This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.
I first met Kalpona Akter in 2011 in Los Angeles. Her stop in L.A. marked the end of her tour of the United States, during which she’d spoken at a Walmart shareholders’ meeting and various union meetings about the dire conditions garment workers face in her home country of Bangladesh.
She explained that thousands have died in Bangladeshi factories like those where she herself worked as a child. Fires and workplace accidents are common due to negligent safety standards. While the majority owners of Walmart–a single family–took home more than $2 billion in stock dividends in 2010, Bangladeshi workers making clothes for the retail giant were unable to feed their families on wages of less than $45 per month.
During our first interview at the airport hotel where she was staying, Kalpona was confident, thoughtful, and even full of humor as she told me about her life growing up in Bangladesh’s crowded capital, her struggle as a child garment worker, her journey into human rights activism, and her brief imprisonment for her work the previous year.
Along with stories of her work life, she also talked about her desire to have children, her goal of opening a small snack stand, and her hope that there might be time to pursue these dreams once conditions improved for her friends and fellow garment workers in Bangladesh.