“Jobs do not translate into empowerment” says Kalpona Akter, former child laborer and human rights activist

Kalopna Akter, the founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, worked in a garment factory since she was a child. Despite her incredibly hard life, there is a passion, confidence and determination that radiates from within her and she embodies the aspirations of millions of garment workers around the globe who want a life of dignity and opportunity. In April 2013, the preventable collapse of the Rana plaza, building, located in the congested Savar suburb of Dhaka, killed over 1,100 garment factory workers and injured thousands more. Below is a photo of Kalpona (left) with Rana Plaza survivor Sumi Abedin (right) who jumped from the third story to avoid being burnt alive inside the collapsing building. Sumi broke several bones and subsequently has become an activist along with Akter to represent millions of garment factory workers in Bangladesh.

Kalpona Akter Sumi Rana Plaza survivor
(Photo by Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

The last time I met Kalopna in New York, we talked about Aarong, the largest artisan social enterprise on the planet, supporting 65,000 rural artisans all over Bangladesh. (Look for our upcoming blog post about Aarong). I also mentioned to Kalpona that I had driven past Rana Plaza dozens of times on my way out of Dhaka, as I travelled to meet with rural Bangladeshi artisans employed by Aarong. The national highway No.5 cuts through the heart of Savar, an area where there are hundreds of garment factories and millions of workers. These are rural women, men and children that have migrated to Dhaka in search of work, and toil away for long hours in unsafe factories for less than fair wages.  

While travelling extensively for my multi-sector career in international development and the global apparel industry, I have become well-acquainted with systemic exploitation of workers in the apparel supply chain. The global addiction to fashion is responsible for a myriad of Human Rights violations and is contributing to the rapidly disappearing artisan crafts and heritage skills. There is a great flux of migration from rural to urban areas to fuel the voracious appetites of factories that demand cheap labor to produce seasonal fashion goods that quench the wants of global consumers. As a result, millions of poor people from rural areas have moved to urban areas to work in these factories. Often, these migrant workers may have left their small family enterprises that have earned a living by producing handicrafts for several generations. It is becoming increasingly difficult to earn a sustainable wage from creating unique, slowly-produced artisan goods with masterful execution, and skills that take years to hone. It is a vicious cycle and you as a consumer have the power to change this!

This holiday season as you shop online or visit your favorite brand enticing you with deeply discounted goods, just take a moment to reflect on the article that you are coveting and think about why you are buying it? Next week, these brands will entice you with a new collection of articles with bigger discounts. In the meantime, someone like Kalpona will be toiling in a factory making those articles while wishing she was with her family in her village. This December honor your loved ones with a meaningful and unique artisan-made gift rather than something they won’t even recall by next season.  To celebrate the holidays and the Human Rights month, you can help people like Kalopna by choosing fair-trade and handmade gifts over mass produced items. Be the change-maker among your friends and family and talk to them about empowering millions of women like Kalpona and Sumi when shopping for holiday presents!

Here are ten suggested companies that support Human Rights and make beauutiful products that you will love to give and recieve! Enjoy!

  • Anou –  Moroccan crafts shipped to you by the artisans and coops that make them 
  • Bhumi – Fair Trade Organic Cotton Goods from Australia 
  • GoodWeave – Alliance to end child labor in the handmade rug industry 
  • Grease and Tin - Social enterprise using recycled materials 
  • Indego Africa – Beautifully curated products made by women artisans in Africa 
  • IFAM – International Folk Art Alliance featuring high-quality beautiful handmade items 
  • Jeevankala – Hanwoven baskets made by Nepali women artisans from recycled materials 
  • One World Projects - Global marketplace for socially and environmentally responsible gifts 
  • Pebble Child – Fair Trade Tous providing employment to over 10,000 rural women artisans
  • Tilonia – retailing products made by artisans in India at the Non-Profit Barefoot college

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