Organizing Bangladeshi Sweatshops

Udita (Arise)

Rainbow Collective (2015)

Film Review

Udita is an inspirational film about the unionization of the female garment workers in Bangladeshi sweatshops (see The Ugly Side of the Fashion Industry) over the last five years.

In addition to exposing the deplorable living conditions of these women and their children, the documentary also profiles two disasters that significantly increased union membership: the 2012 fire in the Tazreen factory that killed 57 workers and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 that killed 1021 workers.

Udita differs from other sweatshop documentaries in that in focuses minimal attention on the western brands (Walmart, Gap, etc) that reap obscene profits from employing third world women in conditions of virtual slavery. This film is more about the lives of the workers, who are often single mothers abandoned by their husbands.

The film begins by profiling one organizer who first tried to form a union in 2010, when the minimum wage in the garment factories was $22 a month. Deducted from this was the $13 a month a typical garment worker paid to live in a one room shack with shared bathroom facilities.

Overtime was compulsory, with workers only getting only one day off a month. They were also subject to beatings and/or firing if they complained about maltreatment or non-payment of wages (it was common for paymasters to dock their pay for non-existent infringements). One of the early grievances the National Garment Workers’ Federation (NGWF) won was the case of 250 workers who hadn’t been paid for three months.

NGWF members grew significantly following the Tazreen fire. The main reason the fatality rate was so high was because workers were doing compulsory overtime on a big Walmart order and the doors and gates had been locked to keep them from leaving. Following the 2012 fire, NGWF held a number of large protest marches and forced the government to increase the minimum wage to $64 a month.

The documentary also profiles a woman forced to assume custody of her two grandchildren after both daughter and a son-in-law are killed in the Rana Plaza disaster. Because she had no money to pay their school fees, both children were kicked out of school (public schooling is virtually non-existent in Bangladesh).

The film ends with a humongous 2014 protest march, in which the woman and her grandchildren participate. The principal demand is compensation from the factory owner for the 1121 deaths.