An inspiring collection of tales depicting the self-determination inherent in garment factory workers, who are not just asking for change, but making it happen

In 2013 the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,134 workers and leaving 2,500 seriously injured. Udita’s story-tellers are the women of such factories – the women who work 14-hour shifts and whose children call them ‘aunty’ because they are cared for by their grandmothers, the union activists living alone in slums and the leaders of factory strikes. In an industry 85-90 percent staffed by women, Udita (which means “arise” in Sanskrit) serves as testimony to the strength and bravery of women under fire.

Five years of visits to Dhaka’s garment factories provided directors Hannan Majid and Richard York with a remarkable array of footage. This film offers a timeline of an industry in overdrive: halfway through the film the camera pans upwards, revealing an endless production line of workers stitching labels onto jumpers.

“A highlight of Udita is its understanding and portrayal of self-determination.”

A highlight of Udita is its understanding and portrayal of self-determination. Most people who report on the garment industry fall into the trap of supplanting their own story for that of garment workers, turning the narrative into one about the guilt and agency of ‘consumers’ in the ‘West’. All too often garment workers are cast as helpless victims in need of saving and it is very rare to encounter the viewpoint of union organisers in Dhaka. Thankfully Udita avoids this approach completely and instead portrays what is happening on the ground and, most importantly, why it is happening.

Udita’s difficult stories of trauma and loss are sensitively handled. Viewers cannot avoid the message that conditions are extremely bad in the industry and no one will be able to forget Razia Begum’s story of losing two daughters and a son-in-law to Rana Plaza, nor of the horrors of the Tazreen factory fire as described by Shohibita Rani. Yet this film is also one of hope because people are standing up for themselves. Things are changing because women, like the inspirational Ratna Miah, are working long days on garment assembly lines and then going to union offices to learn about their rights and to plan demonstrations, strikes and the reinstatement of sacked colleagues.

This insight into grassroots resistance is a key strength for this film. Those wanting to work for change in the garment industry, to prevent another Rana Plaza, need to identify where change is already happening and help to apply pressure. In Bangladesh this means supporting union organisations like the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF). The film’s beautifully shot protest footage gives a sense of the size of the industrial struggle that is taking place, huge demonstrations march through Dhaka: a sea of shouted slogans and saris.

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Towards the end of the film we meet Aleya Atta poised in a warehouse with what can only be described as an army of workers who are about to join an NGWF demonstration. With 30 years of factory work behind her, Atta is a deeply inspiring woman who has made educating women about their rights and unionising factories her life’s work. The women she is with describe how their boss locked the factory gates having not paid them for two months: “We protested outside the factory, then we marched to the owner’s house,” one woman says. “After that he paid us one of the months’ pay.”

These workers, like the wider movement, have formed a powerful group, determined to keep protesting and get what they are owed. “For 30 years the factory has ripped us off. Our eyes were closed, we understood nothing… now our eyes are open, we’re standing up for ourselves. We are all one. Friends of the world, unite as one!”

Udita is inspiring on a global level, the stories these women share with us are life lessons about why the world needs to change, and how it is to be done.

First published by Red Pepper

Photo title: Thousands of garment workers and their unions rally on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse

Photo credit: © Solidarity Center