The women workers of Dhaka

In this moving portrait of workers in the Bangladeshi capital, Jeremy Seabrook describes the life of women who "all have one thing in common: insecurity, a daily battle for survival against a degraded environment, the fear of sickness, the reality of malnourishment and the threat of eviction'.

IN the early morning, Dhaka becomes a city of women; from slums and tenements, a long procession of young women, brilliantly clad in flame red, bright blue or green, fills the streets, their chappals kicking up the dust on the margin of the rough roads. They are garment workers, on their way to the 4,000 or so factories; purpose-built brick monuments to the instant money to be made from a global putting-out clothing industry.

This has profound historical resonances. The British destroyed the self-reliant textile industry of India. Indeed, before Britain elaborated the dogmas of laissez faire and free trade, it had no qualms in suppressing the import of Indian fabrics which were far superior to anything produced in Britain. In 1720, an Act was passed prohibiting altogether the use 'of any garment or apparel whatsoever, of any painted, printed or dyed calicoes, in or about any bed, chair, cushion, window curtain, or any other sort of household stuff or furniture'. In 1774, a law sanctioned the manufacture of purely cotton goods in Britain, but still prohibited the import of cotton goods. This officially protected the industry from foreign competition. Once the indigenous Indian industry had been ruined, and the factory system was established in Britain, when the colonial power could compel its subject peoples to import Manchester goods, only then were the doctrines of free trade proclaimed.

It is now the objective of the Western powers to ensure that countries like Bangladesh do not adopt the protectionism which proved essential to the effective development of their industry. Globalisation institutionalises unequal development. Perhaps this is one reason why the World Bank maintains what it calls a 'Resident Mission' in Dhaka: to superintend the mechanisms of dominance. Economic, rather than military, forces are more discreet, impersonal and effective.

The Mission produces upbeat reports on poverty-abatement, a kind of ideological pacification programme that will reassure people that 'free markets' which have produced a generation of industrial captives, offer the best - indeed, the sole - hope to the suffering people of Bangladesh. In May 1998, the World Bank Resident Director issued a report stating that the percentage of the very poor fell between 1992 and 1996 from 43% to 36%, while in Dhaka itself the incidence of the very poor is now only 14%.

This conflicts with the experience of the garment workers. All Bangladesh is now an export-processing zone; garments earn two-thirds of the foreign exchange. About 800,000 people work in the garment factories of Dhaka, three-quarters of them women.


And Dhaka has been transformed. The archaic elegance of the colonial city has been smothered by concrete, and grit from the traffic swirls in the artificial fogs generated by the two-stroke engines of autorickshaws imported from India. The Sheraton Hotel sits in a settlement of rags and polythene, the starvelings of a global market who live in its shadow.

If women migrants to Dhaka are absorbed by the garments sector, the men rent a cycle rickshaw to join the 2,000 others who make a kind of living out of pedalling the painted vehicles which waste the muscles and stretch the sinews of their skinny drivers. In the rush hours, the vehicles sometimes become entangled. They move forward slowly, a single entity, a living sculpture of metal and humanity, bodies and machines inextricable; a metaphor of industrialisation.

In the Old Port, the traffic on the river is as congested as on land. Most people arriving in the capital travel by boat: the dispossessed arrive daily from Comilla, Mymensingh, Faridpur, evicted by river erosion, poverty, a destructive cyclone, debt - the natural world and human injustice join forces to rob people of their livelihoods. No one knows the population of Dhaka. From the chaotic overflowing centre to the semi-rural villages on the edge of the city; from slums on stilts over polluted ponds, with their spread of pale pink water hyacinths, to the settlements clinging to the stretches of floodwater from the Buriganga, to the crumbling brick structures in the industrial suburbs - all have one thing in common: insecurity, a daily battle for survival against a degraded environment, the fear of sickness, the reality of malnourishment, the threat of eviction.

A hot Friday evening in a labyrinthine stone tenement close to Kamalpur station. About 30 members of the National Union of Garment Workers talk about their work.

The women work in the appropriately-named 'chain system'; rows of benches, each with a Juki or Brother sewing machine, in a whirr of machinery and a drizzle of cotton-dust, create the garments in a strict division of labour, each performing a different task: 30 or 35 processes for a long-sleeved shirt, 50 for a pair of trousers. There are five or six lines, so that if one line slows down, the delay can be traced to the faulty operative.

