Credit: Bijoyeta Das
DHAKA, Bangladesh (WOMENSENEWS)--Fire makes her scared. Hunger keeps her going. Musamat Nasrin Akhtar Tisha arrived in Dhaka to follow "the garment dream," as she calls it.
"I came to Dhaka to work in the garment factories. There is little work for girls in the villages. There is more money in the city," said the 17-year-old with bright eyes, who wanted to study and work at some "office."
Like Tisha, thousands of women migrate from Bangladesh's villages to Dhaka to join the 3.6 million work force involved in the country's $19 billion ready-made garment industries, the second largest in the world.
But the factories that house their dreams have now become death traps for many. On Jan. 26, seven female workers were killed when a fire burned down the two-storey Smart Export Garment Ltd., in the capital, according to a report by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. The workers were trying to flee when they were crushed to death.
Apparel companies do not publicly disclose the fire hazards in their suppliers' companies, endangering lives of workers, according to the report "Deadly Secret" by the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum.
Tisha, who has moved from factory to factory, works seven days a week, eight to 12 hours a day for $31 a month, after doing night shifts and overtime. After violent protests in 2010, the minimum wage was increased to $37 a month, from $20, but not all companies comply.
"I don't go anywhere. We work all the time. We don't have a single day off," she said. She also works on Fridays, the local holiday.
Tisha pays $23 for food and lodging and lives as a paying guest with a six-member family in a one-room house. At night she rolls a thin-mattress and sleeps on the floor with the younger children. The others sleep on a wooden bed.
'Can't Save Anything'
Credit: Source: Deadly Secret by International Labor Rights Forum.
She is working hard so one day she can save enough money to return to the village. But Tisha said she cannot resist buying street food and trinkets. On her way back from work she often stops to eat chatpatti, a spicy street food made of hollow crispy fried bread, mashed potatoes and tamarind water.
"I can't save anything. I try hard but everything gets finished. I send money to my family in the village. I also buy whatever I see on the street," she said.
Many garment workers have similar stories. Scrambling to survive in villages, they voted with their feet and migrated to Dhaka. Every year, more than 400,000 people come to Dhaka from villages in search of a livelihood. Dhaka is the fastest growing megacity in the world.
The label "Made in Bangladesh" started popping up in 1978, with a shipment of 10,000 pieces of men's shirt, according to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Now Bangladesh is being called the "new China"--the next hotspot for ready-made garments, according to the report "Bangladesh's ready-made garments landscape: The challenges of growth," by McKinsey and Company, an international management consulting firm headquartered in New York City.
Raqib M Ehsan has been working as a quality control manager for various garment factories for almost seven years. He said there are ugly sides to the branded clothes people wear.
"The workers are supposed to work for eight hours a day but it is always more. Most companies don't even pay the minimum wage and nobody is checking," said Ehsan, sitting at a roadside tea-stall in Mirpur, an area in Dhaka.
Here in Mirpur, the main street is lined with garment factories. As the shift changes, many of the male workers stop in at the tea-stall for their regular cup of milk tea and local snacks. Some gather and play carrom, a strike and pocket table game, which is popular here.
"Almost all factories employ children. Again the directors, male managers, are involved in sexual abuse. It can be said that there are only a few factories in Bangladesh where this does not happen," Ehsan said.
He added that often female workers also become victims of assaults and eve teasing, a term used to refer to public sexual harassment in South Asia, when they return from the night shift.
Lily Begum came to Dhaka more than a decade ago with her husband. It was supposed to be a short-term plan, a way out of abject poverty. What followed though was a decade of drudgery, odd jobs at a number of factories; shifting homes every time the rent hiked up. To make ends meet she and her husband often take on extra shifts. On those days, she heads home after eight hours of work, cooks for the family, takes care of children and returns to work.
Her husband, Muhammad Nizam, said he works hard to ensure his children get a chance to study, "because this is not a job meant for humans. Working in the garment factory is the same as living in a prison. We are always at risk; there can be a fire or accident any time."
Some days Begum and her husband talk about returning to their native village. "I want to spend time with my children, maybe start a poultry farm," she said.
But with no savings, she said it is wishful thinking. "I wonder if Allah wants us to suffer like this till the end of our lives?"
Bijoyeta Das is a multimedia journalist; currently based in South Asia. Her work is available at http://www.bijoyetadas.com
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