Monday, June 17, 2013 8:43 pm
Dreams turn bitter for Bangladeshi garment workers
By CHRIS BLAKEAssociated Press
It is the dream of nearly every Bangladeshi garment worker to earn enough money to build such a life back in their village. Yet for most it remains just that: Wages are so low they can find themselves struggling to eat, let alone save.
And in the case of Moushumi's family, the dream has been bitterly corrupted, made possible not by the opportunity the garment industry provided, but by the tragedy it inflicted.
Moushimi, who like many people in Bangladesh used only one name, was just 18 when she was killed along with 111 others trapped behind the locked gates of the Tazreen garment factory when it burned last November. Her family renovated their home using the 600,000 takas ($7,700) they received in compensation.
A fortune in a poor village like Tekani in Bangladesh's far northwest, it is one the family would gladly return tomorrow to have Moushumi back.
"Previously we didn't have money but we had peace in our mind. We had a complete family," said her mother, Hawa Begum. "The peace is no longer there."
Since the fire and April's collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, which killed 1,129 people, Bangladesh's garment industry has been under increased pressure from workers and activists to raise wages and improve working conditions.
The government agreed last month to set up a committee to look into raising the minimum wage of $38 a month. Rather than talking of luxuries like buying land, those advocating for higher salaries speak of getting enough calories. They say the current rate isn't close to what workers need to pay their bills and eat properly.
"It's not enough for their half a month's costs even," said Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker and the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity in Dhaka. Most in the industry are "living just hand-to-mouth," she said.
Rubel, 20, left the Tekani area more than two years ago, drawn by the prospect of steady garment work and the ability to save. Even after a raise, he couldn't get by on his salary. Adding to his woes, he was often paid late and was sometimes cheated out of overtime. He found himself buying food on credit.
"I couldn't keep my word with the shopkeepers and they would get angry with me," he said. "It would make me sad to not be able to keep my word."
He gave up after six months and returned home.
"When I went there I thought of saving money, coming back, building a home and taking care of my family," he said. "But it didn't happen."
Three years ago, 22-year-old Mosammat Angura Begum and her husband left Tekani for garment work in a Dhaka suburb more than 300 kilometers away.
Their combined salary of about 10,000 takas ($128) goes quickly, for rent, utilities, food and household goods. On a good month they can save 2,500 takas ($32), sending some back to Tekani to help care for their daughter and saving the rest. Still, they don't know how long they can endure.
"Age is an issue. Now I get through the day by skipping one meal, no problem. But what will happen when I get old? Will I be able to do that?" Angura asked.
Most garment workers expect too much when they enter the industry, said Nur Alom, the elected local chairman for Tekani and the surrounding villages. He said it's rare for a worker to save enough to buy land or build a house. Realistically, they can purchase some cattle for their family.
Villagers say saving is difficult if only one or two people from the family go to work in the factories, but if four or five family members do it, it is possible.
While success stories are rare, they do exist. Rabiul Islam was recently back in Tekani overseeing the workers replacing his family's mud house with a brick one.
He started in the industry 14 years ago, making 700 takas ($9) a month. He kept getting promotions and changing jobs until he reached as high up the chain as a common worker can, making 34,000 takas ($345) a month as a factory production manager.
"I worked hard," he said. "Now it's paying off."
Moushumi had goals of her own when she and her mother, Hawa, left for the factories.
"We wanted to learn this work so we could return and buy machines and work from home," Hawa said. They also hoped to save enough to pay Moushumi's eventual dowry.
In less than a year in the industry, the mother and daughter were employed at two other factories before they found work in Tazreen. They had been on the job just 10 days when the fire broke out. Hawa was on the fifth floor; Moushumi was on the fourth.
"When we heard of a fire downstairs, we started running for the stairs, but the gates were locked," Hawa recalled. "The supervisor said it was nothing and if there is a fire, they will let us know."
Her thoughts turned to Moushumi.
"I tried to go to my daughter, but there was no way," she said. "The gates on each floor were locked. There was smoke everywhere."
Her colleagues broke through a window housing an exhaust fan and started jumping to the ground far below.
"I stuck my head out and someone pushed me through," Hawa said.
She woke up in the hospital with a broken leg and collarbone and injuries to her spine. She can walk now with a crutch, but requires monthly trips to Dhaka for medical treatment that are cutting into the 150,000 takas ($1,925) she received for her injuries.
Moushumi is buried in a simple grave in a clearing a short walk from the house her death helped build. The family gathers there each Friday to pray that she has found peace.
As garment workers, she and her mother had been able to save 3,500 takas ($45) on a good month. At that rate, they would have needed to work in factories for nearly 18 years to make as much as the family was paid in compensation for Moushimi's death.
Associated Press writer Julhas Alam contributed to this report.