Heart-breaking link to garments industry driving researcher to demand better for Bangladesh

14 February 2023

Bangladeshi public servant Rahima Akter was in Australia and studying her Masters in April 2013 when the infamous Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh.

The garment-making industry disaster killed 1'132 workers and injured more than 2'500.

The scale of the crisis' and her own connections to the industry' have prompted Ms Akter to seek safer workplaces for close to three million women employed in Bangladesh's biggest sector.

Now a CQUniversity PhD candidate' the passionate advocate is analysing gender equity in the ready-made garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh' and asking whether regulatory shifts in government and industry have improved conditions for women.

"My study' interviewing participants in industry' found wide-spread gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the factories' and this is made possible because women are not educated' and rarely aware of their rights'" Ms Akter explained.

"It's not just male-dominated management that drives this abusive behaviour though – respondents told me lot of pressure and stress is caused by brands' many of them Australia' providing short lead times and last-minute changes that create the volatile environment."

Originally from Dhaka' the nation's hub for garment factories and the home of Rana Plaza' Ms Akter had spent the previous decade working for the government bureau responsible for export' regularly visiting factory floors.

Her connection to the garments industry goes back much further' however.

"Back in the late 1980s' two of my aunts came out from a remote village in Bangladesh to work in factories' and were part of the first generation of women who found a new window to escape from underpaid agricultural work to enter formal employment in the city'" she explained.

"But one of them died as a result of an abusive working environment' and ever since I have had in my heart – how can we protect these women workers?"

Ms Akter has already presented her initial findings at the 7th Young Researcher Summit on Business and Human Rights in Switzerland in September' 2022 and at the 35th ANZAM Conference in Gold Coast in December 2022.

Due to finish her PhD in 2023' the Melbourne-based mum is also mindful of the ten-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in April this year.

"We know that sweatshop conditions are still wide-spread in the industry' despite the obvious threat to the lives of workers'" she said.

"We hear industry leaders say they want to protect lives – well that should begin with better labour regulations to stop gender-based violence and harassment' and educating and empowering more women to take leadership roles in the industry.

"Also' Australian brands should be more responsible by demanding a code of conduct for managing women workers who produce their clothes' so consumers like you and I can finally be relieved that our clothes are made by women' whose rights are protected."