Work is relentless. A 12-hour day; overtime obligatory, at lower rates of pay. A woman working in Paradise Garments says there is no ventilator; commonoccupational hazards include eye problems, TB, lung diseases and asthma. Jaundice comes from the impure drinking water provided by management.

Experienced women workers may earn a little over a dollar a day; helpers, apprentices, trainees, 66 cents. Some are on piece-work - 2 taka (5 cents) per sleeve. If they make a mistake, they are fined or beaten. Yesterday, a woman of 40 was beaten by a manager with the leg of a chair, because her thread unwound. She was sacked. A woman whose son had been killed was forbidden to leave her bench. She walked out and was dismissed. If there is an urgent export order, they must work all night. Management gives 'tiffin' at 8.00pm to help them do so. There is no medical leave, no treatment available on the premises. No maternity leave. No minimum wage. No trade union rights. No letter of appointment.


The women never wonder who will wear the shirts and trousers they make. Only survival matters. 'What if we lose our job?' They do not dream, they do not even think of anything beyond the endless unrolling of fabric they must turn into collars, cuffs, trouser-legs.

Of the 30 workers, 15 said they would prefer to stay in the village; clean air, the quiet paddy fields, the family together, cheap food. Ten preferred Dhaka: work, an income, what money can buy. Ten have some small land; five were born in Dhaka. Ten are landless. Sixty per cent of the people of Bangladesh have less than three bighas of cultivable land (half an acre).

The women started work as children - at 10, 12, 14; the boys started later - at 16 or 17. Education, they say, is more important for boys. Many of the factories still employ children. If a buyer comes from abroad, they lock them in the bathroom. The Harkin Bill in the US Congress was supposed to have emptied the factories of child labour.

Some of the beneficiaries of this benign legislation may be seen, boys working as helpers in Tempo taxis, clinging to the back of the vehicle by their toes, and collecting fares for the drivers. Some children have themselves become cycle-rickshaw drivers; a boy of about 13 pedals with all his strength, his thin muscles worn out even before they have developed. In the gaseous canyon of Elephant Road, girls sell garlands at the traffic lights. In one week, two girls working as domestic servants were raped; another was tortured by her mistress. Many girls become surrogate parents for younger children while mothers go to the factory: they fetch water, prepare and cook meals on the mud stove on the threshold of the hut; guard the house, keep the babies clean.

There are three options for young women in Dhaka. All involve clothes. They can make clothes for other people in the factories; they can wash clothes for other people as domestic servants; or they can take their clothes off for other people as sex workers.

Rehna Begum, worker and trade union organiser for 20 years, says, 'You think it is better for children of 10 or 12 to be on the streets than in the factories? The streets are also schools. There, they will receive instruction on how to become mastans and goondas (thugs and criminals) or prostitutes.'

Akash, a waif of 12, very thin, is wearing a red shirt and black trousers. He has the large hands and feet of those who for generations have planted rice, rooted in the rich earth of Bengal. He is a sex worker, and has been one since he was eight. Initiated, he says, by a 'guru', who taught him sex, he now operates in the cinemas of central Dhaka. In the stalls, it is mostly masturbation and sucking, but in the toilets, he is regularly penetrated. He also works in a clothing store, where he is paid US$2 a week.

When he first started sex, he was paid only 10 - 20 taka a time (20 - 40 cents). Now, he can earn up to 500 taka a day. His father is a 'baby-taxi' (autorickshaw) driver. His family know nothing of what he does. 'They would kill me if they knew.' He has never been to school. He says he would have liked to. It is not known whether he is HIV-positive.

Trade in human beings

It is one thing to cry shame on child factory labour in order to relieve the purchasers of international logos of any role in exploitation; but when the children are exposed to even greater risks, no voice in the West is raised against their fate.

There is another source of income for Bangladesh: remittances from the export of people. The trade in human beings now accounts for 10% of the national product. They work on plantations in Malaysia, as drivers, domestic servants, mechanics in the Gulf, on building sites in Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

Literacy - officially at 30% - is certainly lower. 'Illiteracy is like typhoid; it recurs unless it is tackled radically,' says Kamaluddin, of the Association for the Realisation of Basic Needs, one of 700 - 800 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Dhaka. Whole suburbs are given over to the employees of these NGOs, their busy offices, the jeeps and cars, the logos and apartments at a level deemed suitable for charitable expatriates.

