Note: This is the third blog in a three-part series highlighting the impact of HERproject in Bangladesh. The first blog explored impacts within and beyond factory walls through the stories of HERproject peer educators. The second blog shared a participating brand’s perspective on health and business impacts she has seen, and this blog profiles one of our NGO partners.
By our last day in Bangladesh, HERproject Manager Racheal Yeager and I had met with representatives from government, international brands, garment factories, trade associations, civil society, donor governments, and, of course, factory workers themselves to check in on HERproject progress and determine how to scale up our successes. As we drove through Dhaka traffic to our next meeting, I asked our local partner, Nasma Akter, to explain her the complicated web of stakeholders who play a role in the Bangladeshi garment sector. “It is important that we engage with all of them,” she explained. “Some people don’t like it, but I never take sides.”
Akter is the founder of the local NGO the Awaj Foundation, one of the 11 partners we work with across seven countries to provide health training for female factory workers. Together, these programs have reached more than 120,000 women in 90 factories. HERproject partners are critical to delivering quality trainings, tailoring them for local application, and delicately balancing the challenge of empowering workers in what are often conservative and impoverished regions.
Akter is particularly knowledgeable about worker conditions in the local garment sector, having experienced them herself. On the last night of our trip, we shared a long meal at her home, where she described her 25-year history working with—and in—the garment sector. At the age of 11, Akter started her career cutting threads in a garment factory, often working 14-hours shifts to supply T-shirts to large American brands. She left school after finishing the fourth grade to help her mother in supporting her family.
Long hours, poor working conditions, and low wages pushed Akter to begin organizing with her fellow workers. Soon, they began protesting, aided by NGOs who taught them English, labor law, leadership skills, and trade relations. What began as an effort to improve their working conditions resulted in the closure of the factory, hundreds of jobs lost, and the disastrous consequences on families’ livelihoods. The lesson she learned resonates in her work today. “If the factory closes down, the hardship ultimately falls on the workers,” She said.
Akter is now taking on a different approach. She has chosen to work with not against factories to provide decent working conditions. “The welfare of millions of female workers and the development of our country depend on the health of the garment sector,” she told us. She characterized her efforts as working constructively with factory owners and multinational brands to approach problems in the garment sector in a positive way.
Akter’s approach to improving factory conditions reflects BSR’s mission to work with business to create a just and sustainable world. Her ambition to collaborate with stakeholders has helped her cross divides and get people to work toward common goals and mutually beneficial outcomes. Thanks to the efforts of Akter and other local partners, HERproject is not only helping thousands of women access critical health information, it is increasing the sustainability of manufacturing sectors that are vital to the growth of local economies.