8 March 2017.
Some four million workers are employed in the garment industry in Bangladesh. Around 70 per cent of them are women.
This International Women’s Day, allow us to introduce you to eight diverse individuals, providing a unique snapshot of the varied roles, stories and dreams of the industry’s female workers.
All of the women featured here are employed in Better Work-affiliated factories in the manufacturing hub of Mymensingh, a central region of Bangladesh on the Brahmaputra river, some 120 km north of the capital Dhaka. Many of the factories are located on the highway that connects the region to the capital.
Rahima is a 34-year-old sewing machine operator.
“I relocated to Mymensingh from my home village in the Shariatpur district in 2003. My region is located some 250 km south of the capital Dhaka and surrounded by six rivers.
I came here with my husband because we were looking for jobs. He works in a different factory nearby. We can now support our relatives back home with the money we earn here. I am also managing to save some money for the future. Having such a vast garment industry in the country is good for the people, it gives us work opportunities.
There are farming jobs where I come from but working in a factory is better for me, especially in terms of money. I miss my own village but when I take leave I go back to visit my family. I am doing this for them as well. I usually visit them two or three times a year. It takes seven hours to get to my village by steamboat.
Life is better than before. With the money I earn I will send my children to school.”
“I come from Mymensingh. I am a mother of an eight- and an eleven-year-old girl. I am a sewing machine operator and have been working in the factory since 2015.
I like when the factory plays the Quran inside the premises. This is something I really enjoy listening to while I am working.”
Shahanaz is a deaf-mute sewing machine operator who comes from Mymensingh. She communicated through basics sign language with the help of a colleague.
“I have been working here since 2014. The thing I like the most about the factory is the friends I have made. Everybody treats me well and this makes me feel accepted.”
“I recently started working in the factory as a doctor. I joined the factory last December. I am from Dhaka and travel every day by bus to come to work. It is quite far and tiring, especially because of the traffic. But transportation is provided by the factory and, more importantly, I love my job.
We get ten to 15 patients per day due to seasonal diseases – mostly cold and fever, dermatitis, and conjunctivitis.
Improving working conditions in terms of safety, security, overtime, directly affects people’s health. I tell the workers not to surpass the two-hour overtime limit allowed by the law. If this limit were seriously abided by, we would have less victims of accidents to cure within the country’s garment factories.
There are also two female nurses working with me and tending to the female patients. We also carry out stitch-cutting and minor surgical intervention. We started carrying out seminars and courses with the workers to prevent major accidents from happening by focusing on the best practices to be followed.”
Ruksana is a 25-year-old sewing machine operator in the Buttoning and Finishing Section and representative member of the factory’s Participation Committee.
“I have been working in the factory since 2015. I became a representative following internal elections last April. I received 397 votes.
Before, the relationship between supervisors and workers was not good. But after becoming a Participation Committee member, I can now discuss the workers’ problems with management and they listen to what I have to say. My female colleagues are aware of my role and have started coming to me to share their concerns, which span personal, pregnancy and occupational issues. I will then bring up these worries and discuss them during the PC session. I am proud of my role. Before it was hard to communicate with the management, now the voice of the workforce gets heard.”
“I am a senior sewing machine operator. I joined the factory seven years ago first as a trainee, then as a helper and now I have become a senior operator.
I had an accident when I was five years old: a bus hit me. This seriously affected my left leg, leaving me with a life-long limp and pain. My parents took care of me and also asked friends for help. Now I want to pay them back, as the cures cost a lot of money.
I don’t have problems working here, no extra adjustment is required for me. I am coming every day to work by auto rickshaw. It is not that expensive because I travel together with other colleagues and we share the cost. It only costs me five thaka (7 U.S. cents) to come here, which is covered by the factory.
I want to further climb the career ladder especially because I want and need to earn more money.”
Rumana, 22, is a junior sewing operator, who joined the factory in 2015.
“I started feeling that something was not right with my hearing during my adolescence. It progressively got worse as a result of an infection, but my family didn’t look into that very much. I can hear very little now.
I come from a rural area located in the Sherpur district some 200km north of Dhaka on the border with India. I relocated to Mymensingh together with a friend of mine from our native village. We share a room in the factory’s vicinity. My village is seven hours away by bus, and it’s is quite an adventurous trip because streets are trafficked and some of them are merely dirt tracks.
Back home there is a centre for people with disabilities, which helps them to find jobs. It was there that I was told to come and work here. I am happy in Mymensingh but I also miss home very much. I learnt my working skills back in the centre and when I arrived here I started working immediately. Still, I don’t think I can become a supervisor here, though my colleagues say that I have the potential to do it.”