Bangladesh film screening brings attention to labor issues in garment industry

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Female EmpowermentForced LaborSurvivor Stories

On Thursday night, Freedom United supporters gathered in New York City for a screening of Rubaiyat Hossain’s new docudrama Made in Bangladesh, co-hosted with our partners at the United Nations Association of New York.  

The film follows a group of women working in exploitative labor conditions in one of Bangladesh’s fast fashion factories. When Shimu, the headstrong protagonist, discovers that she earns pennies sewing clothes that sell for high prices in Western markets, she leads her coworkers in a struggle to unionize and demand their labor rights.  

Made in Bangladesh depicts a number of instances of exploitation that could amount to forced labor. Shimu and her friends work extremely long hours in dangerous conditions and are at one point forced to spend the night in the factory in unbearable heat. The men who run the factory subject the women to frequent verbal abuse and, most notably, withhold their pay.  

“Give me my overtime,” says Shimu at one point in the film.   

“You’ll get it next month,” her boss, Reza, replies. 

The film also highlights the importance of education in addressing forced labor. It is only after intervention by Nasima Apa, a local union organizer, that Shimu realizes laws exist to protect her. Her experience demonstrates how a lack of education on labor legislation is one of the key factors that allow forced labor and modern slavery to thrive.  The movie brings to light the issue of forced labor by humanizing workers and showing the daily lives of the women working behind the giant garment industry. 

The film was followed by a lively Q&A discussion with a panel that included the director of the film herself, Rubaiyat Hossain, along with Shikha Silliman Bhattacharjee of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility and our own Advocacy Officer, Herrana Addisu. 

Echoing the principles of Freedom United’s My Story, My Dignity campaign, Hossain said that in making the film she sought to center the women affected.  

“I think it’s really important that the film shows a worker’s perspective… we need to humanize them and understand the problem from their perspective,” Hossain argued. 

Bhattacharjee noted that the film accurately showed the way that labor exploitation does not occur in a vacuum, but rather is connected to countless other problems and power imbalances—for example, the domestic violence Shimu faces from her husband. 

“You need to address the entire spectrum of violence to ensure that forced labor is being addressed at its core,” Bhattacharjee asserted. 

Herrana Addisu highlighted the importance of having the right legislation in place to protect and provide compensation for victims of modern slavery. The International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Protocol (P29), which Freedom United is urging governments to ratify, includes these as core measures.  

The Protocol also aims to prevent the type of labor exploitation Shimu and her friends face by including education as one of its key tenets. As Made in Bangladesh shows, simply creating laws is not enough—both officials and workers need to be informed in order for legislation to make a real impact on the ground. 

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