"I worked 14 or 15 hours per day, six — sometimes seven — days a week," Akter says. "I was the helper, like an assistant, for the machine operator: moving goods and bringing fabric…After that, I became a sewing machine operator."
For seven years, Akter says she worked in unsafe conditions in Bangladesh's garment industry, the second largest in the world. But when she was just a teenager, she began organizing her fellow workers to demand better conditions.
"By the time I was 13 or 14, I was already starting to find that this was not fair, and that we needed to fight," Akter remembers.
Now 43, Akter is the president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, which is affiliated with the global union IndustriALL. IndustriALL was one of the unions that signed onto and oversaw the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh following the deadly Rana Plaza building collapse that killed 1,100 people in 2013.
Additionally, a 2015 report by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights found that there are about 3,000 more factories operating in the country than previously estimated, which means many aren't being monitored at all.
So, what can be done to make sure the women who make the clothes you buy are respected and protected? Akter shared her story and her advice with Refinery29 in Brazil, where she was attending the Association for Women's Rights In Development forum.
Consumers can change the workers' lives, because they have the power.
"When I was a child and I worked in the factory, it didn't make me feel good. I needed to go to school. I needed to learn. I wanted to be a scientist, but my family was very poor and I needed to work [with them].
"I was treated just like the older workers, and as long as the older workers were working, I needed to also work. I was working for the same production targets [as the adults]. So I didn’t get any emotional support or any kindness. The factory owners, they know that if they use children, we are scared, we are afraid, and we will listen to everything they say.
"The factory conditions were not good. They were not giving us payment on time; they were not following the country's laws about clean drinking water, maternity leave, job security. Those were huge problems when I was working, and we faced a lot of difficulties when we tried to raise our voices."
If you boycott the exploitation in Bangladesh, then it just goes to Myanmar, then to Cambodia, and so on. But we don’t want to move the exploitation. We want to solve the problem when and where it happens.
"My mother did not get an education, yet she was trying to provide me with an education. But she couldn't. So when I started work, I was still trying to convince my mother [to let me go to school]. We were both working and were both trying to raise our voices. But the problems I faced came from my father and my male relatives and family members. They were not happy that I raised my voice to try to establish my rights. It’s a male-dominated society. When I worked in the factory — and even today — most of the bosses and people at the managerial level are men. We women are only the labor force, and that's a problem."
How are you trying to lift other women up in your current role?
"Mainly, I work as a union organizer. I am trying to educate workers, especially the female workers, to raise their voices. I'm teaching them collective bargaining, trying to promote more female union leaders, and showing them that this kind of organizing is a way to solve their problems."
As a feminist, as [a] female, I have to raise my voice: about my body, in my life, everywhere. Especially in my workplace. I have to get my rights, my respect, and dignity.
"After the Rana Plaza collapse, the safety issues have been improving, and some factories have unions and freedom of association. But the number is very small. It is not sufficient, so we need more and more factories to be unionized and more and more workers respected. We also need more women in union leadership. We need a living wage and decent lives."
How can young women who are buying these clothes help?
"The young female consumer should know where these goods come from, who the company responsible is, and how the workers are treated, how they are respected. Consumers can change the workers' lives, because they have the power. If consumers don’t buy, then where do the companies have to go? So the consumer is a main, key player. They need to learn what the conditions are like all over the world, and they need to follow up and also put pressure to the companies."
"The boycott is not effective because if consumers only boycott the goods Bangladesh is producing, then companies will go to another country. If you boycott the exploitation in Bangladesh, then it just goes to Myanmar, then to Cambodia, and so on. But we don’t want to move the exploitation. We want to solve the problem when and where it happens.
"Consumers need to pressure countries to establish laws and follow international standards. Boycotts would be very difficult for our country. We Bangladeshis who are producing garments don't have alternate jobs. That is why we are very scared of the boycott. That is why we say that consumers should instead put pressure on governments, or stage demonstrations or mobilizations in front of these stores or company offices."
What do you want young female consumers to know about you?
"We all are women. We are producing goods for you, and we are also being exploited. Maybe you are also facing exploitation. That is why we need to unite and raise our common voice against the multinational corporations, capitalism, and globalization."
What does it mean to you to be a feminist?
"As a feminist, as [a] female, I have to raise my voice: about my body, in my life, everywhere. Especially in my workplace. I have to get my rights, my respect, and dignity. That is what it means to be a feminist."
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.