Fleeing abusive conditions in Saudi Arabia, Bangladeshi domestic workers demand justice!

Domestic workers and supporters demands respect and justice.

As of November 7, 2019, 900 female domestic workers have returned from Saudi Arabia to their home country of Bangladesh. They returned before the end of their contracts, many of them citing physical, mental, and sexual abuse as their reason for fleeing. Interviews with 110 returnees revealed that “86 percent did not receive their full salaries, 61 percent were physically abused, 24 percent were deprived of food and 14 percent were sexually abused.” Many blame the prevalence of abuse on Saudi Arabia’s Kafala, or sponsorship, system, which is present in many west Asian countries and binds a domestic worker’s status to an individual employer or sponsor for the duration of their contract. In effect, the worker’s ability to live and work in the country is completely dependent on their sponsor, creating a dynamic ripe for exploitation. Many workers don’t have the resources to seek help, and face retaliation and deportation if they do.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) continues to blame these domestic workers for their own abuse. According to the Kingdom, the stories told by domestic workers returning to Bangladesh are “nothing but hoaxes and are being spread to give a bad name to the country,” and, again according to the KSA, Bangladeshi workers leave Saudi Arabia due to their inability to adapt to the fast-paced Saudi economy. In response, Bangladesh’s government plans to “better train” the workers it sends abroad, in an attempt to prevent further incidents.

This is a truly insidious form of victim blaming, implying that these workers, most of them women, would not have been abused if only they “knew better.” Beyond the KSA’s refusal to acknowledge the suffering of these workers, Bangladesh’s implicit agreement that the workers are at fault makes them complicit in the abuse. Rather than protect these women, Bangladesh would rather continue to grow their labor exportation economy. On November 14th, Dr AK Abdul Momen, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, defended his Ministry’s lack of action, saying that “only 53 female workers died out of 220,000 female workers currently working in the KSA.” Apparently, the government feels that a few deaths are worth the economic growth their labor provides the country.

A coalition of Bangladeshi Progressive Women’s Organizations has demanded the government free women from repressive situations abroad and stop sending female workers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia altogether. The movement has gained momentum since Sumi Akter, a Bangladeshi maid, returned home. While still in Saudi Arabia, Sumi Akter made a video pleading for help, describing the extreme abuse she suffered; the video went viral. Many of the organizations have spoken out condemning the minister’s speech, emphasizing how every death is significant and another call for action. No worker’s death, they say, is insignificant.

This coalition shows no signs of backing down, with more women returning and new stories of abuse being shared daily. One can only hope that with continued pressure placed on the government, Bangladesh will eventually act to ensure these domestic workers gain safety and justice.

(Photo Credit: Mehedi Hassan / Dhaka Tribune)

The Mymensingh and Khayelitsha “stampedes” were planned massacres of women

In this 2011 file photo, women mourn over their relative who died in a stampede triggered by a fire scare at a garment factory in Dhaka.

In the past two weeks, “stampedes” took the lives of at least 33 people, 31 women and two children, in South Africa and Bangladesh. Yet again, the death toll among adults was exclusively, 100% women, and yet again the world will look on the pile of women’s corpses in shock and amazement, as we did in September 2009, when women were killed in stampedes in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and South Africa; or in January 2012 when women were killed in stampedes in Pakistan and South Africa. Each time, despite the gender of the dead and of the event, the fact of this being an assault on women is erased.

Today, in the northern Bangladeshi city, Mymensingh, hundreds of “poor and emaciated” women gathered outside a garment factory owner’s home to pick up free clothing. Someone fell, others fell, and then the rush ensued. Thus far, 25 bodies have been recovered, 23 women, two children. Fifty women have been sent to hospital. A scan of the world’s headlines on this event shows one headline that acknowledges this salient gender feature: “Bangladesh stampede leaves 22 women and child dead”. The rest either cite a number – “Stampede at Bangladesh clothes handout kills 23” – or refer to the clothes giveaway – “23 Zakat cloth seekers killed in Mymensingh stampede” – or mention people – “25 People Killed in Bangladesh Stampede”. Only one, that I’ve found, acknowledges the women. Why? What is so terrifying about saying 23, or however many, women were killed?

