By our third trip to Savar, many sights on the roadsides have become familiar: particular market stalls, smokestack-shaped brick kilns encircled by falcons, rice paddies, black and white skylarks (the national bird of Bangladesh) perched on electrical wires – and the garment factory scrap site, an area downhill from the road filled with huge white canvas bags stuffed with multi-colored bits of fabric. The scraps are leftovers from the thousands of surrounding garment factories. They spill out in multicolored heaps, bleed into the nearby river and overtake the surrounding land. This morning, we stop at the site. Women are crouching in the scrap piles and sorting through the material. They’re paid roughly ten cents an hour – about one dollar a day – to sift and sort, by color and size, the fabric remnants of our clothes before the scraps are sold off as mattress and pillow stuffing.
We get out of the car with Zaeed, who is our translator again, and walk slowly down the embankment. The women watch us. Surely this is the first time they’ve witnessed white women approaching them as they work. At the bottom of the hill, we can see colors and patterns carefully sorted in bags. Zaeed asks if it would be possible for us to collect a few scraps – Rachel wants to use them in her work. The owner willingly hands over a plastic bag. Rachel begins filling it. Immediately, all the women pitch in – choosing the “best” scraps for her. They each seem anxious to put a handful into the bag. All smile and wave when we leave. What do they really think of us?
Later this morning we arrive in Savar to visit a very small factory. The visit is arranged by Action Aid.
The factory is not more than 10 sewing machines, 7 workers who seem relaxed but work steadily, and a cutting table in a bright one-room building. Sun streams through the door and window, illuminating the parrot-yellow, turquoise and fuschia pants stacked on the work table, the white walls, white sewing machines and tired eyes of Nasir, one of the factory’s owners. He takes a break from measuring elastic for waistbands, answering workers’ questions and inspecting the clothes sewn by the other workers in the room to sit with us and talk.
Nasir is from Barisal, south of Dhaka, where most of the economy is based on farming and fishing. He stayed in school until the 10th grade then came to Dhaka to look for work. At twenty-two, he joined the garment industry and became a quality inspector at a factory in Dhaka. In 2011, New Wave Style, on the 7th floor of Rana Plaza, hired him as a quality inspector. Very soon, he was promoted to quality controller. His wife, Sonia, also worked for New Wave Style.
Both survived the Rana Plaza collapse but both sustained injuries. Nasir still has to take medication and Sonia, whose head, spine, and legs were severely injured, still receives therapy and still can’t work.
With compensation money that he and Sonia received, Nasir joined forces with friend and fellow survivor, Jahaugir, and invested in a new garment factory, which they aptly named New Life. He now co-owns and co-manages New Life with the help of Action Aid.
The owners and all six workers at New Life survived the Rana Plaza collapse. They work together in this one floor factory, initially producing stretch cotton pants, a product they knew they could produce quickly and well. Now that they’ve reached a higher level of expertise, they’ve gotten orders for shirts, blouses, polos, tee shirts and bags. Everything they make is sold locally.
At the question: how do you like being an owner, Nasir smiles. Now he has to think about his co-workers as well as himself. He works alongside them but has increased responsibilities too: the budget, ensuring the quality of the product, the payroll. “When I was just a worker, I could escape my duties sometimes. Now, I can’t.”
He makes sure that New Life is a different kind of workplace for everyone who works there. Where he used to work, managers verbally abused the workers, hurling insults that Nasir and Zaeed would not repeat out loud, words of hatred against women. Managers pressured the workers to fulfill targets, scolded them and even abused them physically if those targets were not met. Here, at New Life, there is ease. There are no targets. If there are any mistakes, Nasir talks to the workers but does not punish them. “Any mistake is correctable,” he says. The workers around us seem intent on accomplishing their work but in a relaxed way. An exciting new model of ownership is emerging.
In the late afternoon, caught in the clogged river of traffic in Dhaka, Zaeed and Sadek, our driver, point out some of the many garment factories housed in the city. These ordinary office buildings have no signage but sometimes we can spot workers walking up and down the fire escapes.
