless it seeks social justice and a better relationship between the haves and the have-nots.

Kernaghan said he brings his presentations to college campuses because he believes student activists have the power to influence university officials.

The workers shared similar hopes. “Students are very concerned about our situation,” said Nasrin Akther.

Some students said that hearing workers’ personal stories made them feel more strongly about sweatshop conditions.

“When you hear people speaking about globalization, they’re usually members of the elite,” said Dan DiMaggio ’04.

“But it is important to hear from people around the world as often as possible, because they’re the ones most affected by globalization,” he said.

The forum, at Boylston Hall, was sponsored by the South Asian Student Association and Harvard Students Against Sweatshops.