In Khayelitsha, in South Africa, two weeks ago, a gunshot at Osi’s Tavern provoked a rush from the tavern. It was 3 in the morning, and the tavern was crowded. It had only one exit, one staircase. The staircase collapsed. Six women were killed on the spot. Two women were killed on their to hospital. The women’s ages ranged from 15 and 23.

In some ways, two seemingly different events end up with the same morbid mathematics of gender: women were killed.

There was no stampede in Mymensingh today, and there was no stampede in Khayelitsha last month. There was a massacre of women. Say it. Women were killed. Now the State steps in, once the women’s corpses have piled up sufficiently, and claims to act, but it will never acknowledge the simple truth. There was no accident. There was indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of women, a massacre, and it was always part of the plan.


(Photo Credit: Reuters / http://indiatoday.intoday.in)

Why Are We Not Enraged By The Fire In A Sweatshop In Bangladesh?

Why is it when women jumped to their deaths to escape the deadly fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1913, we are even today able to be horrified at the management’s cold blooded view of workers as expendable? But why is it we are not as enraged when hundreds of women were killed in the April 2013 Rana Plaza Factory fire in Bangladesh?  Even when we know that the workers were making products for Disney and Walmart, why aren’t we horrified? Shouldn’t we be enraged that workers anywhere are killed because of lack of safety standards, regardless of which company they are working for, whether it is a multinational company or a local company? Once we put an American face on the sweatshop, one hopes that will generate some amount of questioning, such as why Walmart has not followed safety standards in Bangladesh, what companies are overlooking safety regulations, why they are exempt from local laws regarding worker safety, and so on. More importantly, when we see advertisements showing how most of us profit from shopping in Walmart because of their low prices, shouldn’t we be asking how we are implicated in Walmart’s ability to keep prices low? Who benefits? At whose expense are we enjoying bargains?  But, perhaps, we are so conditioned by the system of consumption, where the ideal customer is often confused with the ideal citizen, that we do not see the shadows of workers behind the aisles of clothing or behind the glass cases holding our electronic gadgets.

The worker has become as intangible to us as a theorem or a cosmic body. How can we see/feel/touch/hear/smell workers in the business of making our life livable?

Once the American consumer is able to SEE the connection between his/her “deals” and “specials” and the masses of brown, malnourished women working in unsafe factories making the goods that flood markets in the U.S., the consumer will become informed and this would be the beginning of addressing the rights of both the worker and the consumer. But this connection cannot be established if the consumer is not really given the full “news” about the conditions of workers. Just as we know so little about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we do not have complete knowledge about sweatshop atrocities. The news media has not shared with the American public images of sweatshop workers dying and injured in the Bangladesh factory fire. As Amy Goodman says in an interview about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if Americans were to see graphic pictures of war, they will urge their government toward other means of resolving conflict. Images of workers’ in unsafe conditions will have the necessary effect on consumers, which will then propel companies to act and governments to enforce laws protecting workers. It is a shame that the U.S. multinational companies can shelter under the very laws that are meant to protect workers.

Elizabeth Cline points out, “In 2009, the Ninth US Circuit of Appeals ruled that workers in foreign factories that supply Walmart can’t hold the company responsible for their workplace conditions, despite the retailer’s code of conduct that’s supposed to hold its contractors to decent labor standards. This lack of liability is enjoyed by every retailer that uses contracted factories, which they do not own. It’s this loophole, the one that legally distances clothing companies from the very people who actually make the clothing, that has consistently and historically wrought disaster and human tragedy. This chilling othering of the worker makes us lose our very humanity.

We can create a movement by posting images of atrocities as a way of mobilizing the public to stand up against a greedy capitalism that is eroding both worker rights and our rights as citizens. It is time to say, we are global citizens, not consumers. It is time to claim our humanity.

