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.
A year after our meeting in L.A., I woke up early one November morning in 2012 to Skype Kalpona. We chose to talk over the Internet because she’d been warned her phone was tapped. She was regularly receiving calls from anonymous government agents warning her to stop going to work, that something terrible might happen to her or her family if she didn’t stand down.
“Every time I see a pair of pants I say to myself, ‘How proud I am that I made those pants. It was my work. It was my effort. It was my night shifts when I didn’t sleep.”
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, it was late at night, and on Kalpona’s end, apart from the blue glow of the computer screen illuminating her face, it was dark. She spoke into the microphone quietly so as not to wake her parents or siblings, asleep in the other room, but she also spoke with greater trepidation than in our first meeting. Every word was chosen carefully, and her easy self-assurance was less apparent.
Between our two interviews, Kalpona’s situation had taken a turn. In April 2012, her colleague, Aminul Islam, had been kidnapped. The incident had followed numerous threats to silence their campaign to raise workers’ wages and improve workplace conditions countrywide.
Kalpona remembered when Aminul’s wife had called to tell her that he was missing. His body was found two weeks later. When Kalpona spoke of the photos of her friend’s mutilated body, showing signs of torture, her voice broke. Still, we spoke late into the night for her, late into the morning for me, her voice growing hoarse as she told her story. Kalpona’s last words to me that morning were, “Pray for us.”
Sharing stories leads to change
When I was a child, Sesame Street aired a segment on how crayons were made. It was a short montage that showed orange wax being poured into molds, and then thousands of crayon-shaped sticks being wrapped in paper and stacked in boxes. The manufacture was carried out in seamless cooperation between many machines and a couple of workers in hairnets and aprons. The montage was fascinating to me as a child in that it showed the origin, the creation, of something I used every day. Of course it raised questions: Where was the factory? Who were the people? What did they do when they weren’t at work?
We discovered that nearly every potential narrator we spoke with was leading some fight, large or small, to make life better in his or her workplace and community.
Invisible Hands: Voices From the Global Economy started with that simple aim of getting to know the people who produce the things we use every day. Our jeans, our coffee, our gasoline, our cell phones. We wanted to know what their work was like, what hardships they faced, and what hopes they had. As we spoke with the narrators, their pride in the work they did became clear. As one narrator, a garment worker named Ana Juárez, explained: “The work we’re doing is very worthy. Every time I see a pair of pants I say to myself, ‘How proud I am that I made those pants. It was my work. It was my effort. It was my night shifts when I didn’t sleep.’”
As we continued to seek stories, we discovered that nearly every potential narrator we spoke with was leading some fight, large or small, to make life better in his or her workplace and community. And like Kalpona, so many of our storytellers were faced with an impossible dilemma, one oft repeated in economic debates: Can workers bargain for better job conditions—including the banning of child labor—without losing their jobs altogether? Can communities speak out against environmental degradation, political corruption, and unfair land acquisition without losing economic investment? And perhaps most importantly, can those individuals most negatively impacted by the global economy ask for change without facing dire consequences?
After dozens of interviews, the guiding question of this collection shifted from Who are the people in the factories? to How are workers and communities putting their futures at risk when they demand something better?
In Kalpona’s case, she stands against Bangladeshi officials who are not keen on raising wages, as many of them are factory owners themselves, or have run election campaigns bankrolled by factory owners. The garment industry makes up the bulk of Bangladesh’s export economy, and some authorities fear that a higher minimum wage will force foreign corporations to move operations elsewhere to maintain a profit margin. That fear leads politicians and factory owners alike to stifle efforts to better workers’ rights and wages. Still, Kalpona sees sharing her story as her best hope for informing consumers and drawing international pressure that could lead to positive change.
Still, for others, participation in the global market does not present a balance of reward and risk; it represents existential threat.
Many of our narrators, such as Terri Judd, a miner from Boron, California, and Ana Juárez, a garment worker from Tehuacán, Mexico, were at first reluctant to fight for better working conditions. Only after years of frustration from being left out of the conversation about their work contracts, their compensation, and their day-to-day health and safety did they feel compelled to speak out.
For some narrators, serious injuries from unsafe working conditions have been the catalysts for activism. Hye-kyeong Han of Seoul, South Korea, speaks, in the limited ways allowed by her brain tumor, to other semiconductor workers throughout the world about the dangers of their work—something about which most semiconductor manufacturers have remained silent. Albert Mwanaumo of Chambishi, Zambia, chose to speak out after officials of the company that employed him shot him during a wage protest.
Still, for others, participation in the global market does not present a balance of reward and risk; it represents existential threat. For Sanjay Verma of Bhopal, India, the struggle began when, as an infant, he lost both of his parents and five of his siblings to a devastating chemical leak near his home.
Decades later, Bhopal is still plagued by contamination from the leak, and those who survived the disaster or were born after it have continued to suffer debilitating health problems. Sanjay has dedicated his adult life to fighting for adequate compensation for the survivors, demanding a cleanup of the still-contaminated lands around the former chemical factory, and forcing the former executives of the chemical company to face legal responsibility for the accident. Of his activism, Sanjay says, “The people of Bhopal have fought for almost twenty-nine years, and I strongly believe that we’ll get justice one day even if we have to fight for another 29 years.”
Speaking up at all costs
The task of assembling Invisible Hands has not been simple. It has taken several years to gather and edit this collection of narratives. We’ve chosen to highlight four broad industrial sectors—the garment industry, agriculture, natural resource extraction, and electronics—because the struggles of workers in these sectors are so representative of the economic battles being staked out across the marketplace every day around the globe.
The scope of Invisible Hands allows us to show some of the surprising ways the global economy links workers and communities in vastly different parts of the world—sometimes through the complexities of the supply chain, sometimes through common challenges and goals, and sometimes through struggles with the same transnational business entities. The same mining company mired in labor rights battles in Boron, California, arguably fomented civil war in Papua New Guinea decades earlier. The same garment brands now in the news for sourcing their goods through low-paying, unsafe factories in Bangladesh were in the news a decade ago for contracting with low-paying, unsafe factories in Mexico.
The narrators here have diverse perspectives and voices, and no easy conclusions can be drawn from their experiences: “do not buy consumer goods,” “unions are always effective,” and “foreign corporations are destructive” are not lessons that we—or most of our narrators—hope that readers draw from these stories. Instead, perhaps the most important lesson the majority of our narrators would agree on is the necessity to speak up at all costs, to have all voices in the global economy heard, to have all raised hands counted.