CW; mention of sexual harassment, domestic violence
Bangladeshi readymade garments (RMG) worker Nasrin Begum feels embarrassed recalling the plights that she began to face as a teenager, and is still carrying now.
Begum was 15-years old in 1990, when she married a carpenter who was twice her age. They lived in a remote area in the southern coastal district of Barguna, more than 300 kilometers south from the capital city of Dhaka.
Her gambling-addicted husband soon began torturing her by demanding dowry, or money, which became a regular routine. With a broken heart, the little-educated and rural girl Begum accepted the ordeals as her destiny, and did not lose patience.
Within four years she had become the mother of two children – one son and one daughter. Begum tried to stand strong, hoping that her relationship with her husband would improve following the arrival of her kids, but there was no sign of progress. The situation deteriorated rapidly and misconducts of her husband were crossing all limits, as he became frequently violent.
At 15, Begum never could have imagined them separating: it is a long-rooted tradition and social custom in most parts of rural Bangladesh that leaving the husband’s house is always disgraceful for a woman, whatever the causes. In fear of traditional social treatment, she was also unwilling to return to her parents’ house and be a burden to her poor guardians who once spent a lot of money for her marriage. Yet Begum’s patience had run out: she would no longer tolerate further ordeals, to abide by the rules of male-dominated society.
A new struggle
In 1996, Begum migrated to capital Dhaka at the age of 26 with her two kids. She shared a small room with the family of one of her close relatives in a slum area in the old part of Dhaka. With the help of that same relative she managed a job at a garment factory, as the lowest class of worker.
“It is still surprising to me how I managed in those days. I used to leave my two kids with that relative while going to the factory early morning every day. I worked at the factory but my heart stayed always with my two kids at home”.
It is still surprising to me how I managed in those days.
This is the brief history of Begum’s entrance as a female RMG worker, that closely reflects the tales of thousands of others in her densely populated country of above 165 million people.
According to a March 2020 report by the country’s main trade body concerning the readymade garment industry, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh apparel exports have more than tripled since 2008, and are now valued at more than $34 billion. Garment sector exports now account for 82% of all exported goods from Bangladesh. The Muslim-majority state is also the world’s largest garment-exporting nation after China, and the industry is currently contributing almost 16 percent of GDP to the economy.
Low wages and the availability of workers, especially women, have helped Bangladesh rapidly scale up its garment industry, which now has some 4,000 factories employing nearly 4 million workers, above 80 percent of whom are female.
The husband’s arrival
The 45 year-old Begum is now living in a comparatively better room in the same old part of Dhaka with her husband and three children. Her husband, M Alauddin, came to the city almost one decade ago after being infected by various diseases including a big tumor on the left shoulder. Begum accepted her ill husband without any bargaining or negotiation over their pasts, unconventional for many women in Bangladesh.
Alauddin is a rickshaw puller, but he can no longer work for his livelihood due to his illness, so Begum is the main breadwinner of the family. From early morning until night she works at an RMG factory in old Dhaka’s Lalbagh area with a monthly wage of Bangladeshi taka 10,070 (less than $120).
The approximate monthly expenditure of Begum’s family is around taka 20,000 ($240) including house rent of taka 4,500, approximate food cost of taka 10,000, educational cost of her younger daughter, Akhi Akter, taka 2,000 and the rest for treatment and other daily needs.
Begum meets the additional cost by earning from extra duty, or overtime. She gets a small amount of support from her husband.
Begum’s main challenge is now for her 26-year old eldest daughter, Jesmin Akter, to marry a good guy, rather than someone like Begum’s first husband.
She has little hope for her husband helping in this regard as he is also a burden to her, though she still loves and respects him, as mostly seen in the long-established traditional Bengali culture.
Sometimes it seems to me that it is a sin to be poor with a daughter
“My lone dream is now to get my eldest daughter married to a good guy, and educate my youngest daughter,” Begum told this writer sitting on a chowki [cheapest-cost wooden bed used by the poor in Bangladesh] in the corner of her small rented tent made of wood and tin sheets. Old and untidy garments were hanging just behind her over a rope, and cooked foods were in some utensils on the muddy floor.
Begum knows very well that it is not an easy job for her to arrange marriage for her daughter in a society where the dowry system is based on privilege, though not openly. She also worries about how she will host her new relatives after a marriage, as she has no extra space at her rented house. On the other hand, in her rural area she has a small area of land, but no house. “Sometimes it seems to me that it is a sin to be poor with a daughter,” Begum said in a depressed tone.
Harassment in the workplace
Begum was telling her touching story of life as if it were a film. It was really tough for me to interrupt her during her heart-rending storytelling and divert her attention to something else. However, at one stage I asked Begum about the frequent allegations of sexual harassment and other disturbances female workers usually face at the garment factories.
She said that “It is a very common problem for us.” Yet she also said the problem “depends partly on us [women] as due to our weakness very often evil guys take the opportunity. If we, the female garment workers, are aware of ourselves, we can save us from most of such harassment”. She added that “there are bad people who try to dishonor women everywhere”. Referring to the overall environment in some factories she admitted that it is a challenge for women to keep themselves safe. “But I have tried to keep myself safe throughout my whole life while working as an RMG worker.”
