Unknown designer. White T-shirt. Cotton. 29 x 35 1/2" (73.7 x 90.2 cm) (irreg). Gift of the manufacturer. Image courtesy Shutterstock/SFIO CRACHO 2017

MoMA’s second-floor galleries are filled with unexpected objects: a set of three white doors and baseball bats, a steel structure draped with tangles of heavy rope, and even a room filled with colossal steel boxes. But one of the most intriguing objects is perhaps one of the most unassuming. Hanging on the walls of Gallery 216: Systems is a plain, white T-shirt. And while we may not think twice about it, labor activist Kalpona Akter reminds us “a white T-shirt just doesn’t come…out of the blue.”

It has become increasingly common for the clothes we encounter daily to have some connection to fast fashion, a term used to describe trendy garments that are mass-produced at a low cost. But who pays the price for these cheap clothes? Akter says it is the workers who make them. Under the conditions of fast fashion, garment workers are forced to produce unrealistic quantities of items in unsafe conditions, toiling for long hours in return for little compensation.

As founder of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), Akter is dedicated to ensuring safe and equitable conditions for workers both locally and globally. In this month’s Ten Minutes podcast, she describes the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh and some of the ways we can advocate for fair labor practices when making purchases.

Gallery 216: Systems

Gallery 216: Systems

To hear more about the impact of fast fashion around the world, click on the SoundCloud audio below.

See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.

Kalpona Akter: When you buy a T-shirt, sometimes it just costs you $5 or sometimes $10. But no one talks about the workers who made them. No one talks about how much they have been paid. And a consumer who is buying this T-shirt, it’s very rare that they use them more than five times. Then sometimes they just dump them.

But when you are buying less and raising your voice and saying no to the cheap clothes or fast fashion, I think that makes a difference. Not only in a life cycle of the T-shirt, you are changing the life cycle of a worker as well.

My name is Kalpona Akter. I’m a former child worker. Now I’m a full-time activist fighting for worker rights here in Bangladesh.

When you are a worker and belong to any workplace, you have some fundamental rights. For me, it is important as I have worked in the factory, and the way I have been treated, like deprived from my own rights, then I realized that my workplace should be safe. I should not be afraid to die in a factory collapse or factory fire.

After two years of my work in a factory, when I was like 14 years, the management came with the demand that they will pay us less for our overtime pay. And we did not agree with it. We called for a strike without knowing the law and rights. Among 92 men, I was the only young female worker who joined in the strike, and behind of us, it was 1,800 workers who were supporting the strike.

I joined because I had a plan with that money, that I wanted to buy new clothes for my sisters and for my brother. We won the strike, but when we came back, we saw the real face of the management. They started firing the strikers.

So the workers, they came back with the good news that they sued the factory owner. And I was like, what are you talking about? How we can even do that? Those are rich people. We cannot sue them.

They started telling what they learned, and they invited me to come for that labor law training.

A week or two later, I went to that training which completely changed my life. I learned that I [am] supposed to work eight hours. My overtime should be paid double than for general hour. My lunch break should be one hour. The toilet should be clean and there should not be verbal, physical, sexual abuses in the factory. And something beautiful I learned, that I have right to organize.

The following morning when I came to the factory floor, I cannot resist myself to share this with my coworkers, and I started telling them, “Hey, we should work like eight hours. We should sign the union application.”

And that is how I started, you know, and never stopped.

A worker here in Bangladesh, they make $95 a month as a minimum wage. But it is not one person full-month cost here, let alone if she has two children at home. Over 30 to 35% she needs to just spend for housing, and it is not a dream house. It is 10-foot-by-10-foot concrete room, sometime that doesn’t have window.

For an easy white T-shirt, usually the factory use like 15 to 20 machine and these people make 3,000 or more than that a day. And the day is like 10 hours long shift. But they really don’t get paid enough to making the shirt. Sometime a few cents just goes to them.

So who makes profit out of your white T-shirt? It is the brands. They never do a fair share to the workers.