(Photo Credit: Trusted Clothes)

A specter haunts the festive shopping season


Tomorrow, November 24, will mark seven months since the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing over a thousand garment workers, overwhelmingly women. Tomorrow, November 24, will also mark the one-year anniversary of the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in which over a hundred garment workers were killed. Almost all of those killed were women. These were not accidents but rather pieces of a plan in which the lives of women, of women workers, of Asian women workers count for less than nothing.

Today, a report notes that U.S. retailers have `declined’ to aid “factory victims in Bangladesh.” The phrase “factory victims” is both telling and apt. The women who died, often slowly and always terribly, were indeed victims of factory production. A year later, as inspectors and engineers begin for the first time ever to examine factory structures in Bangladesh, Wal-Mart, Sears, Children’s Place have “declined” to assist at all in any compensation or aid program for “factory victims”. In fact, as of yet, every U.S. retailer has “declined.” Corporations from elsewhere, such as the Anglo-Irish company Primark and the Dutch-German company C&A have been “deeply involved in getting long-term compensation funds off the ground.”

Across the globe, factory workers struggle with corporate exploitation. Factory workers in sectors, such as garment and textile, that are “reserved” for women workers struggle with super-exploitation. That is part of the tragic and the everyday of the garment industry. But this tale of “factory victims” is more particular. This is about U.S.-based corporate global development plans, in which women workers of color are not only worth less than the machines they work at. For Walmart, Sears, Children’s Place and their confreres, those women are worth less than the chairs on which they sit every day, producing goods and profits.

80% of Rana Plaza survivors are women. Now they find themselves in a situation more desperate than ever.”  That too is part of the plan. That were no accidents; there were massacres. Remember that on Monday, as we enter, again, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Remember the specter of “factory victims’ that haunts the end-of-year shopping seasons.

(Photo Credit 1:  IndustriALL) (Photo Credit 2: IndustriALL)

Cambodia is not Bangladesh, and Asia is not a country!

A week ago, thousands of mostly women garment workers in Cambodia blocked a national highway for a half hour. This week, about 3000 mostly women garment workers at the same factory, a factory that produces clothes for Nike, again sat down in protest. This time they were met with stun batons. Over 20 women were hurt, and so the international press showed up.

To their credit, the international press did note that the workers were “mostly female”. But then, the articles would veer into a curious geography: “A series of deadly incidents at factories in Bangladesh, including the collapse of a building last month that killed more than 1,000 people, has focused global attention on safety in factories in Asia makes goods for Western companies.”

Cambodia is not Bangladesh, and Asia is not a country.

From 1974 to the end of 2004, the global garment industry was ruled by the Multi Fibre Arrangement, or MFA, which was designed “to protect” so-called developed countries from the over-productive barbarous hordes of the emerging so-called developing countries. The MFA was basically a global quota system. In January 2005, all that came to an end, and the global garment industry was relocated under the rules of the WTO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT. What happened next? Just what you expected: “The result of the end of the Multi-fibre Arrangement was a dramatic redistribution of the allocation of global apparel production. For example, in 2000 China contributed to 24.8 percent of world apparel exports, Cambodia’s share was 0.6 percent, and Mexico’s was 4.6 percent. In 2008, the Chinese market share of world apparel exports increased by 50 percent, as compared to 2004, and it constituted 38.8 percent of the global apparel trade. The Cambodian market share doubled over the same time period and accounted for 1.2 percent of world apparel exports. However, the Mexican share declined threefold in that period, and in 2008 it constituted only 1.4 percent of world apparel exports.”

There were no real surprises in the new world order. Competition among exporting countries drove prices down. Those who were prepared for the change, such as China and Cambodia, saw their national fortunes improve. That doesn’t mean the lot or lives of workers improved, but the national economies grew.

Everyone involved knew that the super majority of garment workers are women. Every study and every theoretical model stated that both in the short term and in the long term putting garment production under the WTO and GATT would be bad for women workers. But the national economies, and the free market, had to grow. The women workers would just have to deal with the price they must pay for everyone else’s success and justice.

