Bangladesh: A brief journey into the garment workers’ world

By: 
John Plastow
Bangladeshi garment workers

It is nine o'clock at night and I find myself being directed down a bamboo walkway in Mirpur 12, a slum district in the crazily crowded urban sprawl that is Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. It's precarious going if you are not used to it, as I am clearly not, walking in the gloom on a narrow rickety path two or three metres in the air over some rank smelling marshy ground below.

My guide Iba, one of the dedicated CARE staff who routinely works late into the night, was much more accustomed to finding her way as she directs me to a small room where I am to meet a group of about 30 young women taking literacy classes. I hear them before I see them. It's a small but vibrant space and a stark contrast to the dark and dank surroundings.

This Ekata (Bangla for 'unity') group is made up of young women who have come together at the end of a long day which will have included an 8- to 10-hour shift in one of the local garment factories on top of a raft of domestic duties. The appalling conditions that often characterise this major source of employment for Bangladeshi women and girls were brought to world's attention with the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Sava sub-district a year ago killing 1,119 workers and injuring many more. Certain measures have been taken by the authorities to ensure more regular inspections of buildings, but most of the abuses that typify the garment sector continue largely unchecked.

Fighting back

As I walk in, the topic under discussion is 'Eve teasing' or, more prosaically, sexual harassment which is a major phenomenon in the workplace and elsewhere. These young women or girls (some of those I met being as young as 12) are highly vulnerable to such abuses in a crowded workplace and labour market. However, in a number of similar meeting places around the city, the fight back has begun.

Farzuna told me about what coming to the centre means to her. "I feel brave in a way that I didn't before. Now I know who my friends are and, when something bad happens, that they are all behind me if I stand up for myself." Another group member, Fatima tells me how the group has allowed her to stand up to her supervisor.

Ekata

The benefits of the Ekata groups are quite tangible. The girls I met had almost entirely no formal education and they had learnt to count. This meant they could calculate their overtime and not be cheated as is too often the case. They are also being taught basic skills and understanding that allows them to earn more and even get promotion, an achievement 14-year-old Shanta was proud to tell me about.

At its heart, this initiative is all about helping women realise their rights and giving them confidence to stand up to intimidation. This ranges from practical things like holiday entitlements, maternity leave and the length of the working day to more fundamental rights issues such as legal entitlements related to domestic violence and an understanding of their ability to access legal support.

Working as a group

The power of the group is vital. Opportunities to meet and discuss and find solutions to shared problems basically didn't exist for these women before. Now they are clearly much more self-confident, able to find mutual support and are aware of other opportunities for them to meet and organise, through unions or workers committees in some of the better-run factories.

As I wobbled my way back down the walkway, the meeting continued late into the night. I realised that, while these determined women would continue to lead tough lives, they had through the Ekata experience gained things that can't be taken away from them which have made them stronger, more confident and given them a certain amount of dignity – all things which CARE International strives for.

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John Plastow is Programme Director for CARE International UK – Read his blog posts