When we talk about living wages, they don’t want to listen to us. They always say that they cannot pay because they don’t earn enough for making these clothes. This is what our manufacturer says. And when we talk to the brands, they’d rather tell us about their shareholders, but they never tell us that these workers should get enough and these workers should get the living wage.

A white T-shirt just doesn’t come, you know, out of the blue. Do you think about the workers who are involved behind of this T-shirt or behind of this logo?

In context of Bangladesh, the sector we work for mostly, it is garment industry, where we have 4 million workers, and about 60% of them, these are young women who are working in this sector.

Let’s talk about her life. She start her day 4:00 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. in the morning because she need to be in the queue for cook. There is like 20 or 22 families who share a kitchen, so she need to be in a queue with other families, other workers, to make the breakfast and lunch. And then she needs to be queue again, to use toilet and then shower.

To get to the factory she needed to finish with getting ready around 7:00 or quarter past seven. If she walk, then fine, she might be taking like 30 minutes or 40 to come into the factory. If she takes transport, like bus, it depends, because it is huge traffic always. She has to be in the factory before 8:00. Then she will be continuously working for five hours, and she need to make sure she hit production quota. If she cannot do that, she will be verbally abused, and sometime she will face some kind of punishment, and that can include her wage card.

One to two, it is her lunch break, and usually she takes a few minutes to eat lunch, and then try to take some rest in the production floor. And then she start work at two and constantly work like five to seven. Most of the time she definitely work after seven as well. And in between she might be getting 15 minutes break.

So when she comes back again, she needs to be in the queue for cooking. As soon as she get access to the kitchen, she cook her food for dinner for everyone in the family, wash dishes, and when she goes back to the sleep, it is already 12:00 or 1:00 a.m. And then again it starts 4:00 or 4:30.

Hearing that your T-shirt has made in this condition that you did not expect, most of the time, people feeling sad after hearing that and think they shouldn’t buy the clothes or T-shirts made in Bangladesh or made in elsewhere. That is not the solution. Not buying is not the solution.

We need these jobs, but we want them with dignity. And your act, can make sure that we have jobs with dignity. And how do you do that? You just raise your voice, ask more questions next time when you are in the store, just not only about the price or color or design, also about the workers who made clothes for you.

It is a responsibility for you as a consumer to know about who make this for you. Who made this T-shirt for you? In what circumstances?

You should know how much these workers has been paid. Do they have union voice at workplace? Is this factory safe for them? Do these workers have a protection when they’re working in the factory?

A sustainable and ethical T-shirt, in my eyes as an activist, I would say that, if you are paying enough and make sure that fair share of that money goes to the workers, that is sustainable. And also that you are not just using them one or two time and sending back to our country by saying that you are doing charity. Ultimately, you are dumping that T-shirt to us again.

The consumers today, due to these brands glossy, beautiful advertisement, they had been attract to buy all this fast fashion. But before buying, you really need to think that, do you really need that many clothes?

Do we really need that many T-shirts? Do we really need to throw out a T-shirt after two use or two wash? We really don’t.

I use a T-shirt for three years and I love that. I think it is just part of my body, and I don’t want to throw that. And I don’t feel bad using it. Because when you are buying less and saying no to the cheap clothes or fast fashion, then you are supporting a sustainable clothes.

If we work together we can make the change. Or the cheap clothes or white T-shirt will be produced every single day, every week, every month, every year. And you will be paying, using them, and dumping them. But in the same time, these workers will be under the poverty line and we’ll be ruining our ecological system. It is time for wake up and time for raise your voice. Make the difference.

If there is an injustice, someone always can stand up and speak out. If there is someone, why not you?

A former child worker, Kalpona Akter is now the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), a grassroots organization advocating to improve labor rights and working conditions in Bangladesh. Akter’s advocacy work is focused on fighting for jobs with dignity for workers both locally and globally.

This episode was produced and edited by Arlette Hernandez with sound design by Brandi Howell.

MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.