In Cambodia, apparel exports account for more than two-thirds of total manufacturing exports, and garment workers make up about a third of the industrial work force. More than 80% of garment workers in Cambodia are women. Post-MFA changes meant that women’s salaries, short term, would decline, and, long term, that the wage gap between women and men would increase. The growing wage gap is part of the program for the future, and part and parcel of `development.’

So, this sounds like Bangladesh, but it’s not.

Between 1999 and 2004, the United States and Cambodia had a deal. If Cambodia demonstrated improved factory working conditions, it could send more to the US markets. Cambodia sends almost all of its exports to the US and Europe, and so this was a big deal. The ILO monitored the conditions through something called Better Factories Cambodia, or BFC. BFC increased individual factories’ US export quotas. It also engaged in capacity building with State, labor and management stakeholders. Cambodia established an Arbitration Council to deal with labor disputes. Many workers’ health and safety conditions improved. Of course problems remained, such as involuntary overtime and lack of childcare facilities, but a growing labor movement addressed them. Along with two decades of industrial garment industry hyper-expansion, Cambodia witnessed the emergence of hundreds of unions, of thousands of organized and wildcat actions, of an increasingly entitled and powerful women workers’ movement.

Women garment workers in Cambodia and in Bangladesh pay a heavy price for the global garment industry. But then … women workers everywhere pay a heavy price for economic growth as for economic decline. For that reason, it’s important to locate the story of the Cambodian women workers more accurately. They are industrial women workers, and they are struggling for exactly the same things that industrial women workers in the Europe and in the United States are struggling for: better pay, better working conditions, dignity, respect, autonomy, power.

A month ago, Better Factories Cambodia released its annual report. The number one issue is fire safety. In the past year there has been “a large drop in compliance.” On the factory floor, the owners are cutting corners and endangering women workers’ health, well-being, and lives. In the national context, the owners are cutting women’s salaries, “because of the economic downturn”, and are widening the wage gap between women and men. Just like in the United States.


(Photo Credit: CNN)

The Bangladesh factory fire was a massacre of women workers


On Sunday, November 25, 2012, Bangladesh suffered its worst-ever factory fire, at the Tazreen Fashions factory. At last count, 123 workers died. By all accounts, the workers were all or almost all women. Nothing here was new. Bangladesh has 4500 garment factories. The garment industry in Bangladesh employs more than 3 million people. Most of them are women. Many of them have died in `industrial accidents’.

There was no accident.

And now, less than two weeks later, the `discoveries’ begin. Today’s breaking news is the factory had no safety certificate. No one thought it did. Exit doors were locked. We knew that. Managers wouldn’t let workers leave until the flames were obvious, until it was too late. We `learned’ this week that Wal Mart actively blocked, or nixed, safety moves in Bangladesh, including in Tazreen Fashions factory. Are you surprised? Neither am I. The news is not that Wal Mart stopped a move towards worker safety, but rather than now the documents proving it have been made public as have the Wal Mart receipts left on Tazreen’s burnt floors. All of this has undermined Wal Mart’s account and credibility. Who believed Wal Mart in the first place? Who believes Wal Mart now?

Who believes the fashion industry when it claims shock and dismay? Who believes The New York Times or any other news outlet when they only now `discover’ a “gap in safety for local brands”?

Investigative reporting is important, as is research. So is accountability, including accountability in tone and diction. There was no accident, there was no gap, there was no absence, and there is no surprise. Call the event by its proper name: massacre. “An indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people”, specifically of women. And the factory was no factory. It was a slaughterhouse. It always was, and we cannot claim to be surprised when the flames burst and the women workers’ bodies explode … again.

(Photo Credit: TheDailyStar.net)

The tragic and the everyday of the garment industry


On May 10, 1993, 188 workers died, or were killed, in a fire at the Kader Toy Factory, in Bangkok, Thailand. 177 of the killed workers were women. The factory had no fire alarms, no sprinklers, very few fire extinguishers, and practically no means of escape. Those not immediately burned to death jumped out of third and fourth story windows … and were killed or seriously injured.

