Seven women were killed on 26 January this year when a factory sewing clothes for western companies in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, burned. Two months before that a ferocious fire killed over 120 workers. Bangladesh’s $20bn garment sewing industry produces 10% of the country’s GDP, but the world’s second largest apparel exporter (after China) offers the lowest garment wages in the world and unsafe working conditions.
The garment industry generates 75% of Bangladesh’s total export earnings and employs about 3.6 million people. The minimum wage is $37 a month but many workers report that the owners pay less.
Over 700 garment workers have been killed in factory fires since 2006, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group.
Women make up the majority in these factories. Bijoyeta Das photographed some of their stories.
Every evening at 8, the streets of Dhaka are full of women and girls as young as 12, dressed in traditional cotton salwar kameez and saris, heads covered, carrying small handbags, and walking hurriedly. They form the easily recognisable and fast-growing class of garment workers, who disappear into the narrow lanes of Dhaka’s many slums.
Around 80% of the 3.6 million garment workers in Bangladesh are women. They all have similar stories: there were no jobs in the villages so they migrated to Dhaka.
Lily Begum, 30, came to Dhaka 11 years ago. She had hoped to earn enough to return to her village and start her own business.
Lily's family lives in one room, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with seven other families.
Lily’s husband Muhammad Nizam said, “Six people live in one room: me, my mother, my son, my 15-year-old daughter, my wife and a paying guest. I don’t think we will ever be able to afford two rooms. I have to send money to my family in the village, support my father and my brothers and sisters. Every year, our wages increase by 100 Tk or 200 Tk ($1.25-2.5), maximum 300 Tk, but the rent goes up by 500 Tk."
Nizam wants to make sure that his children (pictured) get a chance to study. “I am working in the garment factories to ensure that my children don’t ever have to work in this industry. Because this is not a job meant for humans. Working in the garment factory is same as living in a prison. We are always at risk; there can be a fire or an accident any time.”
Garment workers complain about the lack of safety as they travel to their workplace. Many have experienced eve-teasing on the streets and sexual harassment at work.
Despite harsh work conditions and little savings, Dhaka’s garment industries continue to lure young women to cities.
All pictures by Bijoyeta Das/ThinkBrigade.com