This is 18-year-old Reba Sikder in the jacket that my 12-year old grew out of two years ago. Thanks to the successive snow storms that hit Washington, D.C., we were lucky to have Reba stay with us for almost a week. We had the joy of introducing her to snow and sledding and hot chocolate. And now, unlike the snow that finally melted, we miss having Reba with us. Actually, we missed Reba the moment she was gone. Reba was here with one of International Labor Rights Forum’s longtime partners and one of my kids’ favorite house guests, Kalpona Akter, the head of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
Sikder (right) with Kalpona Akter
The two were in the United States on a worker tour organized by United Students Against Sweatshops to call on companies that make collegiate apparel to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. After the horrendous garment-industry tragedies in Bangladesh last year, the accord represents a structural advance in corporate accountability: over 150 signatory companies have made a binding commitment to a safety program that ensures workers have the right to refuse dangerous work and gives trade unions a meaningful role in the governance and implementation of the initiative.
“They can’t treat us like this. We’re human beings.”
Reba is shy, but quick to smile. She is upbeat, despite having recurring nightmares and clear signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the two days and two nights she spent trapped in the rubble of Rana Plaza.
Reba is soft-spoken, but an amazingly powerful speaker. She brought her testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on “Prospects for Democratic Reconciliation and Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh” and spoke at a meeting convened by congressman George Miller on February 11.
There were dozens of people in the room, many of them high-powered Washingtonians, heads of various organizations. She moved people to tears and at least a dozen individuals told me what an impressive speaker she was. Reba quite simply shared her story and then made the simple reflection: “They can’t treat us like this. We’re human beings.”
Photo by Andrew Biraj for Reuters
APRIL 24, 2013
It’s hard for many of us to understand why workers went to work at Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013. Reba and her coworkers had all been evacuated the day before due to a crack in the building and some falling concrete. She said they were afraid when they reported for work the next day, but managers assured them the building was safe and insisted that orders for multinational corporations had to be filled.
Reba moved to Dhaka at the age of 14 to start work in a garment factory. She had no one to whom she could turn.
Some workers objected to entering the building but managers threatened they would lose their precious wages. The factory collapsed less than an hour after they had started working.
To understand the decision these workers made, you need only imagine their backstory. In Reba’s case, she’s the youngest of five. When she was seven, Reba’s parents were too poor to keep her so they sent her to be a domestic servant. She grew up in a village far from Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka.
She moved to Dhaka at the age of 14 to start work in a garment factory. She had no one to whom she could turn. She had no access to unions or other worker-rights advocates, or any way to know what her rights were. Her existence and that of her co-workers was one of daily survival, with limited awareness of the Spectrum factory collapse that killed 64 workers in 2005 or of the ongoing scourge of factory fires.