Bangladesh: Nazma Akter, labour union leader

Nazma Akter, labour union leader in Bangladesh

Since the age of 16, the former child labourer Nazma Akter has been campaigning for better working conditions in the textile factories of Bangladesh. Today she creates spaces – women’s cafés – where female textile workers can learn about their rights. On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union, GIZ is working to improve social and environmental standards – with Nazma Akter as one of its partners.

What was the biggest change in your life so far?
When I was 11 years old I started working as a seamstress in a garment factory. Now I am a mother of two children and leading an NGO as an independent and self-sufficient woman. When I speak, my opinion is heard and well respected - locally and internationally. People know me and take my photo. It’s amazing!

What is typical of Bangladesh?
For me, MADE IN BANGLADESH is our identity. It’s true that today these three words paint a picture of death and great human sacrifice, but let us not forget that these same three words have put Bangladesh on the map for the rest of the world. If Bangladesh has any standing in the global financial market at all, it is thanks to the ready–made garments sector and our women workers! In our women’s cafés we encourage them to continue learning, including about the rights they have.

Do you want to change anything in your life?
No. I have achieved so much in such a short period of time that I dare not complain! A lot of people tell me: “Nazma, calm down, be a little more reserved”. But honestly: I don’t believe in reigning in my emotions. It’s not always wise to always be disciplined.

What does work mean to you?
If you would like me to give you a definition, work is an occupation within a limited period of time. But for me it is more: a lifestyle and responsibility.

What do you expect from the future?
I have great hopes and expectations. A lot depends on our next generation. Today’s young activists will someday take our place. I want their actions to be honest, fair and accountable. I don’t want to see them involved in dirty business. I am doing my very best to make this dream of mine come true.

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    Nazma Akter is the founder of the AWAJ Foundation, an organisation that defends the rights of garment workers in Bangladesh. Photos: Abul Hasnat Ahmed
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    Education makes a difference – and she is living proof. The former seamstress has taught herself English and learned how to work with computers.
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    Today Akter is the best-known trade unionist of the country. She demands that international politicians like Hillary Clinton put pressure on her government.
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    All in a day’s work! – Nazma Akter consulting with staff at the AWAJ Foundation.
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    A garment worker happily receiving his dues. Nazma’s AWAJ Foundation helps workers retrieve compensation funds from garment factories.
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    The activist at work – counselling workers and resolving disputes through open and fair dialogue.
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    Nazma outside a Women’s Café in Badda, Dhaka, sharing a light moment with her staff members.
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    When the garment factories in the Rana Plaza building collapsed in April 2013, over 1,100 workers were killed, over 2,000 injured. Akter demands a safer infrastructure.
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    Much of Nazma Akter’s work consists in listening to the garment workers and giving them comfort and courage.
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    In the women’s cafés, Akter’s NGO gives the garment workers a chance to rest and unwind. There they also learn their rights through role-play.
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    The centres also provide the women with a protected space for further education and medical care. GIZ helped to set up 45 of these women’s cafes.