I have tried to keep myself safe throughout my whole life
Underlining the current environment of most of the garment factories in Bangladesh as comparatively better than that of in a few years back, she said: “Authorities should be more careful about those bad managers or supervisors and sufficient number of CCTV cameras should be set up in every floor of the garment compound for better management.”
A different story?
Almost every female RMG worker has also some similar individual story that reflects the culture and socio-economic scenario of Bangladesh.
25-year-old Bithi Akter migrated to Dhaka more than eight years ago from a remote village of the country’s mid-southern district of Faridpur, nearly 120 kilometers away, due to poverty.
Four years ago she fell in love and got married with a male colleague, Mizan Hawlader, of the same garment factory. The couple’s monthly income is around 25,000 Bangladeshi taka, the equivalent of just under $300. They are now living in a congested room of a slum area in the old part of Dhaka with monthly house rent of taka 5,000 ($60).
I had to leave my child with my mother when he was only four months old
Almost all of the money the couple can save by the end of month needs to be sent to Akter’s aged mother living in her native village, who is caring for her one-year-old son.
“I had to leave my child with my mother in the village when he was only four months old,” Akter said, adding that they had no alternative to leaving their milk-sucking baby in the village when her maternity leave was finished. “I never forget the day I left my four months-old heart’s piece [baby] and came back to Dhaka as my company allowed me only four months of maternity leave”, she added.
Under section 45 of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, pregnant women are entitled to 16 weeks of leave with full wages, but even then in most cases this law is violated in the private sector.
Akter also added that the ratio of sexual harassment or misbehavior has been reduced a lot in the recent time in country’s RMG sector. “Owners are now more conscious about females’ safety and security in the factory”, she added. “But a few evil guys very often try to allure female workers, especially those who’ve newly joined”.
The harassment in numbers
A study jointly conducted by two national rights bodies, Manusher Jonno Foundation, or Foundation for People, and Karmojibi Nari, or Working Women, published in May 2019 has shown that 22.4% of female garment workers are sexually harassed at and on their way to their workplaces.
The study found that 42% of these incidents included “ill-intentioned” leering at female workers, 34% cases of being groped, and 34.92% of their “private body parts being stared at. Some 28% of all sexual harassment incidents were of female garment workers being touched inappropriately by their supervisors at work.
Around 40% were harassed and abused on public transport and on sidewalks. Furthermore, one quarter of female garment workers reported feeling unsafe working in factories. “41.7% female respondents and 26.74% male respondents say new workers are most likely to be sexually harassed because new workers rarely voice their concerns,” the study added.
A total of 511 respondents from various levels and disciplines including helpers, operators, quality inspectors, factory management, government and non-government officials, and members of trade bodies participated in the study.
Authorities in denial
Trade body leaders and garment owners, however, refuse to accept the study, denying its credibility. “Around 4 million workers are now serving in around 4 thousand RMG factories in Bangladesh. Of them more than 3 million are female workers while the study was conducted based on only five hundred respondents,” Rubana Huq, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and one of the top-ranking RMG factory owners, argued.
She added: “The sample size of interviewees in the study should have been at least 10,000. Any random allegation based on such small-scale research cannot be acceptable in the RMG industry”.
She claimed: “There is no scope to sexually harass any female workers in this industry now,” and added that there were considerations over forming sexual harassment committees in every RMG factory to restore people’s confidence on female workers’ safety. Notably though, she echoed Begum’s belief that women’s behaviour was part of the problem, which suggests priorities are not on holding men to account;
“Times have changed, our women are far advanced now, it’s not so easy to harass them anymore.”
Demands for legislative change
Deputy Program Manager of Manusher Jonno Foundation, Shoma Datta, said that the Bangladesh government should enact a specific law for safety of women in workplaces. Referring to the study report she added that process of filing formal or informal complaints regarding workplace sexual harassment is “time consuming.”
Female workers in many cases choose to suppress their grievances and refrain from lodging complaints in fear of reprisal and public shaming. Moreover, during mediation or arbitration, clothing, attitude, and behavior of female victims was “discussed in a humiliating manner,” the study found.
Specific law targeting harassment on women in workplaces is necessary
This discouraged female garment workers from looking for solutions to harassment, and hence most of the incidents went untold, according to the findings of the study. “A specific law with provision of hard punishment for outlaws and an easier process of filing cases against harassment on women in workplaces is necessary,” Datta added.
The question that now needs to be answered is when will the sexual harassment and humiliation of female garment workers in Bangladeshi factories, and elsewhere, be stopped fully. Hard working women who are contributing a great deal to the country’s economy are not safe at the workplace, nor even in their homes. “I want to be happy in my factory, in my society and in my family,” Begum ended with.
“We want dignity and rights everywhere”.
Shahriar Alam is a freelance writer and immersive storyteller. He’s interested in stories about international affairs, travel, climate change, Asian politics, and public policy. He has degrees in Engineering and Islamic Studies, from Manarat International University and the Islamic University of Kustia respectively, and he is due to take a third in politics from the University of Dhaka. Find him on LinkedIn here, and on twitter here.