On November 19, 1993, 87 workers, all women, died, or were killed, in a fire at the Zhili Handicraft Factory, in Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone. A month later, on December 13, 61 women workers died, or were killed, in a fire at the Gaofu Textile Factory, in Fuzhou.

On Sunday, November 25, 2012, Bangladesh suffered its worst-ever factory fire, at the Tazreen Fashions factory, one of 4500 garment factories in the country. At last count, 123 workers died. By all accounts, the workers were all or almost all women.

Nothing here is new. Industries rely on women’s `nimble fingers’ to produce goods. Factories filled with women are overcrowded, have no fire alarms or sprinklers, and have no means of escape. Many women are burned to death. In these more recent versions, as in the earlier Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the factories are the signature of the modern. They are proof positive of progress made, or so the public is told.

Until the fire next time.

And each time, the fire, the tragedy, `enlightens’ a public that was previously innocent of any knowledge of the circumstances of industrial women workers. Fortunately for the innocent public, the dead cannot speak, cannot contradict the protestations of surprise and the performances of dismay.

But the living can.

At almost the same time the Tazreen factory burst into flames, garment workers, women workers, gathered in Bengaluru, in India, to give testimony to their working lives and to make demands. Managers abuse the women verbally and physically. The production targets are impossible. The pay is bare. The list goes on. What do the women want? They want what every worker wants. They want dignity, they want a living wage, they want the right to organize. They want everything that constitutes dignity, they want everything that expands dignity.

The women know they are working in a factory that is all women workers because a factory full of women is a factory of low wages. They are told this is a sign of development, of modernity. The women know better.

As we enter into the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, mourn the women workers who have died in the fires and support the women workers who continue to organize and make demands, as they produce clothing, toys, microchips, textiles, and more. Don’t let the brilliance of the fire obscure the urgencies of women workers’ everyday struggles for dignity and a living wage.


(Photo Credit: The Guardian)

Call them, simply, workers

Yesterday was May 1, 2011. Around the globe, millions marched. Among the workers marching were sex workers, domestic workers, other denizens of the informal economy. Today is May 2, 2011. What are those workers today? Are they considered, simply, workers or are they `workers’, part worker, part … casual, part … informal, part …shadow, part … contingent, part … guest? All woman, all precarious, all the time.

Categorizing workers as part of a somehow other-than-formal work force and work space naturalizes their exclusion and subordination. Why should they have full rights when they’re not full workers? Minimum wage? For `real’ workers, yes. For live-in domestic workers? Not yet.

Why should informal workers have full `protections’ when they’re not full partners in the social industrial contract? They didn’t sign on. They’re informal. How could they have? They were coerced, trafficked, seduced, forced into their current jobs. They must have been. Otherwise, how could they have accepted such abysmal working conditions? The logic is impeccable … and wrong.

Over the weekend, sex workers in South Africa and India brought the lie of the informal economy logic to light. In South Africa, three Cape Town sex workers are suing the State for harassment. They say they were repeatedly taken into custody and held for forty-eight hours, after which they were released without being charged. The three women argue that when they were arrested, they were not `on duty.’ They were not arrested as sex workers but rather as women who at some point or another have engaged in sex work.

This some-point-or-another is the main insight of The First Pan-India Survey of Sex Workers, a major study of sex workers in India, released on Saturday, April 30. Over the past two years, Rohini Shani & V Kalyan Shankar surveyed three thousand women sex workers from fourteen states.

They found that poverty and limited education matter, but not in the way many expect. Poverty and limited education push girls into labor markets early on, often at the age of six or so, but not into sex work. The largest principal employment sector for the very young was domestic labor. The majority of women waited until they were somewhere between 15 and 22 before entering into sex work. That means women had been wage earning workers, for nine to sixteen years before they entered into sex work.

Over seventy percent of the women said they entered sex work of their own volition. For the vast majority, income was the reason. Sex work pays better than domestic labor, agricultural work, daily wage earning or so-called petty services.

