For many years, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society held an annual fair that sold only goods that weren’t made by slaves.
Starting in 1853, the fair was a popular weeklong event stocked with items sewed by society members and donated by anti-slavery women in the U.S. and England.
The organizers, a racially mixed group of female abolitionists, raised money to fund abolitionist efforts and anti-slavery newspapers.
The fair was a high-profile effort to sway public opinion, as masterfully chronicled by Carol Faulkner’s book “Lucretia Mott’s Heresy.” Faulkner describes how Mott, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, championed the fair’s influence far beyond its commercial success: “Like her anti-slavery sisters in Boston, Mott viewed the fairs as a way of awakening moral sensibilities. She described the fairs, and the funds they raised, as ‘a means of spreading the truth, which is our only reliance and hope, and in which we have full confidence to bring in the millennial day of liberty and brotherhood.’ ”
If there is to be justice for the tens of thousands of low-paid garment workers in Bangladesh risking their lives to make the clothing on our backs, we must launch a modern-day women’s abolitionist movement here. These workers toil in slave conditions, and they are dying.
On April 24, a factory fire outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed more than 400 people and injured at least 1,000 more. Most of the dead workers were women. The day before the fire, workers reported a large crack in the building at the Rana Plaza. A bank on the second floor told its workers to stay home, but the five garment factories in the complex remained open.
This is not the first time garment workers have died on the job in Bangladesh. The International Labor Rights Forum calculates that more than 900 workers have died in factory fires and collapsed buildings in Bangladesh since 2005. In November, a fire killed more than 100 workers in a factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney and other Western companies. Factory exits were locked and bolted, and some workers leapt to their deaths.
Efforts to unionize workers in the hostile climate of Bangladesh have been largely futile – and often dangerous. Last year, labor rights activist Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered. Workers advocates have tried to fill the void of government action. The International Labor Rights Forum and labor groups have drafted the “Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement,” which would create a rigorous system of independent inspections funded by participating companies. It also would allow workers to refuse to work in dangerous conditions without fear of being fired.
Four big-brand companies must sign for the agreement to take effect. So far, only two – Tchibo and PVH Corp. – have done so. Among the companies that have refused: Gap, H&M, J.C. Penney Co., Abercrombie & Fitch, Kohl’s, Sears and the giant of retailers, Wal-Mart. They’ll fix this themselves, they say. No outsiders allowed, they mean.
The economic wrath of American consumers could improve the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh.
Calling all women. We are the primary shoppers in most families. We decide what clothes to buy and where. Think of our collective power if we looked at labels, asked for managers, demanded changes and then walked out the door empty-handed, posting our boycotts on Facebook and Twitter.
Consider this exchange between a mother and her 24-year-old garment worker son calling from a factory fire in Tazreen, Bangladesh, as chronicled by Sarah Stillman for The New Yorker:
“Mom,” he’d said, “there is a fire in the factory. I’m trying my best to escape, but smoke is filling my lungs.”
“Run to the stairs!” his mother told him. ... “Run to the window, and I’ll hop on a bus to come and get you.”
Ten minutes later, he called again. The stairs were jammed by a stampede. “Mom, I’m trying my best. There is no way I can get out.”
“Go to the toilet,” his mother told him, “and run the water so that it clears the smoke and you can breathe.” The son said, “OK, I’m doing that.” He tried this, without luck, then returned to the factory floor, where his colleagues’ bodies were piling up in the dark.
Finally, he called home once more. This time, he rang with an apology. “Mom,” he cried, “it will be my last call – I’m dying for sure. I am sorry. I tried my best. I cannot breathe.” He wanted to convey a message. “I’m removing my shirt from my body, and I will tie it to my waist, so you can find me.” So he ripped off his shirt, made a knot around his torso, and collapsed so as to be found the next day by his mother.
“We have a means of spreading the truth,” Lucretia Mott said.
Yes, we do. If only we make the time.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.