Updated at 5 p.m. ET on 2019-08-16
Her country’s booming garment industry is setting export records, but Shipa Akhter can’t afford to raise her child in the Dhaka area, where she works long days as one of millions of people churning out clothes with the “Made in Bangladesh” label.
At 24, the seven-year veteran of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment trade is employed as a “senior sewing operator” at a factory on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, where she toils for up to 14 hours a day and earns 9,425 taka (U.S. $111) a month.
“We have sacrificed everything for the job, our son’s company, our social life. The only thing we do is work in the factory,” Akhter told BenarNews, referring to herself and her husband Rubel Hossen, who works at the same factory.
She and Hossen live in cramped quarters, a rented single room in a house with a tin roof in Dakshinkhan, a suburb of Dhaka near the city’s international airport.
The couple has little privacy. They share a toilet, bathroom and kitchen with another family who live in the same house.
“After waking up, I make a video-call to my son. I cannot touch my son for months,” Akhter said during an interview at the couple’s home.
Shihab, their 2-year-old boy, lives with his grandmother in Chittagong, a city in southern Bangladesh about 250 km (155 miles) from Dhaka.
“The prices of essentials have been going up every day … So we have to keep our son away from us,” Hossen said, adding that he and his wife could not afford to care for the toddler or keep him with them in Dakshinkhan, as they struggle to make ends meet.
The couple also has no time for recreation and frequently have to work at the factory on weekends, Hossen told Benar.
Leaders of unions representing the 3.5 million employees in Bangladesh's garment industry say that long hours in the workplace and a soaring cost of living are among workers' top concerns.
Huge workload, slight wage increase
Shipa Akhter cooks in a kitchen that she and her husband share with another family at their home in Dakshinkhan, Bangladesh, July 20, 2019. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]
Akhter’s day starts at 6 a.m. She reports for work at 8 a.m. and says she’s often has to stay in the factory till 11 p.m., usually pulling at least five hours of overtime to help bring in more money for the household.
During the day she is allowed a one-hour lunch break, as she sits at her sewing machine in the factory, where she makes shirts. At 8 p.m., she gets a 5-minute break for a snack to keep her energy level up.
On days when she works late into the evening, she won’t get to bed till 1 a.m., after she and her husband have eaten their dinner together and she has taken care of household chores, she said.
Her current monthly salary of $111 represents a 37-percent pay raise from what Akhter earned at the factory last year, she said. But the $30-hike in her monthly wages has instead caused her distress.
Akhter said that she and her co-workers, who work in an assembly line-like system of production at the factory, as a result are now expected to produce more items of clothing per hour.
She said she feared that her employer could easily fire her and replace her if she didn’t demonstrate a willingness to be productive and also work overtime.
“A huge workload follows this slight wage increase. When I got 6,800 takas [$80.5] per month, the workload was manageable. Now, I have to think twice even going to the toilet, lest I lose my job,” she said.
“Now, I must take medicine to keep me fit for the job,” Akhter said. “The money I get as a wage hike since goes to buy medicines.”
Workers in the ready-made garment trade, the most dynamic sector of Bangladesh’s economy that produces clothes for leading Western brands, do not receive health coverage from their employers.
Last December, Akhter and other employees at garment factories nationwide received a raise, when Bangladesh’s government announced across-the-board increases in salaries as well as an increase in the minimum wage for the industry, setting it at 5,300 taka ($63) a month.
“Workers who used to stitch 100 pieces of apparel in one hour are now being ordered to stitch 120 to 130 pieces,” K.M. Mintu, organizing secretary of the Garments Sramik Trade Union Kendra, told BenarNews.
Every year, the country’s garment sector keeps setting records for exports and dominating all Bangladeshi sectors in that area.
According to statistics from the BGMEA, exports from Bangladesh of ready-made garments soared to $34.1 billion in 2018-19, nearly tripling over a 10-year period and accounting for 84 percent of Bangladesh’s total export volume of $40.5 billion.
Abdus Salam, an official with the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said workers should expect to produce more.
“Wages increased by 30 percent to 40 percent. Production has to be increased to meet the expenditure. That’s why workers are being asked to manufacture more,” he told Benar.
“Vietnamese workers do 40 percent more than Bangladeshi workers. Our workers must achieve that level of efficiency.”
Akhter began her career in 2012, when she joined the workforce at a garment factory in her hometown of Chittagong.
She started out as a helper with a monthly wage of 3,500 taka ($41), and moved up to the post of operator a year later. She and her husband moved to the Dhaka area in 2015.
Now, Akhter sees herself trapped in a work situation where she and her husband must keep working hard while reaping few rewards from an industry that reportedly nets big profits for factory owners and others at the top.
“How can I survive if I leave the job? I must pay the rent the first week of every month. One person’s salary is insufficient to run a family and send money to the parents. So, both of us work day and night,” she said.
“In the fear of losing one’s job, nobody protests,” Akhter told Benar. “Those who protest lose their jobs. Losing jobs is very easy here.”