Reading about sweatshops is one thing. Learning about them first-hand from a worker is another.
Fifteen Coxsackie-Athens High School students were spellbound on Monday as Sumi Abedin, a 24-year-old survivor of the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh last November, told her story. The blaze killed more than 100 trapped workers - owners routinely locked factory doors to prevent employee work breaks. Through an interpreter, Abedin told how she survived by leaping from a third floor ventilation grill, suffering a broken arm and leg.
"I didn't think I would survive," said Abedin, who used light from a cell phone and slid her hands along the wall to navigate the building's smoke-filled hallways. "I jumped to save my body. If I burned to ashes, my family wouldn't be able to identify me."
The students heard Abedin's story and visited legislators as part of a field trip to the New York State Capitol organized by NYSUT retiree Sharon Carloni and Coxsackie-Athens Teachers Association members Elizabeth Kearney and Donna Bryan. The students were part of Bryan's World of Difference Club and Kearney's publishing class.
Abedin and Kalpona Akter, executive director of Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, were in the region as part of a 10-city tour to push U.S. corporate buyers like Walmart to improve factory safety and compensate affected workers. Walmart was allegedly the largest buyer from the Tazreen factory.
"Have any United States citizens witnessed the conditions in your factory?" asked Bryan after learning about the dismal conditions and low pay workers endured. "And if so, were they concerned?" The real story was kept hidden, Abedin said. Visits were carefully scripted, workplaces were cleaned up in advance, managers interpreted what workers said about work conditions and were coached what to say.
"Thank you for sharing your story, it must be difficult," Kearney told Abedin. "How can we help?" Organizers asked participants to visit the International Labor Rights Forum at www.laborrights.org to urge Walmart and Gap to adopt legally binding fire safety regulations.
"I'm very excited to have this opportunity to broaden the students' horizons, and open their eyes," said Carloni, a member of NYSUT's Fair Trade Committee. The former Coxsackie-Athens English teacher often returns to school to raise student awareness about the plight of sweatshop workers and the importance of buying sweat-free products.