from The Wall Street Journal..
June 22, 2013
The global demand for cheap garments has offered millions of workers in Bangladesh a way out of poverty. But for many, like teenage seamstress Mahinur Akhter, those gains come at huge personal costs. WSJ’s Gordon Fairclough reports. (Photo: Munem Wasif)
KUPDHON, Bangladesh—Five weeks after Mahinur Akhter was dragged, bloody and barely conscious, from the broken concrete of the collapsed Rana Plaza garment-factory building, the teenage girl was back in her hometown, trapped between duty and fear.
In the shade of her family’s mud-walled house, Ms. Akhter weighed the $90 to $100 a month she could earn as a seamstress against long hours, harsh supervisors and the terror she endured in the rubble.
“Many nights, I dream that I am still stuck in the debris,” she said. “I think I will always be afraid.”
But Ms. Akhter is under pressure to support her widowed mother and pay for her two younger brothers to attend school. The boys dropped out after their father, a night watchman at a saw mill, was killed last year in a traffic accident.
“Without my salary, I don’t know how my family could survive,” said Ms. Akhter, who put her age at 15 or 16. Even her mother isn’t exactly sure.
For millions of young women working on the front lines of Bangladesh’s industrial revolution, global demand for cheap garments provides a chance to lift their families from destitution.
Rapid expansion of the garment business has helped drive up income in a country that ranks among the world’s poorest nations. The number of Bangladeshis living in poverty has dropped by more than 25% since 2000, according to the World Bank. Growth in per-capita GDP averaged about 2.7% a year in the 1990s, compared with about 4.4% annually in the 2000s.
Still, the garment factories extract a personal toll. Workers say they can spend 12 or more hours a day at sewing machines. Many live far from family and home villages, in some cases giving up school to work.
“Bangladesh is a desperately poor country, and it still needs these jobs,” said Salman Zaidi, economist in the World Bank’s Dhaka office. “We need better safety, better treatment. But these are still better jobs than most of the other possibilities.”
The burden falls disproportionately on the women of Bangladesh. Of the roughly 4 million people employed in garment manufacturing, more than 80% are women. Many are in their late teens and early 20s, from impoverished rural communities, who work around the capital, Dhaka, or the second-largest city, Chittagong.
The work was hard. Most days, Ms. Akhter said, she would awake early, dress and eat a breakfast of rice and lentils, or sometimes fish. She walked 30 minutes to the factory and was ready to sew by 8 a.m. Supervisors pushed the seamstresses to work fast, she said. She was expected to stitch together pieces every 30 seconds. Ms. Akhter and other workers said they weren’t allowed to use the bathroom unless they met their production quotas.
Ms. Akhter and other workers at the two factories in Rana Plaza where she worked in recent years said male managers sometimes hit them and used abusive and profane language. She and others also said workers suffered sexual harassment.
Physical abuse, including hitting, took place on the factory floor and verbal abuse was common, said Sabiha Sultana Mukta, a compliance executive at the factory where Ms. Akhter worked when the building collapsed, Phantom Apparels Ltd. She said she had no direct knowledge of sexual harassment: “When the workers told me about abuses, I took it up with the production manager and line chiefs. I was told to mind my own business.”
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