The majority of people are scarcely citizens of Bangladesh at all, but subjects of a global power which has called so many of them into the service of garment manufacture in which virtually nothing is sourced from Bangladesh itself; even zips, buttons and fasteners come from Hong Kong and Taiwan; while the cloth is from South Korea, India and Malaysia; and the material remains in Bangladesh for a few days at most, before flying off with its added value to some further destination. For the factory owners, labour costs are less than 5%.

Space for fundamentalism

Bangladesh is an Islamic country in which the majority of the new working class are women. There is little space for fundamentalism: only three members of parliament represent the Jamaat-e-Islam. On the other hand, more than 50 are garment-factory owners. Farida, a social worker, says, 'Industrial labour is transforming the position of women in Dhaka, and consequently, all over Bangladesh. We will never go back to domestic submission. Many women can earn more than men. The government do not know what they have started, by taking us down this road. Women are gaining confidence. It has implications for society, for religion, for the State, which our leaders have not yet even begun to realise.'

The sensibility of the people has, like the city, been transformed by industrial experience. Rehna Begum, radicalised, embittered by her life in the factories, is 38. Coming from a poor family in Madaripur, she did not go to school, but helped look after her younger sisters and brother. Married at 16, she had two children. When her husband married for a second time, she left him, took her children to the village, and came to Dhaka. After a few months, she was earning 750 taka a month (US$20). In 1985, the owner found products worth 2 million taka had been stolen. He accused 21 workers of taking the material; most of those accused had been active in the trade union. They were found guilty. Rehna Begum, with 14 men and six other women, was jailed.

After two years, the other workers found proof that the General Manager and Production Manager had stolen the goods. They appealed in the High Court against the convictions, and the workers were released. The court ordered the owner to give them back their jobs. He refused. The workers filed a criminal case. The owner was sentenced to a 500-taka fine and a year in jail.

He appealed. The High Court decided he should compensate each worker 52,000 taka. He ignored the decision of the court. With time, the workers one by one abandoned the struggle, until only Rehna Begum held out against the owner's refusal to comply with the court ruling. She is still waiting.

Shamsun came to Dhaka in 1982 and joined her first factory in 1985. The owners failed to pay any wages for three months. When the workers protested, the factory closed down. They continued to occupy the building and were eventually paid, but the factory opened up a month later in another location under another name. Shamsun came to Dhaka with her husband, who, in defiance of martial law, was organising in one of the Left parties, and in hiding in the anonymity of Dhaka's slums, where the police and army would not trace them. She now works at Arrow garments, with four hours' compulsory overtime, for which only 80% of the full wage is paid. If a worker is absent, even on Fridays, the Muslim holiday, she will lose not one but two days' pay. Shamsun first organised the workers in South Garments. When management came to hear of it, she was dismissed. Everyone stopped work. 'Authority had to ask them back, because they were finishing an export order. But as soon as that was finished, the factory closed down. Management can dismiss all their workers one day and take on a fresh workforce the next, because there are so many unemployed.'

Lowest-paid in the world

Jehanara Begum has been organising since the garments industry appeared in Bangladesh in the 1970s. 'In spite of a number of fires, especially in 1992, when 25 were burned to death, many workers are still locked in. The garment workers of Bangladesh are the lowest-paid in the world, lower even than in Indonesia. Not even the bosses know the cost of production - it is unimaginably low. They don't know because of the system of sub-contracting. A buying-house negotiates with a foreign supplier, then gives out to sub-contractors in different factories. Many small factories do not make big profits. They are also squeezed, and this is reflected in the pay of the workers, who are not paid regularly, or payment is delayed or only partly paid.'

Jehanara Begum says, 'We cannot go through the Industrial Revolution with the pain that was experienced by the people of Britain, and then reach the level which Britain has reached. The pain will be there, but it will not end. The global economy is there to protect privilege, even if this means marginalising whole countries, even continents. Our young women are the human sacrifice to this.'

Dhaka. Ten o'clock at night. The procession of young women begins in the opposite direction; shuffling feet stir the dust once more; bodies used up by excessive hours of work; even the colours of their clothing fade in the dim sodium lights by which they return to slums and tenements for the brief respite before the next day of a labour without end. (Third World Resurgence No. 98, Oct 1998)

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in London.