At 11, Nazma Akhter was a child laborer in one of Bangladesh’s garment factories, following her mother to work for 10 hours a day.
At 14, she joined her first strike, standing next to women seeking overtime pay and maternity leave.
Now a 40-year-old labor organizer, she is a formidable voice for change in the country’s bustling, booming capital, where the government scorns unions and shadows union leaders like her. In a recent video that went viral online, Akhter holds her own against a factory owner, appealing to Islamic values in demanding justice and women’s rights while denying that factory strikes are politically motivated.
“Her comments were blunt and to the point. One doesn’t get this often even from our intelligentsia or business leaders,” said K. Anis Ahmed, the publisher of the English-language Dhaka Tribune, and the scion of a business empire unrelated to garments. “She enjoys tremendous credibility as a voice of working women in this country.”
Akhter and other labor organizers have been labeled provocateurs and enemies of the nation, a potential threat to the $21.5 billion Bangladesh garment industry, which has been rocked by flash strikes, protests and an international movement to improve working conditions ever since the collapse of a factory at Rana Plaza claimed 1,127 lives in late April.