In Bangladesh, the recent deaths of more than 1,100 workers in a collapsed building turned global attention on unsafe working conditions in the country’s thriving garment industry. Many hope the attention focused on the industry will improve safety standards and also working conditions for women who dominate the work force.
Runa, 23, is among the tens of thousands of women who labor over sewing machines in Dhaka and its suburbs churning out clothes for Western retailers.
Earning a living
Runa’s family moved to the Bangladeshi capital a decade ago from a village where they barely eked out a living from the patch of land they owned.
Runa is happy in Dhaka.
She said contentment lies where there is work to do. She works the whole day and cooks her meals in the evening.
The working hours are long and Runa misses the easy paced life of the village. But her monthly wage of $75 is a huge compensation.
With her husband’s salary from his employment in the garment sector, the couple earns enough money to buy sufficient food and a tiny home, and maintain a small savings account in the bank.
They are also able to send money to her mother-in-law in the village.
A thriving industry
As Bangladesh’s garment industry grew during the past 15 years, a steady stream of women like Runa migrated from villages to Dhaka in search of work. Eighty percent of the industry’s workforce is women, most of them between the ages of 18 and 25 years.
For these young women, the thriving garment sector has emerged as the only option to toiling on fields, working as house maids or at construction sites.
The director of the Center for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, Mustafizur Rahman, said the garment industry has played a crucial role in empowering women socially and economically.
“Many of these women are first generation workers. Many of these girls used to be working at home as maids in middle class and upper middle class houses in Dhaka and metropolitan areas. They have now taken up an industrial job which provides them with independence, provides them with opportunity to earn their own money, contribute to their family, so they are income earners now and they also have freedom.”
Unfortunately, empowerment is just one aspect of the industry, now the second largest in the world after China. The other is exploitation.
The dark underbelly of the garment sector was starkly exposed in recent months by two massive industrial accidents. In April, an eight story building housing several garment factories buckled, killing more than 1,100 workers. In November, more than 100 people died when a fire engulfed another garment factory.
Hope for change
A man walks at the site where a garment factory building collapsed on April 24 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 13, 2013.
Reshma Begum, center, the 19-year-old seamstress who spent 17 days trapped in the rubble of a collapsed factory building talks to the media at a hospital in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 13, 2013.
Rescuers carry a survivor pulled out from the rubble of a building that collapsed in Saver, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.
People work in the rubble of a collapsed garment factory in Savar near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.
Rescuers carry the body of a victim from the rubble of a building that collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, May 7, 2013.
A woman cries after she identified her relative's body that was recovered from the rubble of a collapsed garment factory building, Savar, Bangladesh, May 3, 2013.
The remaining standing part of the collapsed Rana Plaza building collapses during a rescue operation by the army in Savar, Bangladesh, May 2, 2013.
Relatives mourn as they look for garment workers, missing after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 2, 2013.
Workers dig mass graves during a burial of unidentified garment workers, who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 1, 2013.
A boy covers his nose with a cloth as people gather in front of mass graves during the burial of unidentified garment workers, who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 1, 2013.
A woman waits for news of her relative, a garment worker, who is missing after the collapse of Rana Plaza building, in front of missing people posters in Savar, Bangladesh, April 30, 2013.
Firefighters and army personnel are blanketed in thick dust after part of the garment factory building collapses after being dislodged as part of the clearing process in Savar, near Dhaka, April 29, 2013.
Crowds gather at the collapsed Rana Plaza building as people rescue garment workers trapped in the rubble, Savar, Bangladesh, April 24, 2013.
In Bangladesh, many are hoping these tragedies will be a catalyst to address a host of issues relating to workers rights, including higher wages.
“In the context of current industrial accident, what has become more publicized is the unsafe work environment etc.," said Rushidan Islam Rahman, Research Director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies in Dhaka. "But at the same time, I would highlight that there are other problems. The terms of employment for women should improve. There are problems of low wage. I have heard complaints of not getting regular weekly wages. They should receive wages on time. And there should be some salary increment every year.”
It is a message that re-enforces another reaching the garment industry and the government: without fundamental change in the industry, many Western retailers may quietly pull out and explore buying from other Asian countries.
There are also widespread calls for Western retailers to do more to make the industry sustainable, and ensure that garment factories are not death traps churning out clothes on the back of cheap labor.
The government has taken some steps. Workers, heavily restricted from forming unions until recently, will now be allowed to unionize without permission from factory owners.
This could be critical in protecting their rights. Labor leaders point out that it was the threat of pay cuts that forced many employees to continue working in the Rana Plaza building despite the appearance of cracks. With a union, they could have refused to comply.
The government is also considering raising the minimum wage in the sector from the current $38 a month - less than half of that in many other Asian countries.
Rushidan Islam Rahman, hopes quick steps will be taken to protect the future of a sector she says has contributed immensely in bringing about a fundamental change in the lives of many women.
"When women get a regular job and have a regular earning, they spend a larger percentage of their income on say food and for children’s education. So family’s situation improves, its standard of living, its food intake, children’s education etc and as a result their status in the family and also in the society improves," said Rahman.
This is what women like Runa also want - a safe environment to work in, higher wages and a working day that does not stretch to 12 long hours.