The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth

Friday, April 26, 2013


Report Out from the Activist Nerd: What I learned from Sumi and Kalpona

On a normal day my job as a community organizer is focused on two things, keeping Walmart out of Seattle and networking with partner organizations to garner community support for the workers of Walmart. We want to make sure our community has every opportunity to stand in solidarity with workers who are demanding a living wage, affordable health care, safe working conditions, and fair corporate practices. But for the past few months I have been working with several coalition members to coordinate something a bit bigger. What could be bigger than workers’ rights? Workers’ lives.

On November 24, 2012 a fire broke out in the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh, killing 112 and injuring many more. I’m sure you heard about it, I know I did and it fueled another one of my self righteous diatribes about how evil Walmart is, but I don’t think I truly felt it until just a few day ago when I had the privilege of meeting one of the survivors.

Sumi Abedin is just 24 years old. She was a garment worker in Tazreen, one of the many who was trapped on the upper floors and searching for escape. She literally leaped from a third story building, not to save her life, but so that her family might be able to find her body.

There was a man who had gone to the toilet and smelled smoke. He came into the factory and yelled that there was a fire. We all began to panic, but the manager told us there was no fire and that we should all just go back to work. But there was fire. We could smell the smoke. Some us tried to leave, but the manager had pulled a gate across the exit and padlocked us in. So we started to run, but the women’s stairway was blocked off. So then we went down the men’s stair, but we couldn’t get out. There were bars on the windows. Some men tried to break them but they couldn’t.

Sumi was trapped in the burning building for close to an hour as people around her asphyxiated and died. Finally one man was able to clear a path to a window. By that time she thought she would die. So she jumped and lost consciousness. When she woke up she had broken her arm and her leg, but she was alive. She turned and saw a man next to her. She tried to help him, but he was dead. And she was scared. She wanted to go home, but when she tried to stand she couldn’t walk. Then she saw one of her former coworkers and he helped her to get home. When she arrived, her parents had already heard about the fire. They had gone to the factory and not been able to find her. They were beside themselves with grief and so happy to have her back. And then they realized she was injured, so they went next door to the neighbor’s house to borrow money so they could take her to the hospital.

In one day Sumi lost her close friend Hannah (who used to sit in front of her at work, at one point they were running together, but Hannah did not survive), her job, 112 co-workers, and her ability to work for the next year. After her casts were removed, they discovered her bones did not set properly. Doctors say it will be at least a year before she is able to return to work.

Sumi Abedin and Kalpona Akter, also a former garment worker and the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, have been here in the States since April 7 as a part of a 12 City End Death Traps Tour. They are on a mission to hold Walmart accountable for the lives lost.

Though the fire took place in November of last year, Walmart has still not provided any compensation to the factory workers. In fact Walmart’s initial response was to deny that their clothing was produced there. Kalpona herself went into the factory after the fire to gather evidence. It was only after the New York Times published the photo of Kalpona holding up a Walmart brand label that they even admitted that perhaps their clothing was manufactured there. Then they stayed silent for the next 5 months until they announced their new $1.67 million dollar fire safety training plan just a few weeks ago on the same day that Kalpona and Sumi arrived in the States (wow what a coincidence). When asked about the training plan, Kalpona smiles wryly and says “Are they going to train workers how to pick locks and break the bars off windows?”

Photo Collage of Tazreen Fire. Center Photo Kalpona Akter holding up Walmart brand shirt

Sumi and Kalpona’s first stop in Washington was at our state capitol in Olympia where they met with Senator Steve Conway and the WA State Fair Trade Coalition to discuss a SweatFree purchasing policy for WA State that supports worker health and safety and labor rights in Bangladesh. From there they traveled to Seattle and joined local Walmart workers for a private lunch which was the first time I heard Sumi tell her story.

It’s a terrible story made worse by the knowledge that this fire, like the other fires that have taken place in Bangladesh factories killing over 600 workers since 2006 was preventable. In fact survivors report speaking with management repeatedly about what they perceived to be unsafe working conditions, but they weren’t listened to. Sumi talks about what life was like at the factory before the fire. Her manager was verbally and at times even physically abusive. She worked 6 days a week, often 11 hours a day for wages so low they make our minimum wage seem comparable to Mike Duke’s annual take home pay.

So what does this have to do with us? Bangladesh is only second to China for the amount of clothing it exports to Western countries. That means our economies are inextricably linked. More than this it means that we have the ability to impact how business is done in Bangladesh. Even if we as consumers were able to convince one major company like Gap or Walmart to enforce safety standards that would be enough to shift the way business is done. I don’t know about you, but I would be willing to pay an exta 10 cents (and that’s literally all it would cost) per pair of jeans to know that the person who made them wasn’t putting their life at risk.

The tour continued. After lunch with OUR Walmart, we met with the United Students Against Sweatshops and visited a local GAP to call for them to sign the fire safety agreement. We are all now banned from University Village Shopping Center.  From there Sumi and Kalpona spoke at the University of Washington, along with John Smith, a local Walmart employee turned activist. Then Wednesday morning we had our culminating event, a rally at the Renton Walmart.

Community organizers getting ready to march on the Renton Walmart

We were joined by two fire fighters unions, members of the community, and many local activists. Though we had planned this to be a memorial for the 112 who had died in Tazreen, we ended up having a memorial for many more. A building in Bangladesh housing 5 garment factories and several apartments collapsed killing nearly 300 people and the count continues as they are still finding people in the wreckage. Kalpona and Sumi were up all night talking to people in Bangladesh. Here is what she had to say:

Again, these events are preventable. I know this is a hella long post, but meeting Sumi and Kalpona really touched my heart and it made me think. I saw this post on fb for the Angela Davis movie, it was a quote…a misquote I thought of the serenity prayer, but it fit what I have been feeling so long. I am tired of accepting the things I can’t change. I want to change the things I can’t accept. I do not accept that people have to die to make my clothing. I do not accept that people have to subject themselves to verbal and physical abuse to bring home paltry pay. People may think Bangladesh is so far away, but in the globalized society, no place is far away. We are all interconnected and complicit and one worker’s fight, is the fight of every worker. Like MLK said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So what can we do next?  Here is a link to the Corporate Action Network site where you can find out more information and download a letter to the Gap and Walmart encouraging them to sign the fire safety agreement. Also, talk to your friends and families. Share Sumi’s story, so hopefully we can prevent it from ever happening again. Thanks.

Kalpona Akter, Me, Sumi Abedin
Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, YA fiction aficionado, afro-punk, international educator, and community organizer based in Seattle, WA. You can find her most Tuesdays at the Seattle Poetry Slam or maybe just being nerdy at her favorite bookstores. 


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