In other words, from the perspectives of the sex workers, sex work is one of a number of `livelihood’ options, as Shani and Shankar conclude: “Sex work cannot be considered as singular or isolated in its links with poverty, for there are other occupations as well which fit into the category of `possible livelihood options’ before sex work emerges as one of them. Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions. For those coming from the labour markets, they have experienced equally harsh conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.”

From South Africa to India and beyond, the sex worker story centers on the fluidity of identity. In South Africa, three women argue that sex work is a job. It’s not an identity, it’s not permanent. Like any other job, when the worker leaves work, she gets to become herself … again. As herself, she has rights, including the rights to dignity, security, and the preservation of freedom.

In India, the researchers learned that context counts. They had to accept women’s multiple work identities if they wanted to depict and understand women’s choices and situations. As women sex workers described their working lives, they moved fluidly among various occupations, often in the same time period. For Indian women struggling in an unforgiving economy, no occupation is an island entire unto itself.

South African sex workers suing the State, Indian sex workers discussing their lives have something to say to workers, trade unions, researchers, and allies everywhere. Sex workers are not like workers nor are they labor lite. They are workers. While it may be true that none of us is free until all of us are free, they tell us that none of us can talk about women workers’ freedom until all of us recognize the fluidity of women workers’ identities. But for now, as a start, call them, simply, workers.


The State expresses its grief, and Felani is dead


Children, girls and boys, are being killed by Indian soldiers on the India-Bangladeshi border. Each time it happens, the State claims grief and promises never again. The most recent girl to suffer this indignity, last week, was a fifteen-year-old girl named Felani:

“Indian border forces have handed over to Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) the body of ‘Felani’, 15, who was shot dead on Friday as she had gotten entangled in barbed-wire while crossing the border.… In the meeting, BDR condemned the brutal killing of the teenaged girl. BSF had expressed its grief over the incident and assured that such incident will not take place in future.”

What is to done with the grief of States expressed each time border troops kill or maim someone? What is the worth of their repeated assurances? Where is the future in which border guards will not shoot at children caught on barbed wire? And what is the name of the space that separates the dead body of 15 year old Felani, about whom the State is silent, and `the incident’ over which the State expresses its grief?

Apparently Felani and her father left their home in Bangladesh ten years ago and crossed into India. They were on their way home because a marriage to a local boy had been settled. Felani’s father successfully scaled the border fence. Felani got tangled up in the barbed wire and started to scream. The Indian Border Security Forces heard the screams, saw the girl, came, shot her and waited for her to die. Some say she bled and screamed for four hours, others say for less time. Whatever the duration, Felani, a fifteen- year-old girl, hanging upside down from the border fence, riddled with bullets, bleeding and screaming, died. The BSF then waited and finally cut her down and carried her away, hands and feet bound to a pole, like so much animal carcass. A day or so later, they arranged the meeting where they returned the body and expressed grief … over the incident.

Bangladeshis, and Indians, have expressed outrage at the incident and shock and disgust at the photographs. But who expresses grief at the border fence?

According to a Human Rights Watch report issued just last month, the Border Security Forces at that particular border are `trigger happy’. Children, such as 12-year-old Rumi Akhter Nipa, are routinely, randomly and indiscriminately shot. What do girls, like Rumi, want? According to Dr. Abdus Samad who treated her, she simply wants a daily life, to start school. What do children, like Rumi Akhter Nipa, get? “A pattern of grave abuses”. And, as Felani’s story suggests, they are to be considered the lucky ones.

The borderland is a graveyard. As long as the State, any State, is ruled by security first, as long as the borders are considered primary and the crossers, with or without documents, are secondary, the borderland will remain a graveyard. That is the reason that “despite numerous complaints no member of the BSF has been arrested, much less held to account in civilian courts.” Hundreds of Bangladeshis and of Indians have been killed and not a single member of the BSF has been arrested. Felani is not alone.

Grief emerges from graves, not from incidents. Apologies cover incidents, shrouds cover the bodies of the dead. The State of India expresses its grief? And Felani is dead.


(Photo Credit: BDNews24)