For hours, we continue to wind through traffic and narrow alleys filled with treacherous holes in our effort to meet with an organizer from the National Garment Workers Federation and a number of the women he works with at various Dhaka garment factories.
By the time we arrive, it is dark. We are at least an hour late and worry that the women might be upset about having to wait for us after a full day of work in front of sewing machines. But the 22 women and children who are here greet us with smiles. A bed has been taken out of a house and put into the middle of a muddy yard to create a place for us to sit. A light from a single bulb attached to the outside of a house illuminates our gathering. People bring us tea and cookies and place a chair in front of us for each worker to sit in when it’s her turn to talk. The rest of the group listens patiently as four workers answer our questions and tell their stories. The city chaos disappears; car horns, bicycle bells, crowd shouts, even evening prayers broadcast through loudspeakers, become white noise.
Shahida has been working in the garment industry for over 20 years – since she was a young teenager. She has been at her new job almost a year and a half, working 12 hour days or longer with no holiday breaks when under pressure to finish a job. She says the job is a good one. The factory is fairly safe, with 3 exits and pots of sand to extinguish fires; it also has a proper sanitation system. Workers have a space to eat their lunch and another space for praying. The management doesn’t intimidate them when they go for a drink of water or to go to the bathroom.
But she does have complaints about the way garment workers are paid.
In 2013, the government declared an increase in garment workers’ wages, but as soon as this policy was put in place, factory owners created a new quota system. If a worker sewed 80 pockets per day, after the increase in the salary, her quota was increased to 120 pockets. She could take time to got to the toilet or eat her lunch, but if she failed to meet the quota then she had to stay at work to meet it – without getting paid.
The factory where Shahida works now follows this system. The management also tries to make up reasons to fire older, more experienced workers so they don’t have to increase their salaries. She did not start her new job with the salary she deserved based on her years of experience. Over a year later, she has not had a raise. She says it’s not fair. We agree. And yet, when we ask if she might join the garment workers’ union, she says she is “almost new” at her job and avoids the subject.
Pamina, who has worked in the industry for 7 years, says she has not been involved in the union. She tells us that most of the factories have their own committee in the factory called the “Welfare Council.” The organizers are selected by the management and go to the workers to “preach what the factory authority tells them to say.”
When we ask if she thinks it’s important for the workers to have a voice about their working conditions, she says she is not earning enough but she hasn’t learned to do anything other than work in the garment industry. “I have no way out.” She and her husband both have to work so her children can go to school.
Her daughter is completing the 10th grade this year. Pamina wants her to continue her studies so that she can become competent and self-reliant – but not by finding work in the garment sector.
Amina, a very shy and tired-sound young woman of 25, has a similar outlook on her life. She has to work in the garment industry. She doesn’t know anything else and does not have the education to do anything else.
Whenever she thinks of Rana Plaza and Tazreen she is overcome by fear. Then she thinks: “I have to survive.” There are cracks in the building in which her garment factory is housed. “But I have no other option than to continue my work.”
The issue of personal betterment seems almost absurd to her because she has been working for 4 years at the same factory and is still getting the 5300 taka per month – 68.73 U.S. dollars – salary of a starter and no overtime pay.
She joined the union in the hope that she would get paid for holidays, but that has not happened. But she does admit that the union has brought positive changes to the factory where she works. Before the union, intimidation was frequent. Now it is difficult for management to fire workers on false pretenses and verbal abuse has been significantly reduced.
Khadija, Amina’s younger sister, tells us about a factory where she used to work, where there were 2 unions: one established by the owner, the other, by the workers. In order to quash dissent by the worker’s union, factory owners cut the workers’ palms with knives and tore apart their outfits at the factory. She left without receiving her salary and moved to another factory where, she says, conditions are better.
The labor union movement in Bangladesh is quite nascent, but is more important than ever because it is the only collective voice for these women and the only clear way to empower them to address unfair wages and working conditions.